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  • Patricia Pearce, ND

The Autoimmune Disease Series Part 3: The Importance of Proper Diet in Autoimmunity

There are two predominant disposing factors to whether or not an individual becomes autoimmune to his or her own tissues: genetic predisposition and lifestyle. “Genetic predisposition” is a set of factors that a person is born with, for example, one can be genetically predisposed to breast cancer. “Lifestyle” is a broad, all-encompassing manner of referring to the daily habits that influence the environment our cells live in. These habits, to a certain degree, include everything we do on a day-to-day basis. No matter how small, these daily decisions have either beneficial or detrimental consequences to our cellular environment.

According to the principles of Naturopathic medicine, arguably the most important of these influencing factors is diet. Why? Every single nutrient or "anti-nutrient" (like alcohol and tobacco, anti-nutrients have a net negative effect on the body) that we take into our bodies has a downstream effect on our physiology. Components of the food we eat get incorporated into our body’s infrastructure, sent through metabolic pathways that produce energy,become chemical messengers that our bodies use to communicate, and much more. Everything we eat eventually has a positive or negative balance on our ability to function as healthy, thriving organisms. Think of your body as a city, and your billions and billions of cells as tiny citizens. The environment your cellular citizens live in is dependent entirely on the building blocks and tools they receive from you. Give them an anti-inflammatory, nutrient packed diet and they will thrive. Feed them a diet full of processed junk and anti-nutrients like alcohol and tobacco and they will suffer-and maybe even rebel! (1)

Autoimmunity is one of many disease processes that result from genetic predisposition and poor cellular environment. Confused, hyper-vigilant immune cells lose tolerance to “self” and begin attacking organs and tissues when they live in a pro-inflammatory environment that is constantly sending them messages to “Attack, attack, attack!” (2) The "standard American," pro-inflammatory diet influences autoimmunity in many different ways, but three of which have a disproportionately large contribution and are worth remembering:

Inflammatory cytokine signaling

As discussed in the previous article, immature immune cells residing in the gut are instructed to become pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory based on the messages they receive from their environment, in the form of cytokines. An inflammatory diet will increase the production of inflammatory messengers, causing these “baby” immune cells to become hyper-vigilant, Th17 "attack" cells


A healthy microbiome with the correct proportion of beneficial species is essential to creating an anti-inflammatory environment in the gut. (3) Symbiotic bacteria in the gut create beneficial compounds like butyrate which are used to signal to the immune system that “all is well.” (4)


Also known as “molecular mimicry,” cross-reactivity is a phenomenon that involves immune cells mistakenly attacking “self” because they confuse normal cells for infectious agents. (5) Basically, self cells have a similar appearance to other, foreign molecules, and the body mounts an immune response against them, "just to be safe." Entities that exhibit this pattern of molecular mimicry include viruses and bacteria, and proteins from food, like gliadin, a component of gluten. (6)

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