Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
Q: I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. What does that mean?
-Jessica O., via email
A: Autoimmune disorders are characterized by an inappropriate destruction of “self” tissue by the immune system. In lupus, for example, your immune system attacks the nucleus of a variety of cells, and “anti-nuclear antibodies” (ANA) are found in the blood when tested. This is a common screen for autoimmune disease, although a positive ANA doesn’t always mean you have an autoimmune disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder in which your white blood cells attack the synovial fluid in small joints, often the knuckles and finger joints. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune destruction of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Possibly the most common autoimmune disease is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a cause of low thyroid function.
Some researchers consider celiac disease to be an autoimmune disorder due to the presence of antibodies to the endomysial cells, which are part of muscle structure. People with severe celiac often have a blistering and itchy skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis, which is produced by deposition of antibodies in the skin. Avoiding gluten is the cure.
Other than celiac, which is more common in men, most autoimmune diseases are much more prevalent in women, which leads some researchers to believe estrogen is implicated in autoimmune disease. The Nurses Health Study with over 120,000 participants, for example, found that women on estrogen replacement therapy are at higher risk of developing lupus than women not receiving estrogen.
Dietary choices can also promote excess estrogen. In autoimmune problems, the immune system is “confused” and attacks the self. Mammalian tissue from food such as beef, veal, pork, cheese, milk, and ice cream is remarkably similar, at a molecular level, to your own tissue. So eating animal food may provoke an autoimmune flare. This is why I highly recommend adopting a vegetarian diet for those who have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.
The best choices for oils in autoimmune disease are flax, olive, and coconut. Human clinical studies have also shown that fish oil can induce clinical remission of MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and other inflammatory diseases such as ulcerative colitis and psoriasis. Look for a fish oil that is cold-pressed, and take at least 2,000 mg daily of mixed DHA and EPA.
Antioxidants are also important in reversing immune system confusion, but they must be taken synergistically. Vitamin E taken alone can potentially oxidize because it’s a polyunsaturated fat. To prevent oxidation, take vitamin E in conjunction with vitamin C and selenium. To halt and maybe even reverse your autoimmune process, take vitamin E in high doses of up to 1,600 IUs per day, with 3-5 g of vitamin C and 400 mcg of selenium.
I also really like the antioxidant glutathione, especially when it’s combined with lecithin so that it can quickly penetrate the fatty structure of cell walls. Vitamin A, (25,000-50,000 IUs) and beta-carotene (50,000 IUs) are other important antioxidants that tend to be underutilized.
Some practitioners recommend using DHEA and melatonin for autoimmune problems. I would assess DHEA levels before supplementing, and use melatonin particularly when sleep quality is also an issue. Contrary to popular wisdom, most of the melatonin in the body isn’t actually produced in the pineal gland. Rather, it originates in the small intestine. So where GI problems are part of the health picture (such as Crohn’s or IBS), melatonin can be useful. None of the food-based suggestions made here will interfere with conventional approaches to autoimmune disorders.
Another aspect of managing autoimmune problems is the psycho-spiritual component. It’s important to recognize that your immune system is being confused about what is “self” and what is “not-self.” We want our immune systems to attack “not-self” invaders such as pathogens. However, attacking “self” is a problem. So, get clear about what is authentic for you. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Discovering who you are is the most important “job” you have. And it’s an evolving proposal.