Which foods are best for an autoimmune disease

While these chronic illnesses may be incurable, what we eat can play a crucial role in helping prevent or manage these often painful conditions.

A strong immune system fights off nasty bacteria and viruses from the body, and not surprisingly, the food we eat can have a direct effect on its health.

When our immune system becomes confused and generates antibodies that attack the body’s cells, tissues and organs, inflammation and damage can lead to an autoimmune disease.

A recent study found the rate of autoimmune diseases in the US has risen considerably in the past 25 years, while further US research has indicated autoimmunity is three times more prevalent in women than in men.

While there are no known cures, our diet can play a critical role in helping stave off these chronic illnesses or easing their symptoms.

What are the symptoms of autoimmune disease?

There are more than 80 autoimmune disorders with symptoms ranging from mild through to the painful and debilitating.

Some of the most common autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, thyroid disorders, coeliac disease, Graves’ disease, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes.

About 5 per cent of people will suffer an autoimmune disease in their life and many of the conditions share similar symptoms, such as fatigue, dizziness, fever and inflammation – which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling.

Around 5 per cent of us will be affected by an autoimmune disease, when the body mistakenly attacks its own healthy tissues, organs and cells, resulting in inflammation and damage.

There are more than 80 autoimmune disorders ranging from common to very rare, and in general they’re painful, disruptive and devastating.

Many autoimmune diseases share similar symptoms including fatigue, dizziness, fever and inflammation – which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling.

Why gut bacteria is linked to autoimmune disease

Results from a 2017 study indicated the bacteria in our gut may play a crucial role in dealing with the symptoms of autoimmune diseases.

“Eighty per cent of your body’s immune system is located in your gut, so if you don’t have a healthy gut, you can’t have a healthy immune system,” says Dr Amy Myers, author of The Autoimmune Solution.

The US health specialist has first-hand experience of autoimmune and thyroid dysfunction due to her own journey with Graves’ disease.

She says what we eat plays a huge role in achieving our best health.

“Although it’s a double-edged sword because food is also one of our biggest sources of inflammation since our modern diets are loaded with toxic and inflammatory foods,” she says.

What to eat and what not to eat if you have an autoimmune disease

Dr Myers says by reducing toxic and inflammatory foods such as those high in sugar and saturated fat and adding nourishing foods that support health and reduce stress, it’s possible to reduce inflammation and work your way back down the autoimmune spectrum.

The following foods may all make living with autoimmune conditions easier:

  • Wild-caught fatty fish such as salmon
  • Grass-fed lamb
  • Avocados
  • Grass-fed beef
  • Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, bok choy
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Sauerkraut
  • Turmeric
  • Green tea
  • Garlic
  • Blueberries
  • Olive oil
  • Ginger
  • Mushrooms

According to Dr Myers, the foods to avoid depends largely on the autoimmune disease but as a general rule, grains, dairy, sugar, too much coffee, alcohol, legumes and nightshade vegetables, such as tomatoes, capsicum, eggplant and potatoes can be problematic.

Potassium for rheumatoid arthritis sufferers

Studies into one of the most common autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis – inflammation of joints and surrounding tissues – have found that increasing potassium may decrease pain levels in patients, and may apply to other autoimmune conditions as well.

The leading sources of potassium are plant foods, such as avocado, acorn squash, spinach, sweet potato, pomegranate, and bananas.

Scientists have also found that a vegetable-rich, plant-based diet increased the levels of many specific nutrients that contribute to a healthy and balanced immune response — including fibre, vitamin A, beta-carotene, vitamins K and C, folate, magnesium, and potassium.

Giving sufferers back control

Garvan Institute of Medical Research senior research fellow Associate Professor Tri Phan says while autoimmune diseases are incredibly complex, the idea that patients can take a more active role in managing symptoms through diet can only be good.

“There’s a lot of interest and we are only now getting some of the science and robustness and data behind this, particularly in relation to the role of the microbiome,” he says.

“But what I will say is that the things that our parents and grandparents did well – a really simply and well-balanced diet and a good representation of all of the foods groups and lots of greens – is going to be good in terms of your health.”

Written by Liz McGrath.

Updated 28 January, 2022.