"Everything aches, especially my joints, and I’m often tired and mentally foggy," my 37-year-old client Jessica told me during our first consultation. She sipped from a tall coffee cup and seemed slightly unfocused. Jessica’s doctor had recently diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that leaves your joints achy, stiff, and swollen.
RA is one of over 80 autoimmune diseases, and the American Autoimmune-Related Diseases Association says about 50 million Americans suffer from one or more of these illnesses, which also include celiac disease and lupus. As a functional nutritionist who specializes in gastrointestinal (GI) problems, I’ve found symptoms of autoimmune diseases often overlap, making them hard to identify. Some clients discover they simultaneously have several autoimmune diseases, and I frequently find gut problems make them worse.
Whatever name you call them, right under the surface of all autoimmune diseases is the fact that the body is attacking itself. Let me explain: Think of your immune system as an intelligent, well-intended army that keeps out pathogens and other havoc-causing enemies. Usually, it does a fantastic job keeping out the bad guys, but one day it becomes confused and starts attacking its own territory. That’s how autoimmune diseases develop: Your immune system incorrectly thinks a "friendly" organ like your joints or brain is the enemy and wages war.
When your immune response ramps up its defenses and attacks its own tissue, chronic inflammation results, setting the groundwork for symptoms like pain, swelling, and fatigue. But rather than providing medications or looking for a quick fix like conventional medicine, functional medicine tries to understand why the body attacks itself in the first place. In other words: What's creating this inflammation? The many triggers include food sensitivities, toxins, antibiotics, a bad diet, chronic stress, and environmental pollution. I noticed Jessica also had leaky gut, which provided some clues to her trigger: Studies show RA and celiac disease (CD), an extreme autoimmune gluten intolerance, often overlap.
While testing is sometimes become necessary to identify autoimmune diseases, Jessica’s trigger revealed itself almost immediately. In her food journal, many of her meals contained things like whole-grain bread, wheat pasta, and low-fat crackers: gluten-containing foods she considered healthy but that actually created a reaction that triggered leaky gut and RA. As she and other clients learned, the best medicine is what you put on your fork. In my practice, I’ve found these five strategies can heal your gut, calm your immune system, reduce inflammation, and help you better manage autoimmune diseases.
1. Go dark.
Leafy and cruciferous vegetables come loaded with antioxidants and phytonutrients that protect your cells and DNA. Kale and other nutrient rock stars support your immune system and reduce inflammation. Jessica liked adding darker leafy greens like arugula, watercress, spinach, and dark lettuces into salads, plus she sautéed cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower and broccoli as side dishes.
2. Eliminate food sensitivities.
Studies show what I’ve seen in my own practice: Going gluten-free helps clients lose weight and lower inflammation. Along with gluten, I had Jessica do an elimination diet that removed other potential triggers like added sugar and dairy: foods that mess with your gut, increase inflammation, and stir up your immune system. We then re-challenged these foods and right away; Jessica reacted to gluten. I targeted what triggered her leaky gut and RA.
3. Dial up your healthy fats.
Studies show omega-3 fatty acids benefit many inflammatory diseases including autoimmune diseases. Wild-caught fish is your best source, but flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts also provide omega-3s. Although Jessica occasionally ate wild-caught Alaskan salmon and added freshly ground flaxseeds to her morning smoothies, I recommended a professional-quality omega-3 supplement to provide therapeutic amounts of these anti-inflammatory fatty acids.
4. Drink this nutrient-rich broth.
Bone broth has recently become popular, and for good reason. Its impressive nutrient profile includes collagen (the main component of connective tissue), anti-inflammatory and gut-healing gelatin, and L-glutamine—an amino acid that studies show can help heal your gut lining. Jessica enjoyed a cup of hot bone broth in the morning and evening. She noticed she felt less hungry between meals and her joints weren’t quite so stiff after she drank it.
5. Curry it up.
Curcumin, the active ingredient in the pungent spice turmeric, found in curries and other Middle Eastern dishes, provides powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant support. Studies show curcumin inhibits autoimmune diseases by regulating inflammatory cytokines in your immune cells. While I had her take a curcumin supplement to really get its anti-inflammatory benefits, Jessica loved pairing turmeric with black pepper to help absorb its many nutrients.