What Do We Know About Nutrition and Autoimmune Conditions?
Medically reviewed by C.H. Weaver M.D. Medical editor
Hippocrates said, “Let food be thy medicine.” While food is no substitute for proven medical treatment, it can help build the foundation of a healthy body – and a healthy body is stronger in the face of stress and illness.
There is no special diet that will cure any inflammatory or autoimmune condition; however, nutrition is still important for building a solid foundation of health. Research has consistently indicated that everyone, can benefit from eating a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet and avoiding processed and refined foods.
The Importance of a Healthy Diet
Nutrition is one of the many tools in your toolkit to help you live well and stay healthy. True, a healthy diet cannot cure you; however, it can help you maintain overall health and keep other conditions, such as heart disease, at bay. Unfortunately, some research indicates that individuals with inflammatory and autoimmune arthritis have a lower quality diet compared to their healthy counterparts.1 Even the smallest changes in dietary quality can translate into better nutritional status and individuals living might benefit from improving their diet.
Nutrition and Symptoms
Despite years of study, there is no evidence that diet plays a role in either aggravating or diminishing the symptoms of RA, AS or PsA and there is no special “diet cure”; however, some individuals find that avoiding certain foods or eating certain foods can help their symptoms. It is important to remember, though, that there is no one-size-fits-all diet—every person is unique and has individualized dietary requirements. So, while one person with may need to avoid a certain type of food, another person may thrive while eating that food.
Some research indicates that 30% to 40% of people with RA improve substantially by following an elimination diet to identify foods that are associated with symptoms and then avoiding these foods.2Typically, these individuals respond to the elimination diet within 10-21 days and the benefits are maintained if the offending foods are avoided.
Fasting, on the other hand, produces different results. Nearly all people with RA respond well to fasting and the response occurs within 3-5 days; however, the benefits are lost as soon as a normal diet is resumed.
The relationship between food sensitivity and rheumatoid arthritis is unclear and research is ongoing to continue to examine the issue. Some researchers have speculated that gut flora may play a role, but no clear evidence has been established.
If you suspect that certain foods are helping or hurting your symptoms, consider keeping a food diary to identify “trigger” foods. You may wish to work with your rheumatologist, allergist, or nutritionist to implement an elimination diet in order to identify problem foods.
Nutrition is paramount for anyone living with an autoimmune or inflammatory condition because both the disease and the medications used to treat it have been linked to nutritional deficiencies.
Individuals living with these conditions can become deficient as a result of weight loss and weakened health or as a result of the increased metabolic rate and protein breakdown associated with chronic inflammation.3Further exacerbating the problem, some medications cause decreased appetite or digestive problems along with specific deficiencies. For example, methotrexate is often associated with a deficiency in folic acid. One often-overlooked cause of nutritional deficiency is more simple—the pain and associated swelling can make food preparation difficult.
Many people will suffer from low levels of vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin B6, vitamin B12, vitamin E, folic acid, calcium, magnesium, zinc, and selenium. Food is always the optimal source of vitamins and minerals; however, some people may need to use supplements. It’s important to work with your physician to continually monitor and address nutritional deficiencies.
Vitamin D Deficiency: There is a lot of recent debate over the relationship between vitamin D and RA. Vitamin D has been shown to modulate the immune system and its deficiency has been linked to the development of some autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis. RA has also been associated with vitamin D deficiency.4 Some experts have concluded that vitamin D deficiency occurs at higher rates among individuals with autoimmune disorders and supplementation might be necessary.
Furthermore, the risk of osteoporosis is higher in people with RA and some RA medications—such as prednisone—can cause bone loss. In other words, adequate vitamin D levels are vitally important in RA.
Beta Carotene Deficiency: Oxidative damage has been implicated in the development of RA and antioxidants have been shown to combat inflammation and free radicals. Beta carotene is an antioxidant found in brightly colored foods such as pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots, and beets. One study indicated that individuals with RA have 29% lower levels of beta carotene levels than the general population.5 The researchers concluded that low antioxidant status might be a risk factor for RA. Of course, no one knows which came first—the low beta carotene levels or the RA. Still, it may be important for individuals with RA to supplement and to be sure to eat foods rich in beta carotene.
Selenium Deficiency: Selenium is a mineral that helps to fight free radicals that cause damage to healthy tissue. Some research indicates that people with RA and AS may have lower levels of selenium in their blood.6,7 Thus far, there are no recommendations for selenium supplementation, but individuals should pay attention to their diet and be sure to include selenium-rich foods such as eggs, tuna, or Brazil nuts. Just two Brazil nuts contain an adequate daily supply of selenium.
Folic Acid: Folic acid is a B vitamin found in dark leafy greens, lentils, beans, broccoli, avocado, and some nuts and seeds. Your body uses folic acid—along with iron—to manufacture red blood cells. Folic acid is especially important if you take methotrexate. By supplementing with folic acid, you may avoid some of the side effects of the medication.
Nutritional Deficiencies and Other Health Problems: Individuals are more likely to develop osteoporosis, anemia, and heart disease—all of which are associated to some degree with diet.
Anemia and Iron: Approximately 30%-60% of people with autoimmune or chronic inflammatory conditions have some form of anemia, which refers to a low level of red blood cells. The anemia may be the result of chronic inflammation or iron deficiency or both. Some medications have also been linked to iron deficiency. As a result, some people need to take iron supplements.
Osteoporosis, Calcium, and Vitamin D: Osteoporosis is a condition characterized by reduced bone mass and quality, resulting in weaker bones that are more likely to break. Individuals with arthritis are two to four times more likely to develop osteoporosis for a variety of reasons—the arthritis itself, medications used to treat the condition, or reduced physical activity. To treat and prevent osteoporosis, eat a diet rich in calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium and avoid alcohol and tobacco.
Obesity has been associated with worse outcomes in RA, AS and PsA.8 Individuals who are obese or overweight have higher disease activity, more pain, and worse general health. Furthermore, these individuals are at higher risk for diabetes and heart disease. The research indicates that excess weight puts added strain on the weight-bearing joints and worsens the joints, making them stiffer and more painful. What’s more—being overweight can exacerbate flares.
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for your joints and your overall health. If you are overweight, you may want to talk to your doctor about an appropriate weight-loss program for you. Shedding those excess pounds could mean less pain and better overall health.
Nutrition That May Negatively Impact Your Symptoms
No research has identified any dietary causes; however, some studies have identified some foods to avoid.
Saturated Fat: Research indicates that saturated fat may increase inflammation in the body. Foods that are high in saturated fats—such as bacon, red meat, and butter—may increase the level of prostaglandins in the body. Prostaglandins are chemicals that cause inflammation, pain, swelling, and joint destruction.
Meat: Meat contains high amounts of arachidonic acid, which is a fatty acid that is converted to inflammatory prostaglandins in the body. Some, but not all, people benefit from a vegetarian diet.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids: Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils that contain linoleic acid, such as corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, wheat germ oil, and sesame oil. Excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. The standard western diet is heavy on omega-6 fatty acids, but research has shown that for optimal health it’s important to consume fewer omega-6 fatty acids and more omega-3 fatty acids. There may be a link between inflammation and consumption of omega-6 fatty acids. Some individuals may benefit from restricting their intake of omega-6 fatty acids.
Nutrition That May Positively Impact Your Symptoms
No food can cure an autoimmune disease or arthritis; however, some foods have been shown to provide benefit to those living with these conditions.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are the polyunsaturated fats found in cold-water fish and some nuts and seeds, including salmon, sardines, walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds. Omega-3s are a critical component of any healthy diet and have been shown to reduce inflammation.
Omega-3 fatty acids have been widely studied and there is reasonably strong evidence to show that they do provide a benefit9,10,11,12 They appear to reduce inflammation by decreasing the production of inflammatory chemicals. While omega-3 fatty acids may improve some symptoms, they do not appear to slow progression of the disease.
Some research indicates that omega-3 fatty acids may be better absorbed from food than supplements, so those individuals may want to consider eating foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids.13
Fish Oil: Fish oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids and may decrease the inflammatory response in RA.14 Some people experience an improvement in their symptoms and are even able to discontinue their use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) without experiencing disease flare.15 There are numerous ongoing studies to evaluate the effects of fish oil in RA and AS. Thus far, fish oil appears to provide a benefit and some researchers note that fish oil does not carry the increased cardiovascular risk associated with NSAIDs.16 Some research even indicates that intake of oily fish was associated with a modestly decreased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis.17
Many people report improvement in pain and joint tenderness when taking fish oil. Although it is promising, fish oil will not produce instant results. It can take weeks or even months to notice a decrease in symptoms.
It’s important not to overdo it with fish oil, as some fish oil supplements may have high levels of vitamin A or mercury. Furthermore, fish oil may cause drug interactions with some medications. If you plan to take fish oil, be sure to discuss it with your doctor first.
Mediterranean Diet: The Mediterranean diet is based on a pattern of eating tied to the Mediterranean region, which includes Greece and southern Italy. The diet emphasizes large amounts of fruits and vegetables, olive oil, fatty fish, and limited meat consumption. The Mediterranean diet has been widely studied and has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer. Because it is high in omega-3 fatty acids, the diet is believed to have anti-inflammatory and protective properties.
Research shows that the Mediterranean diet might protect against severe symptoms. In fact, it has been shown to reduce disease activity and pain and stiffness in patients with RA.18 One study found that after about six weeks on a Mediterranean diet, people with had reduced inflammation, pain, and swelling and improved physical functioning and vitality.19 Notably, the incidence of RA and AS is lower in Mediterranean countries.
Antioxidants: Antioxidants are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that protect and repair cells from damage caused by free radicals, which are harmful byproducts produced by the body. Antioxidants are found in vitamins, such as vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene and minerals, such as zinc and selenium. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables—and therefore antioxidants—has been shown to combat inflammation and protect the immune system. Antioxidants are found in colorful fruits and vegetables, especially those that are red, orange, yellow, purple, and blue. Some antioxidant-rich foods include carrots, pumpkin, bell peppers, tomatoes, blueberries, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and spinach—but there are many, many more foods loaded with antioxidants.
Some research indicates that antioxidants help reduce the inflammation, pain, and swelling associated autoimmune conditions. One study found that RA patients who took antioxidant supplements reported a decrease in the number of swollen and painful joints and an increase in general health.20 Research is ongoing to evaluate the relationship between antioxidants and RA—but it can never hurt to eat a diet rich in antioxidants for overall health.
Gluten-Free, Vegan Diet: Some research has indicated that a gluten-free, vegan diet has anti-inflammatory effects and may be beneficial.21 A vegan diet is rich in fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes—all of which are high in phytonutrients, which are chemicals that contain disease-fighting properties and immune-boosting antioxidants. A plant-based diet is also high in bioflavonoids, which are plant compounds that have anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor activities.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, malts, and triticale. Some people, including those with Celiac disease, are allergic to gluten, whereas many others are simply sensitive or intolerant to it. Gluten can trigger an autoimmune response in these people. Thus far, there is no data supporting a link between gluten and RA, AS or PsA; however, some people find benefit in excluding gluten from their diet.
Diet Dos and Don’ts
Again, there is no special diet that, but a healthy diet goes a long way to maintaining optimal health. Based on the current available data, individuals might benefit from the following dietary guidelines:
- Balanced Diet: Eat a balanced, immune-supportive diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, antioxidants, and essential fatty acids and low in saturated fats and processed and refined foods.
- Nutrients: Work with your doctor to monitor and address any nutritional deficiencies you may have as a result of the disease or the medications used to treat it.
- Choose Healthy Fats: Pay close attention to fat consumption and choose healthy omega-3 fatty acids over saturated fat or omega-6 fatty acids.
- Supplements: Consider supplementing with antioxidants, fish oil, and other nutrients. Work with your doctor to determine the appropriate type and dose of supplements.
- Anti-inflammatory Foods: Add anti-inflammatory foods to your diet. It can’t hurt and it might help.
- Limit Alcohol Consumption: Use caution with alcohol consumption. Speak with your physician regarding alcohol-medication interactions. If you are taking methotextrate, avoid alcohol entirely.
- Maintain Healthy Weight: Maintain a healthy weight to reduce the severity of your RA symptoms.
- Keep a Food Journal: Maintaining a food journal will help you identify and avoid any problem foods.
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