Autoimmune Diseases: A Holistic Perspective (Part 3)

3. Remedies for Autoimmune Diseases

Doctors generally tell their patients that autoimmune diseases cannot be cured; the best thing the patient can do is spend the rest of their lives taking medications to reduce their symptoms. Conventional treatments include: immunosuppressive drugs, which partially prevent the immune system from reacting to the buildup of indigestible food, but also can prevent it from reacting to infections, and can interfere with other medicines and weaken the liver and kidneys; and steroids, which reduce the inflammation caused by the immune system, but cause problems such as weight gain, osteoporosis, adrenal exhaustion and hyperglycemia. There are also some non–steroidal synthetic anti–inflammatories which can cause rectal bleeding, nausea and diarrhea. Finally, there are remedies specific to individual autoimmune concerns—such as insulin shots for type 1 diabetes, and thyroid tablets for hypothyroidism.

Doctors are correct in saying an autoimmune disease cannot be cured, insofar as an autoimmune disease is not really a disease at all, but a reaction to foreign substances in the body. Anyone with such a disorder will be always be more sensitive than the rest of us to foods that are hard to digest. Since such foods don’t even taste as good as their more natural counterparts, this is not such a terrible fate. However, the symptoms of autoimmune diseases are often terribly debilitating, since the part of the body that is attacked by the immune system, whether it is the pancreas, the intestines, the nervous system, or any other, can be severely damaged. The recommendations below are for reducing the autoimmune response and for healing the part of the body that is attacked by the immune system.

Generally speaking, anyone with an autoimmune disease should try to avoid the above–mentioned hard–to–digest foods, the ones which cause the autoimmune response—we could call them the “inflammatory” foods. This means replacing pasteurized milk with raw whole milk, commercial white bread with all–natural whole wheat bread (sourdough if possible), margarine with real butter, and conventional foods with organic. Many of these healthier foods are either hard to come by or they cost more than their counterparts. However, they make such a noticeable difference in health that it is always worth the extra cost and effort expended.

The most important foods to add into one’s diet are raw, fermented foods. These foods contain the beneficial bacteria and digestive enzymes that are needed to clean up the digestive system and start breaking down the compounds that are causing the inflammatory response. These foods include pure bacteria (probiotics, taken in tablet form), raw sauerkraut, yogurt, raw cheese, raw milk, Asian fermented foods such as tempeh, miso, tamari soy sauce, and umeboshi paste, raw and organic vinegar, and a Korean pickled vegetable condiment called kimchi. Eating some of these foods on a daily basis will start bringing your body back to a state of health.

A second important group of foods to add are leafy green vegetables, which are the highest in nutrients of all green vegetables and are also very high in fiber. These vegetables will provide the digestive system with much needed nutrition for processing food, and the fiber in them will make for easier bowel movements.

The third important group of foods for everyone to add are anti–inflammatory foods. While they won’t necessarily clean up the digestive system, they provide a natural way to reduce pain and inflammation while you’re in the process of healing. They include fish, cod liver oil, grass–fed meat and eggs, flax seeds, walnuts, and other foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids; and herbs and spices such as cayenne pepper, Echinacea, ginger, goldenseal, and turmeric. In what follows, you’ll read about ways to address each individual major autoimmune disease.

Spleen/Pancreas disorders—Diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is where the immune system inflames the pancreas, killing off the cells that produce insulin. The resulting symptom is hyperglycemia (high blood sugar), which can lead to death if not treated. Conventional treatment consists of insulin shots and careful blood sugar monitoring; no attempt is made to help the pancreas retain its function. In addition to the above recommendations, eliminate refined carbohydrates such as sugar and white flour, as these require more insulin to process, and replace them with sweet, complex carbohydrates that contain the minerals necessary to regulate blood sugar. These include natural sweeteners, whole grains (especially oats and sweet brown rice), carrots, squash, parsnips, pumpkin, turnips, radishes, sweet potatoes, chickpeas and black beans. Pungent vegetables and spices such as onions, leeks, black pepper, ginger, garlic and nutmeg stimulate the pancreas to heal, and cinnamon triples insulin efficiency. Sour fruits such as grapefruit and lemons in particular reduce blood sugar levels. Whole grains have the minerals that regulate blood sugar levels (chromium, zinc, silicon, manganese). Were it easier to find, I would also recommend organic, grass–fed beef or pork pancreas—one of the best ways to heal an organ is to eat that same organ from another animal.

Stomach–intestines disorders—Crohn’s, Celiac, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Ulcerative Colitis. Autoimmune inflammation is most common in the digestive system because that is where undigested food typically accumulates. Surgery is sometimes needed because the inflammatory response happens without warning and can be severe enough to destroy parts of the intestine. In addition to following the recommendations above, and avoiding the inflammatory foods, adopt a diet of very soft cooked, watery foods and soups such as chicken soup, miso soup, soft cooked whole grain porridge, cooked carbohydrate vegetables like carrots, squash, cabbage and other complex carbohydrates listed above for diabetes. Organic yogurt mixed with honey and bananas is a good sweet food. In cases of celiac, since the immune system may now be conditioned to still react negatively to sprouted and fermented wheat, choose non–glutinous grains such as rice, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, amaranth, and oats.

Tendon and nervous system disorders: Rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. Both of these disorders are the result of what in Chinese traditional medicine is called Liver wind, and probably an autoimmune reaction due to toxins in the liver. The “wind” concept refers to the loss of mobility that is a consequence of the immune reaction—which in the one case attacks the joints and tendons, in the other the myelin sheath that covers the cells of the nervous systems. In each case the body has a chance to heal, but the autoimmune reaction must be stopped and therefore the inciting substance eliminated. This is especially true in the case of MS, where there is a natural repair process for the nervous system called remyelination; if the inflammation ceases the healing can begin. Follow the general recommendations above, but also eat foods to cleanse the liver, including organic animal liver, sour foods such as lemons, limes, grapefruits, vinegar and pickles, berries, celery, basil, sage, ginger, oats and radishes. Try to avoid alcohol, refined sugar, and coffee, as these foods create mineral deficiencies that worsen arthritis; to re–mineralize, emphasize green vegetables, sea vegetables, miso soup, and cold–water fish such as sardines and salmon. At night, drink a glass of the Master Cleanser.

Thyroid disorders: Hypothyroidism. This is a disorder where the immune system inflames the thyroid gland such that the thyroid cannot produce sufficient thyroid hormones. Common symptoms include fatigue, weight gain, headaches, anemia, acne, psoriasis, and menstrual disorders. The multiple concerns that arise are a consequence of the many functions that thyroid hormones fulfill, but particularly blood flow and oxygen utilization. Conventional treatment is to introduce thyroid tablets to the body. In addition to reducing processed foods, introduce sea vegetables to your diet, as they contain high amounts of iodine, which improves thyroid function, as part of a balance of other minerals. Garlic, radishes, eggs, whole grains, mushrooms and sprouted seeds and beans are all said to help.

To sum up, there are three strategies for healing your autoimmune disease: first, eliminate the provocative food—typically an unnaturally processed food or an artificial ingredient. Second, add foods that aid digestion. These are foods high in beneficial bacteria, digestive enzymes, fiber, vitamins and minerals—they will help your body break down the compounds that are causing problems and flush them out. Finally, add foods that heal the inflamed part of the body. Whether it’s the thyroid, the nervous system, the pancreas, etc., each area of the body that is inflamed needs to be healed. Specific foods help heal each of these parts of the body, so include them in your diet as often as you can, and you will reap the benefits of this mild, but effective medicine.

Based on my research in this area, and on my experience in working with clients suffering from Crohn’s, Type 1 diabetes, and irritable bowel syndrome, I have seen that someone with an autoimmune disease can, by changing their diet, greatly reduce their symptoms, decrease their medication, and experience overall positive changes in energy, mood and fitness, not to mention the freedom that comes from having your health back. If you know someone who suffers from one of the above concerns, pass this article on to them or put them in touch with me. We all have the chance to feel great, rather than sick, on our food; all that’s necessary is to get the message out there.

Addendum on Stress

This article has focused on a dietary approach for healing autoimmune diseases. However, it’s important to remember that one of the most common triggers for an autoimmune flare–up is stress. The immune system is set up to protect us from harm, and stress sends a message to the immune system that we are in danger and need help. For this reason, if you have a genetic sensitivity to autoimmune disorders, then even if you eat properly, stress can still trigger or prolong autoimmune symptoms. Equally important to improving your diet is healing any emotional or spiritual wounds that you suffer from. Your inflammation will probably continue as long as the stressful situation remains unresolved. Often dealing with stress can be more of a challenge than just changing the food that you eat. However, it can also make even more of a positive difference. Aim for not just physical health, but holistic health!