Treating Autoimmune Disease Through Diet and Lifestyle Changes

Learn how to ease symptoms of autoimmune disease by adopting sustainable diet and lifestyle changes.

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by
April Benshosan
— Signos
Health Writer
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Reviewed by

April Benshosan
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Updated by

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Science-based and reviewed

Published:
June 11, 2024
March 27, 2024
— Updated:

Table of Contents

There are more than 80 known autoimmune diseases. While it's difficult to pinpoint the exact prevalence, experts believe that anywhere from 5 to 8 percent of the U.S. population lives with one or more autoimmune diseases.1

Scientists are still determining what specifically causes autoimmune diseases, but researchers hypothesize that they're triggered by genetics, infections, exposure to certain chemicals, and lifestyle factors. Although autoimmune diseases can’t necessarily be cured, certain symptoms are treatable, and you can go into "remission" by making certain changes in your daily life. 

That said, if you live with an autoimmune condition, taking medications isn't your only treatment option. Zeroing in on your lifestyle and diet and tidying up your habits can help you manage your condition and potentially ease some symptoms. 

Here's everything you need to know to help effectively manage your autoimmune condition through dietary and lifestyle adjustments.

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Autoimmune Diseases 101

Autoimmune diseases are disorders of the immune system. A healthy immune system's primary role is to protect the body against harmful invaders that can cause diseases and infections. But with an autoimmune disease, the immune system is overactive and mistakes the body's healthy cells as foreigners, and as a result, attacks organs and tissues.2

An autoimmune disease can affect any part of the body; the immune system can attack different types of cells, including the skin (psoriasis), the endocrine system (Hashimoto's and Grave's disease), the joints and muscles (lupus and rheumatoid arthritis), and the digestive tract (Chron's and celiac disease), among others.3

An autoimmune condition's symptoms depend on what part of the body it attacks, but some common symptoms across the board include fatigue, rashes, dizziness, and pain. It can be difficult to diagnose an autoimmune condition because many diseases have overlapping symptoms. To help pinpoint a specific disease, your doctor can order a blood test to look for autoantibodies and high inflammation levels.

The Role of Inflammation in Autoimmune Diseases

hands injecting a syringe to a forearm

Chronic inflammation is a common thread in all autoimmune diseases. When the immune system mistakenly recognizes healthy cells as foreign invaders, it triggers the release of inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which causes an inflammatory response. 

People with autoimmune diseases often have high levels of c-reactive protein (CRP), a protein made in the liver and released into the bloodstream in response to inflammation.

To treat autoimmune diseases, doctors often prescribe medications that cool down the immune response and decrease inflammation in the body. In addition to medications, there are other ways to help quell inflammation in the body. Your day-to-day habits have a significant impact on your body's inflammation levels, so making tweaks to your lifestyle may help you better manage your condition. 

Diet Changes to Help Manage Autoimmune Diseases

Ditch the Western Diet

The Western diet, also known as the standard American diet (SAD), is rife with ultra-processed and fast foods and is high in fat, cholesterol, animal protein, sugar, and salt. These nutrients have been shown to promote obesity, a well-established risk factor for developing autoimmune diseases because holding on to too much body fat raises inflammation levels in the body.4

Multiple bodies of research have linked obesity with a higher risk of developing autoimmune diseases, including psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis (MS). Early research suggests that eating a high-calorie diet rich in milk, animal fat, and meat is associated with an increased risk for MS. 

While there's a long way to go in terms of linking specific nutrients in food to autoimmune pathology, what we do know is that obesity is linked to a higher risk of autoimmune conditions, and a Western diet contributes to obesity. Until we know more, ditching the Western diet is a smart strategy to help reduce inflammation levels. 

Some examples of typical Western diet foods that you'll want to limit are:

  • Refined grains (white bread, pastries, and baked goods, white pasta)
  • Sugary foods and drinks (certain cereals, pastries and baked goods, candy, soda, fruit juice, sweetened tea and coffee beverages)
  • Fried foods (fast food, french fries)
  • High-sodium foods (deli meats, certain breads, canned soup, microwave meals)
  • Processed meats (deli meat, sausage, hot dogs)

Eat an Anti-inflammatory Diet

Just like a Western diet can trigger an inflammatory response, you can also eat your way to lower inflammation levels by actively adding foods rich in certain nutrients to your meal plan. For example, omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat, have a protective effect against Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Other standout superfoods that may help treat autoimmune diseases include green tea extract, fish oil, and olive oil.4

Generally, a Mediterranean diet is strongly associated with lower inflammation levels. One study showed that the Mediterranean diet helped reduce pain and stiffness in people with inflammatory arthritis.5

A Mediterranean diet shuns processed foods that are high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat and instead emphasizes whole foods, specifically: 

  • Fruits and vegetables 
  • Fatty fish (like salmon, herring, mackerel, and anchovies)
  • Plant-based fats (nuts and seeds, avocado, olive oil)
  • Legumes, whole grains, beans, and pulses 
  • Lean poultry

Consider Taking Vitamin D and Omega-3 Supplements 

You might want to look to your supplement stash to lower your risk of developing an autoimmune disease or managing your symptoms if you already live with one. 

A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial examined the effects of vitamin D and omega-3 supplementation on nearly 26,000 people with autoimmune diseases.6 The study observed that taking vitamin D for five years, with or without omega-3s, reduced autoimmune disease by 22 percent. And supplementing with omega-3s, with or without vitamin D, reduced the autoimmune disease rate by 15 percent. 

The same study also establishes that marine-derived omega-3 fatty acids can help lower systemic inflammation and relieve symptoms of some autoimmune diseases.6

If you’re adding a supplement to your routine, always check with your doctor first (it might interact with certain medications you’re on). Once you get the green light, choose a supplement that has been tested for purity and potency by a third party.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Also Related: </strong><a href=autoimmune-protocol-diet>Autoimmune Protocol Diet: A Beginner's Guide</a>.</p>

Lifestyle Changes to Help Manage Autoimmune Diseases

a class of yoga stretching their arms

Quit Drinking and Smoking

Drinking too much alcohol and smoking are bad habits anyone should quit, but steering clear of these vices is that much more important when you have an autoimmune disease. Both of these habits are linked to an increased risk of autoimmune diseases as well as more severe symptoms if you already live with an autoimmune condition.4

Exercise More (But Safely) 

Exercise is one of the best ways to age gracefully, and staying fit has been shown to help prevent long-term diseases. Indeed, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to lower inflammation in people with inflammatory conditions, even in certain autoimmune diseases where exercise was once thought to be harmful or considered a treatment, such as lupus, MS, and rheumatic disease.7

Remember to consult with your doctor before starting a fitness routine, and always start slowly to help prevent injuries or pain flare-ups. It's also a smart idea to work with a certified personal trainer with experience training people living with your specific condition. 

Manage Stress Levels and Prioritize Good Sleep

Research has linked stress with triggering autoimmune diseases as well as making symptoms worse, especially in people with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, Graves' disease, and other conditions.8

Make managing your anxiety a priority. Seek therapy, start a yoga or meditation practice, and be open-minded to trying new methods that may help you strip away stress. Psychological and cognitive behavioral therapy are considered effective tools for helping symptoms associated with autoimmune diseases.

Getting good, quality sleep, at least 7 hours per night, can help your body better manage stress by supporting your immune function and helping your body operate at its best.9

Learn More About Health and Healthy Nutrition With Signos' Expert Advice

Adopting a healthy lifestyle and consuming a nutrient-dense diet is crucial for supporting autoimmune disease symptoms and improving overall health. Following Signos' expert advice, paired with a CGM, can help you tailor these lifestyle habits to your needs.

CGMs provide 24/7 insight into blood glucose levels so you can make informed decisions about diet and lifestyle. By incorporating Signos' recommendations, you can take charge of your health journey and feel empowered about your choices. 

Find out if Signos is a good fit for you by taking a quick quiz. You can also learn more about nutrition and healthy habits by visiting Signos' blog.

<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn More: </strong><a href=start-living-a-healthy-lifestyle>How to Start Living a Healthy Lifestyle</a>.</p>

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References

About the author

April is a writer, editor, and content strategist with a Master’s degree in Publishing.

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Please note: The Signos team is committed to sharing insightful and actionable health articles that are backed by scientific research, supported by expert reviews, and vetted by experienced health editors. The Signos blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If you have or suspect you have a medical problem, promptly contact your professional healthcare provider. Read more about our editorial process and content philosophy here.

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