Autoimmune disease affects more than 23.5 million Americans and is a serious condition in which the body's own immune system attacks healthy cells within the body, believing that they are foreign substances. This condition can affect one or more parts of the body and is the leading cause of death in women 65 years or younger. It's common for those with an autoimmune disease to have multiple autoimmune conditions at the same time. Many factors play a role in the complexity of this disease. Although genetic factors account for a small percentage of disease risk; diet, environmental and lifestyle choices have the greatest influence on its development, severity and progression. Dustin Rudolph, PharmD. emphasizes this point in his book The Empty Medicine Cabinet, by stating: "What you eat or don't eat plays a huge role [in autoimmune conditions]. Adopting a whole-food, plant-based lifestyle can dramatically reduce the pain and suffering experienced by those with one of these diseases." Rudolph, along with other renowned plant-based diet experts, feels a deep responsibility to educate the public on how food choices activate the immune system to attack its own tissues.
There are more than 80 autoimmune conditions, the following list are the most common.
Common Autoimmune Conditions
- Ankylosing spondylitis
- Celiac disease
- Crohn's disease
- Diabetes (Type-1)
- Hypothyroidism (Hashimoto's thyroiditis)
- Inflammatory arthritis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Myasthenia gravis
- Nonspecific arthritis
- Pernicious anemia
- Psoriatic arthritis
- Relapsing polychondritis and (Sabrina Nelson from VegSource success story)
- Rheumatoid arthritis (success stories) and What it is and How to Treat it
- Ulcerative colitis
Why Does the Immune System Attack the Body?
Autoimmune conditions develop as a result from a damaged intestinal wall which becomes "leaky." As a consequence, foreign proteins, such as meat and dairy products, (which should have stayed inside of the intestines) pass through the "leaky" intestinal wall into the blood stream. The immune system responds to the foreign proteins by making antibodies towards them, just like it protects the body from invading viruses and bacteria. However, through a process called molecular mimicry, antibodies also attack proteins in the body that are similar in structure, which could be the nerves, organs, skin, joints, or other tissues. Keeping this in mind, let's examine how our food choices influence the development of autoimmune. The process is explained in detail below.
Step #1 - The Intestinal Wall Becomes Damaged and "Leaky"
"Leaky gut" is a term used to describe a condition called Increased Intestinal Permeability. The lining of the intestinal wall performs several important functions. For example, it forms a protective barrier which separates the contents within the intestines from the inside of the body. This barrier consists of only a single layer of discriminating cells called goblet cells. This single layer of goblet cells has the enormous job of determining which proteins and nutrients to allow into the bloodstream while at the same defend the body against harmful food proteins, parasites, viruses and bacteria. These cells cover the finger-like projections (villi) that protrude from the wall of the intestines. They also secrete mucus where trillions of bacteria live. This mucus absorbs and breaks down large food particles into small ones, enabling them to pass through the protective barrier so they can enter the blood. A healthy intestinal lining allows only small food molecules to pass through the barrier into the bloodstream while keeping larger ones out. However a damaged and inflamed barrier increases the intestinal permeability, allowing larger particles to pass through into the bloodstream that shouldn't. The integrity of the intestinal barrier becomes compromised (leaky) when the surface of the goblet cells are damaged, creating gaps between the tight junctions between the cells, thus allowing foreign food particles (meat and dairy) to cross through the protective barrier. Dr. Michael Klaper demonstrates this process in a clip from his video From Operating Table to Dining Room Table.
How Does the Intestinal Lining Become Damaged and Leaky?
- Infections, viruses and toxins - "Infections and toxins can cause gaps in this barrier and allow large molecules to pass into the blood."
- Dairy and animal products - "Dairy and other animal products causes inflammation of the intestinal surfaces and thereby increases the passage of dietary and/or bacterial antigens."
- Dietary fat and cholesterol - "Dietary fat has a toxic effect on the intestine of experimental animals, causing injury that increases the permeability of the gut allowing more antigens to enter the body. Feeding high cholesterol diets to young animals also increases their leaky gut.”
- Vegetable oils - "Vegetable oils, including those of the omega-3 and omega-6 variety, are particularly strong suppressors of the immune system...and are known to damage intestinal integrity. Suppression of the immune system prevents it from doing its work of removing invading foreign proteins."
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs - "All commonly used nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like Advil, Motrin, Naprosyn, etc.), are associated with increased intestinal permeability. While reversible in the short term, it may take months to improve the barrier following prolonged use."
- An overgrowth of harmful pathogenic intestinal bacteria and yeast.
- The above information was taken from Dr. John McDougall's video Inflammatory Arthritis and his article Diet: Only Hope for Arthritis.
Unhealthy Intestinal Bacteria Exacerbate Autoimmune Conditions
Because harmful pathogenic intestinal bacteria and yeast can also injure the intestinal lining, maintaining the healthy microbial flora (intestinal bacteria) is critical in preventing an overgrowth of bad bacteria. However, as Dr. Michael Klaper explains in his video, "Modern life is an assault on our friendly intestinal bacteria." In conjunction with the typical American diet, which fuels the growth of harmful pathogenic bacteria, he mentions several other factors which damage the beneficial bacteria in this short video clip.
- Chlorinated drinking water
- Soft drinks with phosphoric acid
- Coffee, tea
- Foods with herbicides
Step #2 - Foreign Proteins From Animal Products Enter the Blood Stream
When animal products are eaten, they can pass through the leaky junctions of the intestinal barrier and enter the blood stream. Because animal products should not be in the blood stream, the immune system identifies them as foreign substances, just like it does when it encounters viruses, parasites and bacteria. As a result, antibodies are formed in an attempt toProteins from animal-derived foods are the most likely ones to cause this reaction because they are similar to our own tissues. (We are animals. Plant proteins are so different from us they are rarely involved in this type of reaction)."launch an attack on the invading animal proteins. However, the antibodies produced are not exclusively specific to the foreign animal protein molecule. Because the structure of animal proteins and human proteins are similar in nature, the amino acid sequence in meat and dairy products is very close to the amino acid sequence in the human body. For this reason, antibodies interact and attack and destroy cells within the body that share similar amino acid sequences to the foreign animal protein molecule...resulting in the body attacking its own tissues. This process is known as molecular mimicry. Dr. McDougall explains that "
If you'd like to watch Doctors Michael Klaper and John McDougall demonstrate the above process, click on the following short video clips:
Diet Vs Drugs for Autoimmune
Although numerous studies published in medical journals over the last 20 years have provided ample evidence supporting the effectiveness of high vegetable diets for autoimmune illnesses, Dr. Joel Fuhrman states that "they have been largely ignored by the medical profession and most doctors still deny the effectiveness of nutrition on autoimmune and inflammatory conditions." This is largely due to the lack of nutritional training doctors receive in medical school. As a result, the treatment offered involves using powerful drugs that suppress the immune system. Benefits from these drugs are temporary and are primarily limited to relieving symptoms of the disease. Additionally, drug therapy has "not currently shown any long-term measure of success" in treating these conditions. These powerful drugs (chemotherapy agents) come with serious side effects and unbearable financial costs. Side effects can include an increased risk of lymphoma, leukopenia, cancer, liver disease, heart failure, fatal viral and bacterial infections and even death. In fact, according to Dr. Fuhrman, "A recent study in the British Journal of Rheumatology showed the major drugs to treat rheumatoid arthritis, such as azathioprine, cyclophosphamide, chlorambucil, and methotrexate, increase the likelihood that the person will die of cancer." For more information, see Drugs for Autoimmune Disease and Rheumatoid Arthritis - What Is It & How To Treat It.
Whole Plant Food Diet Heals Leaky Gut and Supports Healthy Intestinal Bacteria
Using an aggressive nutritional approach however, is an effective and safe treatment for autoimmune conditions, without the side effects from potentially dangerous drugs and should be used as the first line of therapy. Because whole natural plant foods change the intestinal microbial flora and heal the "leaky" tight junctions between the cells (as discussed above) autoimmune conditions respond favorably. The greatest benefits can be achieved when intervening early when the disease hasn't progressed significantly. Patients who have advanced conditions have had more time for the disease to cause damage to the joints, etc. It's common for the small group of doctors that use plant-based nutrition in their medical practice to see a dramatic reduction in the severity of their patient's disease. Doctors John McDougall and Joel Fuhrman for instance have been successfully treating many patients with autoimmune disorders. The majority are able to discontinue some or all of their medications and many have experienced complete cessation of their illness. Medically supervised water-only fasting is also known to decrease intestinal permeability, thus making the gut “less leaky.” For more information see: Fasting and Eating for Health. It's important to note however, that the benefits received by using a nutritional approach are directly proportional to the changes that are made. Making only small changes, while continuing to eat injurious foods will not offer any significant protection/reversal. Symptoms will also quickly return (many times overnight) when patients deviate from their plant-based diet and eat a meal which includes meat and dairy.
(1) Susie Crohn's Disease in Remission for Three Years - Linda Carney MD
(4) Dr. Joel Fuhrman