Our immune system protects us from various diseases. However, at times it goes into an overdrive and attacks the body itself, leading to tissue destruction and degenerative diseases, referred to as autoimmune diseases.
Autoimmune disorders include multiple sclerosis, sarcoidosis, type 1 diabetes mellitus, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, scleroderma, Graves’ disease, chronic thyroiditis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease etc.
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Autoimmune problems have a strong genetic predisposition but triggers may include excessive exposure to sun, infections, drugs or other conditions.
The question of whether a person’s diet influences his autoimmunity has been the subject of many unresolved debates. Interestingly, growing evidence indicates a role of the diet in preventing, delaying or reversing the expression of genetically determined autoimmune diseases.
Several studies have tried to establish the role of individual nutrients and dietary factors in autoimmune disorders.
As the gut is a major site of many complex interactions, which control immunity, it is the largest interface between an individual and his environment and therefore, provides the largest exposure for immune building micro-organisms and exposure to toxins and allergens. Strengthening the age-old adage, we are what we eat.
Over the past years, evidence has supported a major role for specific dietary factors including vitamin D, vitamin A, selenium, zinc, omega-3 fatty acids, pro-biotics, glutamine (an amino acid) and flavanols (plant chemicals which protect against disease) in influencing autoimmune diseases. Interestingly, the effects of deficiency of vitamin D may extend beyond bone health and calcium balance. It has now been associated with increased autoimmunity and increased susceptibility to infections. Associations between vitamin D and autoimmune diseases have been confirmed in multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. Recent studies also indicate that vitamin A is a potent immuno-regulator and can be instrumental in the prevention of intestinal inflammation and autoimmunity.
Certain kinds of fats have also been found to be useful in preventing and modulating auto-immune diseases. Several studies have shown that diets high in omega-3 fatty acids, the kind of fat found in fish, and flaxseeds have a role in reducing the risk and treating autoimmune diseases. Omega-3 fatty acids not only prevent heart disease but may also reduce the risk of autoimmunity. Further, it has been reported that a combination of omega-3 fatty acids and calorie restriction may be a more effective than omega-3 alone.
Dietary modification has shown its greatest beneficial effect when started prior to or immediately after the onset of disease. Also a golden rule, the old age principle of balance prevails. Optimum but balanced food intake maintains healthy growth and a disease-free lifespan.
Autoimmunity is complex and multi-factorial in nature. The role of nutrients including minerals, trace elements, antioxidants and fats needs to be further explored. In the future, diets, dietary supplements and feeding practices may become an integral part of prevention and treatment.