5 Nutrients I Recommend For People Struggling With Autoimmune Diseases
According to The American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association there are now two times more Americans living with autoimmune diseases than heart disease. And yet despite billions of dollars spent on care every year, people are struggling with autoimmune problems more than ever before.
The good news is that there is a lot you can do today to take action for your health. Research suggests that genetics account for only about one-third1 of autoimmune disease factors. Environmental triggers, diet and lifestyle may also be responsible.
Hippocrates, said "Let food be thy medicine, and medicine thy food." The foods we eat instruct and build our biochemistry. With that in mind, these are the top nutrients and corresponding food medicines that I recommend for people struggling with autoimmune conditions.
1. Vitamin A
Vitamin A is essential for equipping you with a strong immune system. And vitamin A deficiency has also been linked to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes.
Why? Researchers seem to think it has to do with our dendritic cells. These alarms of the immune system can send out a "red alert" to stimulate immunity, or a "calm down" message that tones down excessive immunity that can damage the body. The "calm down" message makes use of vitamin A.
True vitamin A, what's called retinol, is only found in animal products like fish, shellfish, fermented cod liver oil, liver and butterfat from grass-fed cows.
Plant carotenes, a precursor to vitamin A, are found in sweet potatoes and carrots but the conversion rate to the usable retinol is very weak. In fact, research suggests that just 3% of beta-carotene gets converted in a healthy adult.
2. Vitamin D
Known as the "sunshine vitamin," this nutrient is essential for many metabolic and immunological pathways in the body.
For example, Th17 cells are helper T cells that produce a number of inflammatory chemicals, such as interleukin-17. With autoimmune conditions — such as inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis — Th17 cells are out of control.
But Vitamin D, in conjunction with Vitamin A, has been shown to synergistically dampen the Th17 inflammatory response.
As with vitamin A, vitamin D is most abundant in animal and dairy fats. But soaking up some time in the sun can also help — about 20 to 60 minutes a day, depending on your complexion. And consider getting tests done every few months to ensure your vitamin D levels are healthy.
3. Vitamin K2
One study in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that vitamin K2 was effective at inhibiting the pro-inflammatory iNOS in the spinal cord and the brain immune system in rats that had multiple sclerosis symptoms.
Unfortunately, K2 is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the western diet. Vitamin K2 is best paired with the other fat-soluble vitamins, A and D, in whole food form like grass-fed butter oil (ghee), or organ meat. Natto, a Japanese superfood made from non-GMO fermented soybeans, also has high levels of K2.
Iron deficiency anemia (IDA) is linked to many autoimmune diseases. One reason is because a large amount of stored iron, ferritin, is absorbed in the intestines. And in functional medicine, damage of the gut lining and leaky gut syndrome are considered preconditions for autoimmunity.
It's critical to first deal with the underlying problem that's causing the iron deficiency. Healing of the microbiome is essential for healthy nutrient absorption, especially iron. Once the gut is healed, iron-rich foods like grass-fed beef, liver and spinach can be effective, as well as cooking with cast iron cookware.
Micronutrient deficiencies—such as selenium, magnesium and zinc—are associated with several autoimmune diseases. That's mainly due to chronic inflammation, which decreases the absorption of these vital nutrients.
These micronutrients are needed for the healthy production and conversion of the thyroid hormone — and thyroid problems such as Hashimoto's disease are some of the most common autoimmune conditions. A variety of nuts and seeds like Brazil nuts, as well as oysters, are good sources of these nutrients.
When it comes to managing autoimmune diseases, you should always consult your doctor, but checking in on these nutrients may help.
Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, D.C., is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is the host of the popular The Art Of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian,The Inflammation Spectrum, and the brand new book Gut Feelings: Healing the Shame-Fueled Relationship Between What You Eat and How You Feel.