How The Paleo Diet can help with Autoimmune Diseases | The Paleo Diet®
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Autoimmune Disease

An autoimmune disease is a condition in which the immune system attacks the host’s body. Each of the more than 80 diseases are differentiated by the tissue(s) or organ(s) that the immune system attacks, such as beta cells in the pancreas in diabetes and connective tissue in rheumatoid arthritis.

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The Mechanism:

For every autoimmune condition there is an “antigen”—a marker on the target tissue that allows the immune system to identify it—and an environmental trigger. The environmental trigger has only been identified in three conditions. In celiac disease, it’s gliadin from wheat. What’s more, celiac disease has been linked to other autoimmune conditions including Crohn’s disease and type I diabetes (T1D).

The mechanism by which the immune system starts to attack its own body is extraordinarily complex. At its heart there is a loss of oral tolerance, which is a fancy term for the immune system’s ability to tolerate self and food. Typically, special immune cells called T regulatory cells (Treg) identify anything that is self and tell the immune system not to attack.

There is an important balance between Treg cells and a highly inflammatory cell called TH17 cells. It is believed that TH17 were designed to destroy bacterial invaders from the gut which can often mimic self. So, there is a value in Treg cells temporarily turning off oral tolerance to allow the invasion to be addressed. In fact, one theory is that Treg can mutate into TH17 cells. In either case, the elevation in TH17 cells causes short-term inflammation and damage to our own bodies.

However, a chronic imbalance between Treg and TH17 cells can lead to an inflammatory dysregulation that promotes autoimmune conditions. So, it’s no surprise that inappropriate chronically high TH17 concentrations have been found to precede every autoimmune disease.

Diet and Autoimmune Disease
The typical Western diet is known to be inflammatory; studies find it promotes a chronic imbalance between Treg and TH17 cells.

Grains are particularly good at promoting this imbalance. That’s because most grains contain anti-nutrients called lectins. Lectins are a protein molecule that can break down the gut barrier, allowing bacteria to enter the system from the gut, which starts a reaction from TH17. Some lectins, such as gliadin and WGA in wheat, can help promote this immune response once they enter themselves.

Grains are not the only foods that contain lectins or lectin-like molecules. Others include nightshades, legumes such as peanuts, and egg whites. Another dietary culprit is salt, which is known to promote general inflammation and a TH17 imbalance.

People suffering from an autoimmune condition should try an elimination diet where they completely eliminate grains, the foods listed above, and dairy. Then, over time, reintroduce foods one-at-a-time to see which trigger the condition. These changes are in line with The Paleo Diet® and have been successful in helping people with autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis.

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Dr. Mark J. Smith

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Dr. Loren Cordain

As a professor at Colorado State University, Dr. Loren Cordain developed The Paleo Diet® through decades of research and collaboration with fellow scientists around the world.