Autoimmune disease means a disease that is caused by a the immune system behaving wrongly and attacking the body. The proper role of the immune system is to attack viruses and bacterial disease etc.. When the immune system turns on us it is abnormal and this is the cause of many diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and hypothyroidism. “Officially” the root cause of most autoimmune disease is not known (like most diseases), however there is a large body of scientific literature which indicates that diet can play a critical role in the cause of these diseases.
This has been recognised for many years, as fasting and elemental diets (very purified diets mainly used in research) sometimes cause reductions in many autoimmune diseases. It is now strongly proven in some cases, as people with Coeliac disease are completely better if they are on a gluten free diet, and people with Crohn’s disease or Ulcerative Colitis can often be cured if they are on yeast free diet (particularly if their blood tests showed positive ASCA yeast antibodies). Please note that traditional hunter gatherer diets do not contain the wholesale amounts of yeast found in standard western diets, they only contain the odd small amount of yeast on the outside of certain fruits, like grapes.
Autoimmune disease is very common in modern man, yet very rare in hunter gatherers (whose diet is the basis of the Paleo diet). Research indicates this might be due to differences in diet and lifestyle. Researchers have pinned down many factors in food which affect immunity, and it appears the Paleo diet is low in factors that cause autoimmune disease.
Around 80% of the immune system resides in the gut in order to protect us against infections from our food and water, which until recent years was a major health problem in all countries, and still is a major problem in most of the world. The spleen is the largest immune organ in the body and blood from the spleen is mixed with blood from the gut which then travels to the liver for processing, so the immune system is intimately mingled with everything we eat.
It is also now apparent that immune system is programmed in the gut by a range of factors working together:
– genetic background
– diet (many different effects from diet)(possibly particularly bad effects from wheat, other cereals, potatoes (substitute cassava, sweet potatoes), sugar, possibly other cereals, legumes.)
– the presence of bacteria in the small intestine (SIBO= small intestinal bacterial overgrowth)
– the type of bacteria in the large intestine
– whether your gut leaks and how much (leaky gut- particularly small intestine and also large intestine)
– vitamin D status and omega 3 status
– vitamin A (retinol) status- this was recognised long before the effect of vitamin D
– chronic infections such as glandular fever (Epstein-Barr Virus EBV) which permanently infect the T-cells that control the immune system. (EBV infection in turn is strongly suppressed by retinol).
– EVERYTHING that affects the gut or diet has implications for the immune system.
So when your immune system malfunctions, there is reason to believe that the malfunction has occurred in your gut, and attention to the above factors may help improve the immune system. Paleo diet addresses several of the factors- dietary proteins, the types of bacteria, SIBO and leaky gut can all be improved.
The Paleo diet has very little in the way of factors that upset the immune system. Whereas modern foods (the Neolithic diet) such as dairy and grains, beans, and potatoes do upset the immune system very directly. Neolithic foods contains toxins such as lectins which can make immune cells malfunction in bizarre ways. It also contains many proteins that were never present during the long evolution of our immune system.
SIBO means small intestinal bacterial overgrowth. The small intestine is supposed to have little or no bacteria, but it has been found that many people have quite a lot of bacteria. This can contribute to autoimmune and other disease. Neolithic food toxins such as lectins and protease inhibitors increase SIBO. The large intestine is the last part of the gut where the faeces is found and it is supposed to be full of bacteria as the large intestine has a different role to the small intestine.
Leaky gut means that there is leakage of gut contents into the gut’s bloodstream through tiny abnormal breaks and holes in the lining of the gut. This occurs in the small intestine in response to many factors (such as gluten, lectins, saponins and other toxins, and to casein) and can also occur to some degree in the large intestine. I also remind people that “leaky gut starts in the mouth” and it is well known that autoimmune disorders have a bad effect on oral health, and conversely oral disease aggravates autoimmune disorders, all types of inflammation and is also a significant risk factor for heart disease. There can be variations in the leakiness of the large intestine which can be improved by diets with more soluble fibre and resistant starch (this increases large intestine butyrate production which reduces the leak in the large intestine).
For abnormal immune cells to cause real problems they need to be stimulated by proteins that resemble our own tissues. Such proteins are found in Neolithic foods, and in some bacteria in our gut. This is then amplified greatly if the gut leaks as the proteins can come in direct contact with the immune cells, in wholesale amounts. If the gut is not leaky then there is little opportunity for these proteins to come in contact with the immune cells in the blood stream. The leaked proteins can stimulate the immune system to malfunction both by increasing the general degree of inflammation (the amount of activation of the immune system) or by activating specific squads of immune cells that will attack a particular tissue such as bowel, joint or brain to cause a specific autoimmune disease.
High levels of vitamin D and long chain omega 3 “tune up” the immune system to make autoimmune reactions less common and less severe. Long chain omega 3 comes from animal sources such as fish oil and has many benefits, whereas short chain omega 3 comes from such as flax seed oil. It is not recommended to take flax seed oil as it comes with significant amounts of omega 6 fats which are pro-inflammatory and have negative effects on metabolism.
When food upsets the immune system, there are “two sides of the coin”- disease can occur in the gut itself (such as ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease), or it can occur outside of the gut (such as rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis). However in both cases the illness has been programmed within the gut.
Once it goes wrong, the immune system is very sensitive to tiny amounts of food. This is already well known as people who have food allergies can react to tiny amounts of peanut or egg for example. Any every exposure to the wrong food can increase the effect, every single time. This is probably true with autoimmune disease- for example in patients with severe Coeliac disease, a tiny 1/100 of a slice of bread will reactivate it. Therefore if one is to treat the disease with diet, it can only work with strict avoidance of the suspect food. This requires one to follow what is called a “Paleo diet automimmune protocol”.
Epstein-Barr Virus can be knocked out by retinol, the animal form of vitamin A. Plant forms such as beta-carotene can be converted to retinol but this is very inefficient. Retinol is found in high amounts in liver, kidneys and cod liver oil.
Unfortunately what can be done cannot always be undone, therefore there is no guarantee of success with diet. However, remember that we all have to eat, so why not eat the best possible diet? Also to remember that you can combine the Paleo Diet with your normal medical treatment, so they work together as a club, not in competition with each other. If you do respond to dietary therapy, there is good reason to believe that it will give you many additional health benefits as well as treating the disease you are focusing on.