Autoimmune Diseases & Nutrition
The immune system is responsible for protection against infection and disease. These conditions are usually a result of an attack that comes from outside of the body, but in some cases, the “danger” may derive from our own cells.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
An autoimmune disease occurs when your immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in your body. (1) It is estimated that autoimmune diseases affect more than 23.5 million Americans. (2) There are over 80 types of autoimmune diseases including rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel diseases, type 1 diabetes, systemic lupus erythematosus and others. (2) Some of the autoimmune diseases share common characteristics like chronic inflammation which is considered as a hallmark of autoimmune diseases. Many autoimmune diseases don’t restrict themselves to one part of the body, but affect several systems. There is not a specific factor that causes autoimmune diseases. It is accepted that a combination of factors is probably at work. For example, you might have a genetic tendency to develop a disease and the right conditions might trigger the expression of the genes and the development of the disease. (3)
Despite the development of modern anti-inflammatory drugs for the treatment of autoimmune inflammation, their prolonged use is frequently associated with side effects. Additionally, a significant number of patients fail to respond or become unresponsive over time to the medication. Therefore, natural products like supplements and herbs that belong to the traditional systems of medicine became an alternative treatment choice to limit the side effects, the cost and improve the efficiency of the treatment. (4)
Rheumatoid arthritis is one of the most common autoimmune diseases that targets your joint linings. It affects joints on both sides of the body including hands, wrists and knees. Additionally, it can affect other tissues and organs like the lungs, the skin, the eyes, heart, blood and nerves. The symptoms of Rheumatoid arthritis are joint stiffness, swelling, pain and redness and warmth. (5) Besides the drug therapy used to treat the disease, some foods and supplements may also help reduce the inflammation and manage Rheumatoid arthritis.
A scientific group investigated the correlation between the acai pulp intake and the prevention of oxidative damage. In this study, Barbosa and colleagues reported not only the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of acai pulp consumption but also its anticholesterolemic action. (6)
Papain is a digestive enzyme which is isolated from papaya latex. Papain is obtained by cutting the skin of the unripe papaya and then collecting and drying the latex which flows from the cut. (7)
Research shows that the enzyme papain and antioxidant nutrients found in papaya, contribute in lowering inflammation and healing burns. Papain is one of the factors that reduce the severity of diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis and asthma. (8)
Curcumin is a yellow chemical in the turmeric spice derived from the turmeric plant. (9) Curcumin is a polyphenol widely used in Asia and among others, possesses antimicrobial and antiseptic properties. Furthermore, turmeric is a strong anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agent. Recently (2016) researchers demonstrated the anti-inflammatory role of curcumin in treating osteoarthritis. Specifically, several clinical trials confirmed the efficacy of curcumin in physical function, reducing pain and quality of life among osteoarthritic patients. The possible mechanism of curcumin’s action on osteoarthritis is through its ability to prevent cell death due to inflammation and oxidative stress. (10)
Psoriasis belongs to the group of autoimmune diseases and is a chronic skin condition. The most common symptoms of psoriasis are: inflammation, thick, white, silvery, or red patches of skin and flaking. (11) Fish oil, Vitamin D and Cayenne belong to the nutrients that may reduce psoriasis symptoms.
Fish oil may be helpful for psoriasis when taken orally. Research has suggested that taking daily fish oil supplements containing 1.8 to 3.6 grams of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) may bring some improvement.
Cayenne peppers have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Capsaicin, the ingredient in peppers that gives them their heat, is also the active ingredient in many pain-relieving gels and creams. In one study, applying capsaicin cream to the skin relieved itching and skin lesions in people with psoriasis. (12)
According to a 2012 study, vitamin D deficiency is very frequent in patients with chronic plaque psoriasis. It is considered that low levels of vitamin D may also have important implications in the pathogenesis of psoriasis. (13)
Sjögren’s syndrome is not that widely known as Rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis, but it belongs to the group of autoimmune diseases. The most common symptoms of the syndrome are dry eyes and dry mouth and sometimes it may cause swollen glands around your face and neck, dry skin or nasal passages, or painful and stiff joints. (14) The treatment includes drops called "artificial tears" that can keep your eyes from drying out. (15) To help your dry mouth, your doctor may prescribe drugs that boost the amount of your saliva. (16) Probiotics, spirulina and healthy fats may contribute in the improved management of the syndrome.
Probiotics contribute significantly in maintaining a positive balance in the gut microbiota. The evidence-based relation between the gut microbiota and autoimmune disorders has motivated researchers to conduct many studies using probiotics as a treatment. (17)
Spirulina platensis, is a micro alga characterized by a spiral filament-like appearance. It grows naturally in lakes which have a high salt content. (18) Spirulina is consumed by the Mexicans for hundreds of years, specifically since the Aztec civilization. According to a study, spirulina supplementation improves body’s antioxidant status and limits oxidative stress. (19)
Consumption of omega 3 oils found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines and foods such as avocados, extra virgin olive oil, raw nuts and seeds plays a key role in reducing Sjogren’s inflammation. (20)
Autoimmune diseases affect a great number of people. Most of these diseases follow the patient for all their life since they are not curable. Besides drugs, a balanced nutrition and supplementation with the appropriate nutrients like vitamin D, acai berry and other anti-inflammatory factors can improve the quality of life and reduce symptoms of the patients that suffer from autoimmune diseases. (21-22)
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