The value of nutrition is underscored again owing to its healing potential in autoimmune diseases

The pivotal role of nutrition has emerged once again in the relentless pursuit of a cure for autoimmune diseases. Guided by a registered dietitian, you can embark on a personalised journey towards optimal wellness. Nicqui Duffield-Grant, an esteemed spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa, underscores that food holds vital information for our genes. Optimal nutrition becomes a cornerstone for immune function, as nutrient-gene interactions shape our body’s response. Imbalances in this delicate interplay between nutrition and the gut contribute to autoimmune disorders. Watch the BizNews interview with Dr William Davis embedded in this article in which the New York Times bestselling author and gut health expert delved into the ways in which gut microbes affect human health. The article continues to explain that by making empowering dietary choices that reduce inflammation and limit pro-inflammatory foods, we can find respite from symptoms. However, our modern diet often amplifies inflammation, necessitating weight management, insulin control, and exercise. Embrace the expertise of a dietitian to unlock the transformative power of nutrition and address the root causes of health ailments.

UNDERSTANDING THE IMPACT OF NUTRITION ON AUTOIMMUNITY

We’re always on the lookout for a ‘miracle’ cure, especially those living with chronic conditions such as autoimmune diseases. Too often hope, driven by desperation, gets invested in the latest, greatest ‘superfood’, fad diet or nutritional supplement. While it is true that nutrition plays a critical role in the wide range of autoimmune diseases, there is no one nutrient, food or diet that can prevent or cure these debilitating health issues.

It’s important to know the evidence-based facts to make the most of the power of nutrition to improve the quality of life for people with autoimmune conditions. Nicqui Duffield-Grant, who is a Registered Dietitian with a special interest in autoimmunity and a spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa), says, “As Hippocrates is famous for saying ‘let food be your medicine’, nutrition should be the first port of call when it comes to all disease states. Food is not merely energy or kilojoules; it is information for our genes to upregulate or downregulate their responses to our environment. Quality nutrition is important for immune function, and certain nutrient-gene interactions are responsible for modulating your immune response. Dysregulation in this modulation contributes to the development of autoimmune diseases.”

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Autoimmune diseases happen when our immune system, the body’s defence against invaders such as bacteria and viruses, mistakenly attacks healthy cells. This can lead to a wide range of chronic conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and Crohn’s disease. Proper nutrition helps in managing symptoms and improving overall quality of life.

What are the links between inflammation, nutrition and autoimmunity?

Nicqui says, “A chronic inflammatory state is commonly an underlying trigger for the development of an autoimmune condition and is also a hallmark of many autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, the modern diet is laden with refined sugars, processed foods, additives, and omega-6-rich fats, which are all pro-inflammatory. Obesity is also well known to be a pro-inflammatory condition. Therefore, weight management, insulin control and exercise are important for managing inflammation. Certain nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids in fish and flaxseeds, have anti-inflammatory properties. Phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables combat oxidative damage caused by a poor diet and our environment and protect against tissue damage. Vitamin D, obtained through sunlight, food fortification or supplementation, is important for immune function and may mitigate responses that may trigger the development of autoimmune conditions.”

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Making food choices that support reducing inflammation and limiting foods that exacerbate it is an important daily strategy for managing the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Nicqui adds, “Favour foods your grandma would recognise and avoid highly processed foods. Try to eat less sugar and more oily fish such as salmon, pilchards, tuna and mackerel, fruit, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Get outside in the sunshine and do a little exercise as often as possible.”

What are the links between the gut microbiome, nutrition and autoimmunity?

Another important consideration for people living with autoimmune diseases is the state of health of their gut microbiome. This is the community of bacteria and other microorganisms living in the digestive tract. A healthy gut microbiome can help to alleviate autoimmune conditions, while an imbalanced microflora community may contribute to the development of autoimmunity or worsen the disease.

Nicqui says, “Nutrition plays a vital role in establishing and maintaining a good microbiome.

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A diet rich in fibre, from fruits, vegetables and whole grains, can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and enhance gut barrier function. Fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi and sauerkraut provide probiotics that support a diverse microbial ecosystem. Prebiotics, which nourish beneficial gut bacteria, are found naturally in foods such as garlic, onions, and asparagus. Limiting processed foods, added sugars, and artificial additives helps maintain a healthy gut environment, which in turn, mitigates autoimmune symptoms and improves overall health and resilience.”

Need to make some nutritional changes? You don’t have to go it alone…

Autoimmune diseases often involve complex dietary considerations. Different autoimmune conditions may have unique triggers or food sensitivities that vary from person to person. Some people may feel challenged by the necessity of making daily nutritional changes and need support. Given how important nutrition is to optimally manage autoimmune conditions, you may want a place for a dietitian on your health team. 

Nicqui concludes, “A dietitian will provide personalised guidance tailored to your specific needs, preferences, and lifestyle. Autoimmune diseases can affect nutrient absorption and metabolism. Some medications used to manage autoimmune conditions may also impact nutrient status. A dietitian can help you navigate the complexities of the condition, assess nutritional deficiencies, design appropriate meal plans, and recommend supplements if necessary to ensure optimal nutrient intake. With the right dietary approach and professional support, you can better manage your symptoms, enhance your overall health and live a more fulfilling life despite your autoimmune condition.”