Understanding the impact of nutrition on autoimmunity: Reducing chronic inflammation, expert tips and recommendations

Smoothie bowl. Picture by visual stories/Pexels

Smoothie bowl. Picture by visual stories/Pexels

Published May 30, 2023


We’re always on the lookout for a ‘miracle’ cure, especially for 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 does play a critical role in the wide range of autoimmune diseases, no one nutrient, food or diet can prevent or cure these debilitating health issues.

To make the most of the power of nutrition to improve the quality of life for people with autoimmune conditions, it’s important to know the evidence-based facts.

Registered dietician Nicqui Duffield-Grant, specialist in autoimmunity and a spokesperson for ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa), explains: “When it comes to any disease state, nutrition should be the first port of call. As Hippocrates once said, ‘Let food be your medicine’.

She adds: “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 the modulation of your immune response. Dysregulation in this modulation contributes to the development of autoimmune diseases.”

What causes autoimmune diseases?

The exact cause of autoimmune diseases is not fully understood. However, research suggests a combination of genetic, environmental and immunological factors. According to Duffield-Grant, diseases occur when immune cells attack healthy cells instead of attacking bacteria or viruses.

“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 the overall quality of life.”

What are the links between inflammation, nutrition and autoimmunity?

According to her, chronic inflammation is a common underlying factor for autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, our modern diet is high in pro-inflammatory foods such as refined sugars, processed foods, additives, and high levels of omega-6 fats.

To counteract inflammation, the consumption of anti-inflammatory nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and flaxseeds is essential.

Phytochemicals present in fruits and vegetables can also help combat oxidative damage induced by poor diet and the environment, and protect against tissue damage.

Furthermore, vitamin D obtained through sunlight, fortified foods, or supplements plays a critical role in immune function and may help mitigate responses that trigger the development of an autoimmune condition

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.

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. Picture supplied

Duffield-Grant adds: “Try to eat less sugar and more oily fish such as salmon, pilchards, tuna and mackerel as well as 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?

Duffield-Grant points out that another important consideration for people living with autoimmune diseases is the state of health of their gut microbiome. A balanced microflora community may prevent the onset of autoimmunity or worsen the disease, whereas a healthy gut microbiome can aid in the relief of autoimmune disorders.

“Nutrition plays a vital role in establishing and maintaining a good microbiome,” she said.

A diet rich in fibre, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can promote the growth of beneficial bacteria and enhance gut barrier function.

Additionally, 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, onion, 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…

Duffield-Grant further highlights that autoimmune diseases often involve complex dietary considerations.

Different autoimmune conditions may have unique triggers or food sensitivities that vary from person to person.

As a result, some people could feel overwhelmed by the need to make daily dietary modifications and require support, such as a dietician who will provide you with personalised guidance tailored to your specific needs, preferences and lifestyle.

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