So, what should you eat for optimum health? This can be a tough road to navigate when you’re living with an autoimmune disease.
Ironically, the best place to start is what you shouldn’t eat!
An eating plan known as “the elimination diet” is a specific and useful tool to identify what reactions you may have to various foods – and then stop eating those foods. People who experience adverse food reactions don’t realize that it is a specific food causing their symptoms. Food reactions are usually overlooked as a key contributor to chronic health issues. There are three main categories of food reactions: sensitivity, allergy, and intolerance.
Food sensitivities are tricky to identify because immune response to food sensitivities are often delayed and can surface hours to days to weeks after exposure. Also, the symptoms are usually less severe and not as obvious. Symptoms vary widely and run the gamut from joint pain, headaches, fatigue, runny nose, skin issues, weight changes, bloating, bowel changes, and mood changes.
An allergy is an immune reaction to a specific food. Reactions usually occur right away after exposure and can be severe and life-threatening to some. Common allergic reactions are a swollen tongue or runny nose or can be more severe like anaphylaxis and hives. Because food allergies are easier to identify through testing, people are usually pretty clear on what foods to avoid or eliminate that cause allergic reactions.
Food intolerances are not a “reaction,” but rather an “inability” to digest. For example, lacking the digestive enzymes to break down the sugar in milk (lactose intolerance) or the inability of the liver to process things like caffeine or alcohol. Common food intolerances include things like histamines, preservatives (such as sulfites), and lectins (the part of the plant that protects itself from being digested). Food intolerances cause inflammation in the body leading to problems like discomfort and pain.
Foods to Avoid
Typical foods to first be eliminated during an elimination diet are wheat and dairy. For someone with lupus, there are a few unique foods to possibly also avoid. Alfalfa sprouts and mung bean sprouts both contain high levels of the amino acid L-canavanine, which has been shown to stimulate the immune system. Alfalfa sprouts are linked to the onset of SLE. People with SLE should avoid alfalfa and mung bean sprouts.
Garlic is known for its beneficial anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties. However, it is also thought to potentially increase activity of the immune system, and some doctors recommend avoiding garlic for those with autoimmunity even though there isn’t any evidence of causing autoimmunity in humans.
After completing an elimination diet, you can start to reintroduce foods back into your diet to test out reactions. Most likely you will not have to continue to avoid everything eliminated long-term. That’s why the reintroduction phase is extremely important, to make sure you catch any reactions that might exist, but also be able to add back foods that don’t cause a reaction. It is important to add things back slowly and one at a time for the best test. To accomplish this, add back one new thing to your diet by eating it several times within the first day. Then stop eating it and wait at least 48 hours to see if anything changes or you react.
Creating a Healthy Relationship with Food
For many people, food is more than a necessity for life. Food is commonly associated with pleasure, comfort, reward, joy, and social engagement. Usually, the things we “treat” ourselves with are things we know are not good for us, hence why we save them for a special occasion or reason! Using sugar-laden or inflammatory foods is not a way to reward your body – it is sabotage! Next time you want to “treat” yourself, choose something not food-related. Treat yourself to a massage or spa day, a new gym class or a trip to a museum with a friend. Do something that makes you laugh or something that will help heal your body, not harm it.
For many people, food is more than a necessity for life. Food is commonly associated with comfort, pleasure, joy, social engagement, community, and reward.
People commonly think, “I’ve been eating well all week, I think I will treat myself to some ice cream.” While this way of thinking of food as a reward or treat may seem benign, viewing your food this way may be holding you back from getting better. Just think about the top foods you “reward” yourself with or use as comfort. Broccoli probably isn’t what came to mind. Usually, the things we “treat” ourselves with are things we know are not good for us, hence why we save them for a special occasion or reason. Whether or not you are feeling good or feeling bad, using sugar-laden or inflammatory foods is not a way to reward your body; it is sabotage! Would you be treating yourself with a little bowl of rat poison? Hopefully not! Then why would you reward yourself with something that you know is not good for you and harms your health?
Challenge: Next time you want to “treat” yourself, choose something that isn’t food-related. How about something like a massage or spa day? Try out a new gym class or exercise. Go to a new museum with a friend. Do something that makes you laugh. Do something that will help heal your body, not harm it.
The Key to Health Is through the Gut
We grow up learning that our gut, or gastrointestinal system, is simply the system that digests our food and eliminates waste from our bodies. But our guts are so much more! What if I were to tell you that our bodies house ten times more bacteria than human cells? Yes, you read that right. A healthy gut contains about three pounds of good bacteria that make up what is called our microbiome. More research is looking to the gut microbiome as a connection to not only gut function but overall health and vitality. Just as we talked about earlier, this also plays a role in a healthy immune system as our guts also house about 80 percent of our immune systems! This amazing part of our body not only plays a major role in keeping us healthy but can also be one of the biggest areas of dysfunction when we are unwell.
Using Nutrients as Tools
RULE OF THUMB: You aren’t just what you eat, you are what you digest and absorb.
Just as a carpenter needs a hammer or a seamstress needs thread, our bodies need tools to heal and repair and work optimally: nutrients!
Today it is nearly impossible to get everything that you need from food because our food isn’t as healthy as it once was and does not supply all the nutrients we need, especially when the body is undergoing stress or inflammation. This is why nutraceutical support can be essential for helping the body heal, and by knowing what specific issues need to be addressed, you can supplement appropriately. A nutraceutical product is a food or fortified food product that provides medical benefits by supplementing the diet and helping to treat or prevent disease (apart from anemia).
Diet and lifestyle play major roles in determining our overall health, but sometimes they are not sufficient for supplying all the necessary “ingredients” for healing, especially when the body is under stress or inflamed. Using added nutrients to supplement our healthy habits can be a game-changer in terms of the speed of healing. Our bodies are intelligent and very capable of healing and adapting; however, by the time someone develops symptoms or is diagnosed with a condition or disease, our bodies have usually already been trying to adapt and compensate for some time, and our resources are worn out. Replenishing those resources through supplementation can be an important step in giving the body what it needs for the healing process.
Supplement vs. Nutraceutical
A supplement is a product taken orally that contains one or more ingredients (such as vitamins or amino acids) that are intended to supplement one’s diet and are not considered food. Nutraceuticals are pharmaceutical-grade supplements that contain synergistic blends of vitamins, minerals, and/or herbs with a specific purpose of assisting in treating a specific disease process or physiologic dysfunction. Supplements are widely available for purchase over the counter, whereas nutraceuticals are recommended or prescribed by healthcare providers. Nutraceuticals are best used when addressing underlying root problems as they assist in the body’s natural innate healing process and can aid in quicker recovery. It is recommended that you seek the help of a trained professional for assistance in supplementation.
Certain key nutrients are needed across the board for general health and well-being. Additional nutrients can help support the body at times of need and can be a catalyst for healing and knocking down inflammation. Here are a few key nutrients needed for a good foundation:
- B vitamins are at the core of foundational cell functions and impact everything from brain function to energy and your ability to detox.
- Vitamin D3 is perhaps one of the most important vitamins and essential for regulating the immune system.
- Multivitamins help fill in the gaps of an already healthy diet and assist those struggling with their health.
- Healthy fats/omegas play a role in decreasing inflammation, healing, and supporting the immune system.
Plant foods offer some of the best “medicine” on earth: phytonutrients. Besides giving us necessary macronutrients in terms of carbs, fiber, and proteins and micronutrients like vitamins and minerals, plants offer substances called phytonutrients to help us heal. Some of these powerful substances are things like sulforaphane from cruciferous veggies like broccoli, which is known for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.
Importance of Variety in Diet
By eating a wide variety of foods in your diet, you not only benefit from getting a more diverse supply of nutrients, but you also minimize the negative effects of eating the same things frequently. Eating the same foods day after day can lead to problems with developing reactions to those foods. Many people have an issue with gluten-containing grains such as wheat because they get too much exposure to it too frequently since it is found in so many common foods people consume for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks! Experimenting with gluten-free foods can help determine if you have gluten sensitivities.
Rotate your favorite foods so you are not eating them every day. Choose new foods you haven’t tried and try them in different ways (raw, cooked, mixed with other ingredients, etc.). Also, don’t be afraid to mix and match ingredients in your favorite recipes for a new take on an old favorite.
In a perfect world, a multivitamin would not be necessary. Unfortunately, in today’s modern society an overwhelming majority of us are lacking sufficient intake of various nutrients. Having a good-quality multivitamin ensures that you are satisfying your vitamin and mineral requirements. It is especially important when you have lupus or any disease process that your body has everything it needs to function optimally.
Fish oil contains essential fatty acids including eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These omega-3 fatty acids are fundamental to help reduce inflammation in our body and have also been shown to dampen autoimmune disease. It is estimated up to 80 percent of the United States population is deficient in omega-3 fatty acids. A vegan source of omega-3 fatty acids includes algal oil.
Quality matters when it comes to safety and effectiveness with supplementation. While many of the recommended nutrients can be found over the counter at most health food stores, it is wise to use caution when buying these products as many times the cheaper form of nutrients used are not very absorbable in the body and, therefore, not as effective.
Using tools like the elimination diet and experimenting with gluten-free foods is a great place to start to identify what foods may be causing inflammation, fatigue and other symptoms. Adverse food reactions are an integral part of autoimmune diseases a key contributor to chronic health issues. You can become proactive in helping yourself to curb food sensitivities, allergies, and intolerances.