By Dr. Davis | January 16, 2015
Autoimmune conditions are becoming increasingly common. Estimates vary, but it appears that at least 8-9% of the population in North America and Western Europe have one of these conditions, with The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association estimating a higher value of 14%. They are conditions that involve an abnormal immune response directed against one or more organs of the body. If the misguided attack is against the thyroid gland, it can result in Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. If it is directed against pancreatic beta cells that produce insulin, it can result in type 1 diabetes or latent autoimmune diabetes of adults (LADA). If it involves tissue encasing joints (synovium), it can result in rheumatoid arthritis. It if involves the liver, it can result in autoimmune hepatitis, and so on.
While it requires a genetic predisposition towards autoimmunity that we have no control over (e.g., the HLA-B27 gene for ankylosing spondylitis), there are numerous environmental triggers of these diseases that we can do something about. Identifying and correcting these factors stacks the odds in your favor of reducing the autoimmune inflammation, pain, organ dysfunction, even reversing the condition altogether.
Among the most important factors to correct in order to minimize or reverse autoimmunity are:
Wheat and grain elimination–If you are reading this, you likely already know that the gliadin protein of wheat and related proteins in other grains (especially the secalin of rye, the hordein of barley, zein of corn, perhaps the avenin of oats) initiate the intestinal “leakiness” that begins the autoimmune process, an effect that occurs in over 90% of people who consume wheat and grains. The flood of foreign peptides/proteins, bacterial lipopolysaccharide, and grain proteins themselves cause immune responses to be launched against these foreign factors. If, for instance, an autoimmune response is triggered against wheat gliadin, the same antibodies can be aimed at the syapsin protein of the central nervous system/brain, resulting in dementia or cerebellar ataxia (destruction of the cerebellum resulting in incoordination and loss of bladder and bowel control). Wheat and grain elimination is by far the most important item on this list to reverse autoimmunity.
Correct vitamin D deficiency–It is clear that, across a spectrum of autoimmune diseases, vitamin D deficiency serves a permissive, not necessarily causative, role in allowing an autoimmune process to proceed. It is clear, for instance, that autoimmune conditions such as type 1 diabetes in children, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis are more common in those with low vitamin D status, much less common in those with higher vitamin D levels. For this and other reasons, I aim to achieve a blood level of 25-hydroxy vitamin D level of 60-70 ng/ml, a level that usually requires around 4000-8000 units per day of D3 (cholecalciferol) in gelcap or liquid form (never tablet due to poor or erratic absorption). In view of the serious nature of autoimmune diseases, it is well worth tracking occasional blood levels.
Supplement omega-3 fatty acids–While omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, from fish oil have proven only modestly helpful by themselves, when cast onto the background of wheat/grain elimination and vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids compound anti-inflammatory benefits, such as those exerted via cyclooxygenase-2. This requires a daily EPA + DHA dose of around 3600 mg per day, divided in two. Don’t confuse EPA and DHA omega-3s with linolenic acid, another form of omega-3 obtained from meats, flaxseed, chia, and walnuts that does not not yield the same benefits. Nor can you use krill oil with its relatively trivial content of omega-3s.
Eliminate dairy–This is true in North America and most of Western Europe, less true in New Zealand and Australia. Autoimmunity can be triggered by the casein beta A1 form of casein widely expressed in dairy products, but not by casein beta A2 and other forms. Because it is so prevalent in North America and Western Europe, the most confident way to avoid this immunogenic form of casein is to avoid dairy altogether. You might be able to consume cheese, given the fermentation process that alters proteins and sugar, but that has not been fully explored.
Cultivate healthy bowel flora–People with autoimmune conditions have massively screwed up bowel flora with reduced species diversity and dominance of unhealthy species. We restore a healthier anti-inflammatory panel of bacterial species by “seeding” the colon with high-potency probiotics, then nourishing them with prebiotic fibers/resistant starches, a collection of strategies summarized in this Wheat Belly Blog post and in greater detail in Wheat Belly Total Health. People sometimes view bowel flora management as optional, just “fluff”–it is anything but. Properly managing bowel flora can be a make-it-or-break-it advantage; don’t neglect it.
There you go: a basic list to get started on if your interest is to begin a process of unraveling the processes of autoimmunity. In some conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and polymyalgia rheumatic, full recovery is possible. In other conditions, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and the pancreatic beta cell destruction leading to type 1 diabetes, reversing the autoimmune inflammation does not restore organ function: hypothyroidism results after thyroiditis quiets down and type 1 diabetes and need for insulin persists after pancreatic beta cell damage. But note that the most powerful risk factor for an autoimmune disease is another autoimmune disease–this is why so many people have more than one autoimmune condition. People with Hashimoto’s, for instance, can develop rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis. So the above menu is still worth following even if you cannot hope for full organ recovery.
More discussions like this, i.e., how to stack the odds in favor of reversing or NOT having numerous health conditions, can be found in Wheat Belly Total Health.