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The Impact of Diet and Air Quality on Autoimmune Disorders


Autoimmune disorders, with their crippling constellation of symptoms, can wreak havoc on a person’s life. These diseases are being diagnosed with increasing frequency. Diet and air quality may play a role in their development and management.

During the past 10 years, diagnosis of various autoimmune diseases has become more common. (Adami, 2022) No one culprit can account for this increase. Some studies point to environmental factors as a cause for the increase. Other studies point to a link between diet and certain autoimmune-mediated illnesses. Genetics also plays a role in the development of autoimmune disorders.

There are many different autoimmune diseases. Some common examples include rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Type 1 diabetes are a few examples. Early diagnosis and treatment can lead to better outcomes.

Dietary patterns and multiple sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS), just one of hundreds of autoimmune disorders researchers have identified, affects the central nervous system. It is an inflammatory disease in which the myelin sheath that protects neurons is worn away. MS causes swelling and pain and has periods of flare and remission.

One recent study demonstrated that diet plays a significant role in the development of MS. Following an unhealthy diet, such as those that include high consumption of soft drinks, pizza, and processed foods, makes it three times as likely a person will develop MS. This is the diet pattern found mainly in the developed world. Healthy diet patterns, on the other hand, decreased a person’s odds of developing MS by 74%. Healthy diet patterns include diets low in saturated fat and high in fruits and vegetables.

The study suggests that eating a diet high in smoked or processed meats may increase the risk of development of MS, while consuming fish regularly may have a protective factor. Further, according to the study, smoking and family history were significantly associated with a person’s risk of developing MS. Authors of this study caution against targeting one nutrient as being either protective or harmful in the development of MS. Rather, they point out that nutrition is a complex interplay between components in various foods.

The role of Proteins in autoimmune regulation

In fact, even apparently healthy diets can cause immune dysregulation and lead to disabling symptoms for those with an autoimmune disorder. Certain dietary proteins can cause damage to the mucosal barrier and lead to autoimmune dysregulation in some patients.

A person’s autoimmune regulation is largely tied to their gut health. The gut is constantly exposed to impurities in the foods and other substances people ingest. The body produces antibodies to combat these impurities, but when the body overreacts, these antibodies can attack healthy tissue. Aquaporins found in soy beans and tomatoes look similar to aquaporin 4, which regulates water absorption in cells in the brain. These similarities can cause the body to attack healthy tissue. This is one theory about how some types of autoimmune diseases can develop.

Dietary proteins in foods can mimic those in the body and cause the body to overreact and attack healthy tissue. This leads to autoimmune dysregulation. The picture is further complicated by the fact that not everyone reacts to the same degree to these dietary proteins. Diet plays an important part in autoimmune disease.

The Autoimmune Protocol diet

Studies point to the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) diet as a successful intervention to control certain autoimmune disorders. AIP is similar to a paleolithic dietary regimen and calls for elimination of dietary additives, emulsifiers, and other common components of Western diets. These components of the Standard American Diet (SAD) are thought to disrupt the normal flora of the gut and lead to autoimmune dysregulation. Multiple studies have shown that replacing a SAD diet with the AIP diet reduces symptoms of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis in 70% of study participants.

The role of air pollution

A recent study published in the American Journal of Nursing suggests air pollution from industrial waste and car exhaust may be linked to the increase in diagnosis of autoimmune disorders, particularly rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

The study found that for every 10 micrograms per cubic centimeter of particulate matter a person was exposed to, their risk of developing an autoimmune disorder rose by 7%. According to the study, longer term exposure and higher particulate matter concentrations increased the risk of being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Autoimmune disorders stem from a complex interaction between exposure to environmental triggers and genetic predisposition.

Early Treatment: A key to success

Regardless of the cause of specific autoimmune dysregulation, early diagnosis and intervention can lead to better outcomes. Treatments will vary depending on the disorder and the severity of illness but may include a prescription for corticosteroids, which suppress the immune system.

Physical and occupational therapy can help improve strength and chronic pain symptoms, as well as improve day-to-day functioning. Certain autoimmune disorders may require monitoring for renal, cardiovascular, or other complications. Patients with any autoimmune disease can benefit from a close relationship with their medical provider.

Key takeaways

Autoimmune disorders have been diagnosed with increasing frequency in the past 10 years. Reasons for this increase are unclear. A combination of factors may be to blame.

A person diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder may benefit from adopting dietary changes.

Early diagnosis and treatment are keys to success for the patient diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder.

Resources:

Cureus Journal of Medicine. Efficacy of the Autoimmune Protocol Diet as Part of a Multi-disciplinary, Supported Lifestyle Intervention for Hashimoto's Thyroiditis.

Journal of Central Nervous System Disease. Adherence to healthy dietary pattern is associated with lower risk of multiple sclerosis.

Holistic Primary Care. Food triggers, immune dysregulation, and autoimmunity.

Women’s Healthcare: A Clinical Journal for Nurse Practitioners. Current primary care recommendations for three common autoimmune disorders.

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