Autoimmunity & Inflammation

6 min Article Healthy Eating
Understanding the role of nutrition in managing autoimmune disorders and inflammation.
Autoimmunity & Inflammation

Autoimmunity and inflammation are two related but distinct processes that occur in the body.

Autoimmunity is a condition where the body produces antibodies and immune cells that attack the immune system and damage the body's own healthy cells and tissues, mistaking them for foreign invaders. This occurs when the immune system is unable to distinguish between self and non-self-cells (foreign bodies). This leads to chronic inflammation, tissue damage, and various autoimmune diseases.

Inflammation is a natural response of the body's immune system to injury, infection, or foreign invaders. It is a complex process that involves the activation of immune cells, release of cytokines and other signalling molecules, and changes in blood flow to the affected area. The goal of inflammation is to remove the harmful stimuli, initiate tissue repair, and restore normal function. Acute inflammation is a normal and necessary response to injury or infection, while chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on our cells and DNA, lead to tissue damage, scarring, and various diseases, including autoimmune diseases.

“A great place to start in reducing chronic low-grade inflammation in the body, and specifically the gut, is to reduce sugar and refined carbs. In addition to cleaning up the diet, adequate sleep, stress-relieving activities, and exercise are important ways to reduce inflammation, because psychological stress itself triggers inflammatory activity,” says Keri Romerdahl, Roundglass Director of Nutrition.

Causes and Consequences of Auto Immunity Issues & Inflammation

Autoimmune diseases examples include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, lupus, and celiac and thyroid diseases and can be caused due to:

Genetics: Some autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes and lupus, have a genetic component, meaning that they are more likely to occur in families with a history of these conditions.

Environmental factors: Exposure to certain viruses or bacteria, as well as exposure to toxins or chemicals, can trigger the immune system to attack the body's own tissues.

Lifestyle factors: Smoking, stress, weight issues, and lack of sleep can weaken the immune system and increase the risk of autoimmune diseases.

Gut health: Dysbiosis or imbalance of gut bacteria, intestinal permeability, and other gut health factors may also contribute to autoimmune disease development.

Inflammatory diseases include asthma, allergies, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer and can be caused due to:

Infection: Acute inflammation can be triggered by infection or injury, as a protective response to prevent further damage.

Environmental factors: Exposure to toxins or irritants, such as pollution or cigarette smoke, can cause chronic inflammation.

Lifestyle factors: A sedentary lifestyle, stress, obesity, and poor sleep and autoimmune disorders can all contribute to chronic inflammation.

Emotional and mental reasons and stress can contribute to inflammation in the body.

Chronic stress: Stress triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can activate the immune system and cause inflammation. Chronic stress in particular can lead to long-term inflammation.

Depression and anxiety: Depression and anxiety have been linked to increased levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammatory cytokines produced during the immune response can cross the blood-brain barrier and affect brain function, leading to changes in mood and behavior.

Trauma: Traumatic experiences can lead to chronic inflammation and other physical health problems. The stress response triggered by trauma can cause changes in the immune system and other physiological systems, leading to inflammation and other health issues.

Akthar Nawab’s recipe for seeded crackers is full of anti-inflammatory ingredients

Anti-inflammatory Ingredients to Add to Your Diet

Emily Weeks, nutritionist and author of The Everything Easy Anti-Inflammatory Cookbook says, “Foods that contain antioxidants halt the production of excessive free radicals, thus reducing inflammation in the body.” There are many plant-based anti-inflammatory ingredients that you can add to your diet. Here are some of them to add to your food:

Turmeric: A compound called curcumin is found in turmeric which has potent anti-inflammatory properties. It can reduce inflammation in conditions such as arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and even cancer. Turmeric is also high in antioxidants and has been linked to improved brain function.

Ginger: The rhizome contains compounds called gingerols and shogaols, which have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.  Ginger can help reduce inflammation in conditions such as osteoarthritis and may also help relieve nausea and vomiting.

Garlic: Garlic contains a compound called allicin, which has anti-inflammatory properties which has been found to be efficacious in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and may also have cardiovascular benefits, including reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Green leafy vegetables: Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and collard greens, are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that have anti-inflammatory properties. They also contain high levels of fiber, which can help reduce inflammation in the gut.

Berries: Berries, such as blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries, are high in antioxidants called anthocyanins, which have anti-inflammatory properties. They can reduce inflammation in conditions such as heart disease and may also have cognitive benefits.

Nuts and seeds:  Many nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds, are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties. They can alleviate inflammatory symptoms in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and offer cardiovascular benefits.

The Right Kind of Nutrition & Diet

“Dietary interventions and strategies for autoimmune conditions involve removing potential pro-inflammatory trigger foods such as gluten, dairy, eggs, and even grains and legumes while reducing free radicals in the body by consuming plenty of antioxidant-rich foods,” says Romerdahl, “This diet can be very restrictive and best assessed and supported by working with a nutritionist or holistic health practitioner, “she adds.

Here are some dietary strategies that may play a helpful role in managing autoimmune diseases by reducing inflammation:

• Eat a balanced, nutrient-dense diet that includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources.

• Avoid processed foods, added sugars, and pro-inflammatory fats like omega-6’s, some saturated fats, and trans fats, which can increase inflammation and worsen autoimmune symptoms.

• Consider following an anti-inflammatory diet, such as the Mediterranean diet or the anti-inflammatory diet, which emphasize whole, minimally processed foods and healthy fats.

• Optimize your gut health by eating enough fiber and fermented foods.

• Work with a registered dietitian or healthcare provider to identify food sensitivities or intolerances or toxin exposures that may be exacerbating autoimmune symptoms.

Try Kanchan Koya’s recipe for cilantro butter bean veggie stew, full of fresh flavors

It's important to note that the effects of chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases can vary widely depending on the specific condition and individual. Early diagnosis and appropriate management can help prevent or minimize these effects and promote overall health and well-being.

The Benefits

  • Adding whole plant foods can help reduce inflammation in the body.
  • Increasing fiber content in food has anti-inflammatory effects
  • Foods low in saturated and trans fats reduce inflammation

About the Teacher

Sudha G Tilak

Sudha G Tilak

Sudha G Tilak is a journalist who has reported from India, Sri Lanka and the UK. She is based out of Gurgaon and is a writer, translator, editor of books on food and travel, and a vegetarian. She is committed to building culinary connections and initiating healthy conversations around the history and traditional wisdom around food.
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