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It seems that autoimmune diseases are appearing everywhere these days. The incidence of diseases such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis, RA (rheumatoid arthritis), lupus, Crohn's disease and MS (multiple sclerosis) continue to increase, as well as the need for effective treatments.
Diet and intestinal health are huge opportunities for reducing inflammation and controlling autoimmune diseases.
And the research is promising with regard to autoimmune and nutrient-rich diets, rich in coconut oil, bone broth, vegetables and grazed meats.
But is there a diet that is best for autoimmune diseases?
What is autoimmune disease?
The health of your immune system dictates the health of every cell in your body.
Autoimmune disease is a growing problem in the United States, with approximately 50 million people currently diagnosed and over 80 types of autoimmune diseases identified (*).
With such numbers, it is highly likely that you know someone with autoimmune disease or have self-immunity problems yourself.
So, what happens in your body when you have an autoimmune disease?
Let's start by looking at what happens when your immune system is functioning optimally.
Under normal conditions, your immune system is always in defense, looking for foreign substances such as bacteria and viruses to attack and eliminate from your body. It's an incredibly complex and complex system designed to keep you healthy and protect you from outside invaders.
In the case of autoimmunity, your immune system begins to confuse healthy cells and tissues with those of outside invaders.
In other words, your immune system turns you on and launches a complete attack.
Diseases such as Hashimoto's disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes all fall into the autoimmune category.
What does "fundamental cause" mean?
The cause (s) of autoimmune diseases are still under study.
However, the main theory is that you are either genetically predisposed to an autoimmune disease, or you are not.
Then there is usually an incident, or a series of incidents, that trigger the manifestation of the condition.
This initial trigger is usually called the "root cause".
The trigger can take many forms, such as:
- A virus
- Stress (both acute as a car accident or chronic stress)
- Chronic nutrition
One of the main potential causes of autoimmune disease is poor bowel health, which leads to leaking bowel syndrome, which causes systemic inflammation.
How a Keto Diet addresses the root cause
Hippocrates said, "All diseases begin in the gut," and nothing is more specific in the case of autoimmune diseases.
Your gut is your first line of defense for your immune system – the first barrier that keeps all unwanted substances out of your internal circulation.
Research shows that your intestinal microbiome and the integrity of your intestinal mucosa both play a key role in the eventuality of an autoimmune disease (*).
One of the most effective ways to keep your bowel happy is to follow a diet that reduces inflammation in general. And that's where the ketogenic diet can help.
How Keto diet reduces inflammation
The keto diet has been proven to reduce inflammation in your body with BHB (beta-hydroxybutyrate). Ketones are what your body does when you enter a ketogenic state (*) (*).
BHB helps to reduce inflammation, but especially inflammation of the intestinal lining.
On the other hand, many of the staple foods of a conventional diet rich in carbohydrates – refined carbohydrates, sugar and gluten – are all known to cause inflammation of the intestine.
Has your diet switched the switch on your auto-immunity?
When it comes to genetics, it's still a game of nature versus learning. You may have heard the term epigenetics, which describes the ability of your genes to activate and deactivate based on environmental factors such as sleep, exercise and, indeed, the food you eat.
This means that the fact that an autoimmune disease develops in your family does not mean that you are going to it.
It also means that your diet, your stress level and your lifestyle in general have a huge impact on whether or not your autoimmune disease will declare itself. In fact, research suggests an epigenetic component in most autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus (*).
So how can you optimize your lifestyle to protect yourself from autoimmune diseases?
Common autoimmune diseases and how Keto could help
Crohn's disease is a chronic inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) in which your immune system attacks your gastrointestinal tract (GI).
Most IBD sufferers experience severe pain, inflammation and scarring. Some people need life-changing surgeries to get relief
It is estimated that more than 3 million adults in the United States suffer from IBD (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis) (*).
Since Crohn's disease is the result of severe chronic inflammation in the intestine, dietary interventions that reduce inflammation, such as the ketogenic diet, can be used to treat intestinal mucosa (*).
Although additional research is needed, there is a published case report that indicates that the ketogenic diet has been used successfully to treat symptoms and standardize the labs of a person with severe Crohn's disease (*).
A healthy keto diet eliminates all foods that aggravate the intestinal mucosa – sugar, gluten and refined carbohydrates – while increasing the anti-inflammatory pathways of your body.
Approximately 200 new cases of multiple sclerosis (MS) are diagnosed weekly in the United States, and a recent study found that nearly one million people in the United States live with MS. This is more than twice the number previously reported in 1975 (*).
Even with a growing number of individuals, scientists do not understand what causes MS and there is currently no cure for this debilitating disease.
MS damages the nerves responsible for communication between your brain and the rest of your body. This leads to symptoms such as tiredness, pain, impaired coordination, weakness, vision loss, etc.
So how could the ketogenic diet help people with MS?
Some recent research suggests that MS can impair your brain's ability to use glucose as a fuel (*) (*). This means that all the carbohydrates you eat do not reach your brain. And unless you have another fuel source, you will have problems.
Ketones could help.
There is also evidence (in mouse models) that by providing an alternative source of fuel, the keto diet could help mitigate the neurodegenerative aspect of MS (*) (*).
More specifically, the ketogenic diet helps increase energy production at the cellular level, which has an impact on the health of your power plants, the mitochondria.
People with MS may have an impairment of mitochondrial function. This reinforcement of mitochondrial health could therefore be an essential element of symptom management and progression of MS (*).
Unlike RA and multiple sclerosis, which tend to attack specific areas of the body, lupus is an autoimmune disease that can attack any part of the body.
Like other autoimmune diseases, lupus can cause inflammation, swelling, and damage to organs and joints. It is reported that 5 million people in the world suffer from lupus and that 16,000 new cases of lupus are reported each year (*).
Studies have shown that lupus can activate a specific receptor of the immune system (inflammasome NLRP3).
Activation of NLRP3 signals other inflammatory molecules in your body to activate and do what they do best – to cause inflammation (*). When this cascade continues, the inflammation can become chronic and lead to debilitating pain.
Fortunately, when your the body is in ketosis, it can support the interruption of this cascade.
- When you follow a ketogenic diet, your body produces an abundance of BHB ketone (beta-hydroxybutyrate).
- One of the ways that BHB has been shown to reduce inflammation is to inhibit inflammation of NLRP3 (*).
- This means that if you have lupus and you are on a keto diet, you are literally flooding your body with antidote to one of the main routes to the origin of your inflammation.
About 1.5 million people in the United States suffer from RA (Rheumatoid Arthritis), affecting nearly three times more women than men.
Like other autoimmune diseases that target specific tissues (such as Hashimoto's thyroiditis), RA causes your joints to attack your immune system.
This leads to inflammation, which causes swelling and eventually thickening of the tissues that line your joints. It can even lead to cartilage and bone damage.
As you can imagine, it's incredibly painful.
RA most commonly affects the joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles (*)
People with RA tend to have low levels of glutathione, their main antioxidant (*). This essential compound is a key player in your immune system, protecting free radicals and protecting your body from oxidative stress.
When oxidation in your body is not balanced with antioxidants like glutathione, inflammation can take over.
An autoimmune diet that controls inflammation and enhances antioxidant activity is essential if you have RA.
Although human studies on the ketogenic diet and PR are still lacking, there are some studies on animal models showing that the ketogenic diet increases glutathione and, consequently, antioxidant activity (*).
This, combined with the known anti-inflammatory effect of the ketogenic diet makes a compelling case to try keto if you are struggling with RA.
Psoriasis is an autoimmune disease that affects your skin.
For most people, it causes red and bumpy spots with white scales. It's incredibly irritating and painful. Although this can affect any area, it usually occurs on the elbows, knees or scalp.
Nobody knows exactly what causes psoriasis, but like all autoimmune diseases, your immune system and genetics seem to play a role. Psoriasis will generally develop between the ages of 15 and 25 and affect men and women in the same way (*).
Although no study to date has been specifically devoted to the ketogenic diet and psoriasis, it has much in common with the other autoimmune diseases discussed. The rashes are primarily related to inflammation and a hyperactive immune system.
Therefore, managing inflammation with an autoimmune anti-inflammatory regimen (such as the ketogenic diet) is an important step in managing the overall effects of psoriasis.
There is also a link between weight management and remission of psoriasis. It is well known that your body fat can have a pro-inflammatory effect on your entire system.
If you suffer from psoriasis or any other autoimmune disease, any reduction in systemic inflammation of your body is helpful.
A case study focused specifically on the ketogenic diet as a tool for weight loss and management of psoriasis in a woman with moderate to severe plaque psoriasis (*) (*).
Foods to avoid for autoimmune symptoms
If you follow a low carbohydrate ketogenic diet, you already avoid many common intestinal irritants such as corn and wheat, which is a good start.
With an autoimmune protocol, you may want to go further to avoid foods that may trigger an immune response, such as common allergens.
Here is a list of foods to avoid if you experience an autoimmune outbreak or want to heal your gut:
- All cereals (wheat, oats, rice, quinoa, rye, millet, etc.)
- Dairy products (common allergen)
- Eggs (common allergen)
- Legumes (difficult to digest)
- The nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and potatoes) can be inflammatory
- All forms of sugar, including sugar substitutes (with the exception of occasional honey uses)
- Food additives
- Check Ketogenic diet, foods to avoid for more information.
What to eat for autoimmune symptoms
Focus on the high quality, gut-friendly foods below and see the List of low carb foods for more information on keto-adapted dishes.
- Healthy fats (grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, grass-fed beef, avocados, olive oil, MCT oil or MCT Oil Powder)
- Fermented foods (kombucha, kefir, kimchi, sauerkraut)
- Bone broth, offal
- High quality organic meat and fish
- Collagen protein
- Low carbohydrate vegetables (kale, spinach, bok-choy, green cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower)
- Coconut milk (works great for replacing dairy products)
To take away
Research on keto diet and autoimmunity seems relatively strong if you have MS and are promising if you have lupus, RA, Crohn's syndrome or psoriasis.
The anti-inflammatory effects of keto can strengthen the immune system and, in some cases, directly counteract autoimmune problems.
The health of the intestines is one of the main threads that connect all autoimmune diseases.
The ketogenic diet is known as the anti-inflammatory diet when you practice it properly – avoiding most packaged foods and sticking to high quality meat, low carbohydrate vegetables and healthy fats.
Everyone's body is different, so it's always important to consult your doctor if you are thinking about changing your diet to help you manage the disease. Like all things in life – the diet is not a unique solution.
Engaging in your keto adventure can be difficult at first, especially if you are already dealing with health issues.
If you try the keto for the first time, check out the Keto Kickstart Program for a complete 30-day step-by-step guide, including tips, tools, recipes, shopping lists, etc.