What to Eat (and Not Eat) to Reverse Autoimmune Disease
March 23rd, 2020
Conventional doctors told me–and they’ve probably told you too–that autoimmunity is a condition that you just have to live with, either by managing the symptoms with harsh medications, taking other extreme measures such as surgery or, as in the case of my Graves’ disease, having your thyroid blown up with radioactive iodine. I want you to know that there IS another way. Conventional medicine failed me, and I have made it my mission to not let it fail you too. What your doctor won’t tell you is that autoimmune disease can be prevented and reversed through diet and lifestyle.
Food, in particular, plays an enormous part in achieving optimal health by providing the essential nutrients your body and immune system need to thrive. However, it’s a double-edged sword because food is also one of our biggest sources of inflammation (the root of all chronic illness) since our modern diets are loaded with toxic and inflammatory foods. Certain foods, particularly gluten and dairy, lead to leaky gut, which is a necessary precursor to autoimmunity and leads to even more inflammation.
Fortunately, by removing toxic and inflammatory foods from your diet and adding in nourishing foods that support your health, you can reduce your inflammation and work your way back down the autoimmune spectrum.
I know because I’ve done it myself. In fact, I’ve spent years researching and experimenting with how to optimize your diet for autoimmunity, and the process led me to make some pretty dramatic changes along the way. After over 20 years as a vegetarian, I added in organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised meat, and said goodbye to the grains and legumes that had been staples of my diet for years.
It was certainly an adjustment at first. Yet after seeing the changes in my lab results and watching my symptoms fade away, I knew this was what my body needed and am fully committed to eating this way for life. Since then, I’ve also worked with thousands of patients who are now living symptom-free, vibrant lives after optimizing their diets as well.
So, if you’re just getting started or need a refresher, I’ve summarized the most important steps you can take to ditch the foods that are perpetuating your symptoms and add in the nutrient-dense foods that will support your immune system and put you on the path to lifelong, optimal health.
If you’re ready to put this proven approach to reversing autoimmunity into practice with over 150 amazingly delicious recipes specifically designed to restore your health, be sure to check out The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook!
Toss All Toxic and Inflammatory Foods
The first step in optimizing your diet is to clear your cabinets and fridge of all toxic and inflammatory foods. These are foods that contribute to inflammation and leaky gut, sending you straight up the autoimmune spectrum. When you realize how much better you feel after getting these bad-for-you foods out of your diet, I promise you’ll never want to go back to that way of eating again!
The following “foods” have no place in a healthy lifestyle, and should be avoided completely:
- Artificial sweeteners
- Additives, preservatives, and dyes
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Processed food, junk food, and fast food
- Trans or hydrogenated fats
In addition to the above toxic foods that I recommend everyone toss for good, there are certain foods that can be highly inflammatory and lead to leaky gut that you’ll want to cut out for the first 30 days on The Myers Way® to allow your gut to repair itself. You can then reintroduce (most of) these foods one at a time to determine if you personally tolerate them or if you have a sensitivity. See my article on food sensitivities for step-by-step instructions on how to follow an elimination diet. My books, The Autoimmune Solution, The Thyroid Connection, and The Autoimmune Solution Cookbook, all walk you through this process as well.
The most common inflammatory foods implicated in food intolerances are listed below:
- Gluten-free grains
- Nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and eggplant)
Gluten and Dairy
Gluten and dairy are at the top of my list of foods you should never eat, especially if you have an autoimmune disease. In addition to being highly inflammatory, gluten triggers the release of zonulin in your small intestine, which causes the tight junctures in your gut to open up, creating a leaky gut. According to the research of Dr. Alessio Fasano, leaky gut is a necessary precursor to autoimmunity, so you’ll want to ditch gluten permanently to ensure your gut is repaired.
Gluten can also lead to molecular mimicry, a phenomenon when a foreign antigen (such as gluten) is so structurally similar to your body’s own tissues that when your immune system creates antibodies to attack the invader, it mistakenly attacks your own tissues in the process.1 Gluten is structurally similar to a number of your body’s tissues, particularly the thyroid gland, which is why gluten is one of the leading causes of autoimmunity, especially autoimmune thyroid conditions.
The casein protein in dairy is also structurally similar to gluten and your thyroid tissue, making it another major culprit in molecular mimicry. Plus, it is highly inflammatory for a number of reasons. Around 70% of the world’s population stops producing lactase once they’ve finished breastfeeding.2 and cannot properly digest dairy. In addition many people experience dairy sensitivities because they do not tolerate casein or whey (two proteins found in milk). Plus, conventional dairy tends to be full of hormones and antibiotics, both of which can lead to or exacerbate autoimmune disease.
Grains and Legumes
I also recommend that eliminating grains and legumes, for at least thirty days and possibly for good. This is because grains and legumes contain two problematic groups of substances: lectins and agglutinins.
Prolamin, a type of lectin found in quinoa, corn, and oats, behaves similarly to gluten. So if you have celiac disease or any other type of autoimmune condition, prolamins can damage your gut and trigger an immune reaction. Grains and legumes also contain agglutinins, which have been shown to cause leaky gut and disrupt your immune system by stimulating the immune system and binding with immune cells.
When you’re on the autoimmune spectrum, you don’t want to stress your immune system out even more by introducing these hazardous compounds, particularly while you’re working on repairing your gut. If you find you do tolerate some gluten-free grains and legumes, you can slowly begin to reintroduce them in small quantities after the first 30 days and once your gut has repaired.
Corn and Soy
Corn and soy are problematic because 88% of corn and 93% of soy crops are genetically modified.3 GMOs have been linked to at least 22 diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis.4 Not to mention, the proteins in corn can cross-react with gluten, and soy contains isoflavones that can cause estrogen dominance.
Nightshade vegetables such as potatoes, eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers contain alkaloids that contribute to inflammation and are not well tolerated by those with autoimmunity.6
Citrus fruits are rich in histamine, which triggers your body’s natural immune response. For this reason, high-histamine foods should be avoided to prevent further inflammation and exacerbation of an existing autoimmune condition.
Foods containing yeast can cause an imbalance of your gut flora that leads to Candida overgrowth and SIBO. Both of these conditions contribute to leaky gut and set you on the path to autoimmune disease and chronic illness.
Go Organic Whenever Possible
It’s particularly crucial for people with autoimmunity to choose organic foods whenever possible because conventionally grown produce is full of toxins (including pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides) that mess with your system, contribute to inflammation, and cause symptom flare-ups.
In fact, pesticides have been directly linked to autoimmune disease. One study that looked at 300,000 death certificates over fourteen years showed that farmers who were exposed to pesticides while working with crops were more likely to die from a systemic autoimmune disease.7 And if you already have an autoimmune disease, you are three times more likely to develop a second one, which is why limiting pesticide exposure is so critical. Washing or peeling non-organic fruits and vegetables doesn’t help either, because most of the chemicals used in agriculture are systemic, meaning they are integrated into the flesh of the crop.
Organic produce is also more nutritious than conventional. A recent study showed that organic produce is richer in nutrients and antioxidants and lower in pesticides and heavy metals, which are a contributing factor to autoimmunity.8 Taming the toxins is the third pillar of The Myers Way®, and so minimizing your exposure to chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and heavy metals is essential to reversing your condition.
The good news is, with the rising demand for organic produce, it’s much easier these days to find affordable, readily available organic food in most stores and online. If you aren’t able to buy all organic, you can prioritize which produce items to always buy organic and which you can get away with buying conventional by following the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” lists.
Enjoy Nutrient-Rich Foods that Support Your Immune System
Now that you’ve gotten rid of the toxic and inflammatory foods that contribute to autoimmunity, you can focus on eating the nourishing, high-quality foods that will support your immune system and help reverse your symptoms. You will feel empowered knowing that the food you eat is going to make you feel so much better, and you will begin to see your migraines, fatigue, digestive issues, skin rashes, mood imbalances, and more disappear. You’ll feel energized, focused, and clear, your skin will glow, and in time many people find that they’re able to reduce or even eliminate their medications altogether! Most of all, you will discover that having an autoimmune disorder doesn’t need to stop you from living the life you want and that you deserve.
Eating plenty of high-quality protein will provide you with the amino acids you need to support your immune system, among other benefits. It’s particularly important to prioritize organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, and wild-caught meat, since animals are at the top of the food chain and the effects from GMO-feed and pesticides become magnified when we eat them. Not to mention, conventionally raised livestock typically have tons of added hormones and antibiotics, which put you at increased risk of numerous chronic illnesses.
My favorite sources of protein are organic, pasture-raised chicken and wild-caught salmon. I’ll also eat 100% grass-fed beef a few times a week. In addition to these, you can enjoy grass-fed lamb and pork, pasture-raised duck and turkey, wild-caught fish (such as cod or halibut), and wild game. We buy our grass-fed, pasture-raised meats from Butcher Box and our seafood from Vital Choice.
A good general rule of thumb is to aim for half of your plate to be vegetables at any meal. And you’ll particularly want to add in lots of leafy greens, including kale, spinach, arugula, and bok choy, because they are loaded with micronutrients, are naturally detoxifying, and are an excellent source of fiber to keep your gut functioning optimally.
Beyond that, there is an abundance of other vegetables you can add to your diet. Your goal should be to eat a rainbow of foods!
Some of my favorite veggie staples are broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, asparagus, beets, sweet potatoes, and squash. Try experimenting with different vegetables to see what appeals to your taste, and don’t be afraid to try something new!
Fruits contain many essential nutrients including Vitamin C, potassium, and folate. Vitamin C in particular is necessary for the growth and repair of all your body’s tissues. Whole fruits are also an excellent source of fiber, which prevents constipation and supports the friendly bacteria in your gut that are so crucial to immune functioning.9
Berries are one of my favorite fruits because they’re low in sugar and packed with antioxidants. I throw a handful of raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, and strawberries into my smoothie almost every morning.
Despite what the (misguided) low-fat craze of the past few decades led us to believe, healthy fats are a key component of a balanced diet. They help repair the cells of your gut wall and assist in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, K, and E. Not to mention, fats taste great and keep you feeling full and satisfied!
Avoid bad fats including trans fats and industrial seed oils (such as canola, soy, and corn), and instead focus on good fats (avocado, coconut and olive oils, and animal fats). Avocados are one of my favorite sources of healthy fat, and I often bring one with me when I’m traveling for an easy, filling snack!
Remember, you have the power to choose how you nourish your body and these choices can have an incredible impact on your health!