Inflammation is at the heart of most of our 21stcentury diseases. When I see campaigns for finding a cure for heart disease or cancer, I get kind of annoyed. Not because I think they’re a bad idea; but because they are focusing on the wrong thing. If we truly want to “cure” major disease, we need to focus on reducing inflammation as a whole. Because chronic low-grade inflammation wreaks havoc on your body and can eventually turn into autoimmune diseases that make life even worse.
It pains me to hear that more children today live with autoimmune diseases than ever before. And, it bothers me that so many people don’t really notice the trends. Sure, they know more kids have peanut allergies but do they really know why? Of course, I don’t really know WHY either. BUT I do know that many scientists and experts out there have found correlations between autoimmune diseases and the crappy foods we are giving to kids these days.
The Standard American Diet
The Standard American Diet (or SAD diet) began in the 1960s with processed foods, more sugar added to all kinds of crap, and convenience, like fast food. People switched from home-cooked, whole foods-based meals to ones that came in containers from the freezer section of the store. Remember TV dinners? I sure do! And how they tasted terrible compared to what your Grandma made from scratch! Yep!
This switch from conventional, made-from-scratch meals to fast food and packaged convenient foods didn’t come without its consequences.
The trends in health that we see coincide with the proliferation of the SAD diet.
Autoimmune diseases are on the rise. Obesity is on the rise. Inflammation is on the rise. Anxiety and depression and other mental health issues are on the rise.
See the connection?
The non-nutrients and pro-inflammatory compounds found in the SAD diet has led to malnourishment and problems with how our bodies produce and use its important chemicals. Hormonal imbalances, neurotransmitter disorders, unhealthy gut microbiomes, overtaxed livers…all of this leads to health problems.
And the immune system takes a huge hit.
What is the Immune System
Your immune system is very important. Unfortunately, we tend to forget about or neglect this system until we get sick. Then it’s all about “boosting immunity” and what not. Which isn’t going to help if it’s too late.
The immune system is your body’s protector against germs and viruses that can make you sick.
Immune system action involves lots of complicated pathways, but in general, it works through the production of antibodies. Antibodies are produced to “fight” and rid the body of foreign invaders.
But what happens when the immune system isn’t in tiptop shape? When it’s depressed or not getting the nourishment it needs?
For starters, you may be prone to more frequent illness, like the common cold or seasonal flu. But a chronically compromised immune system – when it’s too active or not active enough – can result in a whole host of health disorders called autoimmune diseases.
Normally, your immune system can recognize the difference between the body and foreign invaders.
But, in the case of autoimmune diseases, the immune system starts mistaking normal, healthy cells as foreign and attacks parts of one’s own body.
Over 80 conditions have been recognized as autoimmune diseases.
Commonly Recognized Autoimmune Diseases
If it seems like autoimmune diseases are on the rise, you’re correct! Many of today’s common disorders are actually due to autoimmunity issues.
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome, including Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis
- Celiac Disease
- Thyroid Disease
Each one has its own unique symptoms, depending on the body parts that the immune system attacks.
The problem with autoimmune diseases, though, is that sometimes it can take weeks to get a diagnosis. And, honestly, sometimes an autoimmune diagnosis is simply the ‘I give up’ diagnosis, as in the case of my chronic fatigue syndrome. No one knows what caused it so no one knows how to treat it.
Signs and Symptoms to Look For
If you’re suffering from any of the below symptoms AND you’ve kind of given up on trying to figure out what’s going on, chances are it could be autoimmune related.
- Low energy or chronic fatigue
- Unexplained pain or soreness
- Swelling, redness, heat
- Mental fog and/or difficulty focusing
- Skin rash and/or breakouts
- Unexplained digestive disorders
Autoimmune diseases can be difficult to diagnose, since these early symptoms are generalized. The severity of symptoms also varies and flare-ups and remissions are common (and commonly frustrating!)in people with an autoimmune disease.
Healthcare Professionals don’t know exactly what causes most autoimmune diseases either. Some have a genetic predisposition, meaning family history may increase your risk of getting that disease. But, you do have the power to help control whether or not that genetic aspect is “turned on”.
Potential Causes of Autoimmune Diseases
As I already mentioned, diet plays a BIG role in your health! HUGE!
A diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugar, saturated and trans fats is believed to promote inflammation, damage the lining of the small intestine, and weaken immune system function. (Yes, this is the SAD diet in a nutshell.)
In contrast, a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants from plant foods has the opposite effect on the body. Especially important is omega-3 fatty acids and other anti-inflammatory foods like wild-caught salmon, extra virgin olive oil, ground flaxseed, fresh berries, low-carb fruits, and walnuts.
Poor gut health, or an imbalanced gut microbiome, is behind a lot of autoimmunity issues, too. The connections between gut lining cells get weakened by poor diet, pro-inflammatory foods, toxins and stagnant digestion, which leaves little holes or gaps through which food (aka foreign particles) enters the blood stream. This is known as Leaky Gut Syndrome. Diet, alcohol use, stress, and antibiotic use are just some of the problems associated with leaky gut and imbalanced gut bacteria.
Aside from toxin exposure through foods (the ones we ingest), toxins from environmental pollutants, heavy metals, chemicals in personal care and cleaning products and household goods gets absorbed into our bodies and causes chronic low-grade inflammation.
The more bacteria and viruses we are exposed to, the more likely our chances of autoimmune disorders, especially if we already have a compromised immune system. My chronic fatigue hit me immediately after a really bad pneumonia infection. We’re not sure if the virus was stagnant until then or I caught something with the pneumonia. But my immune system was really weakened and I was left with exhaustion and muscle fatigue and pain that lasted for years.
Of course, building up a strong immune system is super important, so exposure to life is good – stop trying to sterilize you and your kids with antibacterial soaps and gels! For the love of…people!
And let’s not forget hormones…when our hormones are imbalanced (and when our livers can’t detoxify excess amounts properly), we are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases. Women have a higher chance of developing AI disorders, too. This actually happens more during reproductive years than at any other time. Most likely excess estrogen (estrogen dominance) is the cause.
Can Autoimmune Diseases Be Cured?
It’s unknown whether or not autoimmune diseases can actually be cured. For now, people are treating them with medication and alternative therapies.
However, more and more research is showing that diet can actually cause your AI disorder to go into remission for an extremely long period of time if followed consistently and correctly.
Autoimmune protocol (AIP) diets are ones that focus on fruits, vegetables and good quality meats to reduce inflammation. It’s a lot like Paleo but more strict and more focused on the anti-inflammatory foods.
One of my dance instructors is successfully fending off MS with a strict AIP diet and he’s doing amazing. I think it’s 4 years after his diagnosis, where he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital, and he is still dancing and loving life to its fullest, pretty much symptom-free!
This just goes to show you that you DO have a lot of control over your own health if you take responsibility for your diet and do what’s right!
Autoimmune Diseases, 2014: Autoimmunity and the Gut
Office On Women’s Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Autoimmune Diseases
Very Well Health: Chronic Fatigue and Inflammation