Autoimmune diseases, which affect up to 50 million Americans, are on the rise[1][2].

The symptoms of autoimmune diseases vary but usually involve damage to tissues and altered organ function.

Autoimmune disorders occur between two and ten times more often in women and are a leading cause of death in young and middle-aged women in the US[3][4].

In this article, you’ll learn the symptoms and causes of autoimmune diseases, how your diet can influence your risk, and why the anti-inflammatory diet is a fantastic choice to reduce your risk or improve existing symptoms of autoimmunity.

What is Autoimmune Disease?

Autoimmune disorders are a broad group of disorders where your body attacks itself by mistake.

Normally, your immune system knows the difference between healthy, normal cells and infected cells or foreign bodies. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system mistakes your normal cells for unhealthy cells and tries to destroy them. As a result, your body damages itself.

There are over 80 known autoimmune diseases. The most common ones include rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, chronic Lyme disease, lupus, Crohn’s disease, psoriasis, and type 1 diabetes.

Symptoms of Autoimmune Disorders

While the symptoms of autoimmunity vary depending on the disorder and the tissues it attacks, autoimmune reactions always involve inflammation and tissue damage.

Here are the most common symptoms of autoimmune disease:

  • Inflammation and swelling
  • Aching muscles or joints
  • Digestive issues and abdominal pain
  • Fatigue
  • Low-grade fever
  • Swollen glands
  • Rash
  • Flare-ups (symptoms that come and go)

If you notice these symptoms, visit your doctor to discuss them and follow up with the appropriate tests.

Causes of Autoimmune Disease

While autoimmune disorders can run in families, scientists think that environmental conditions, not genes, play the biggest role in causing autoimmune disease.

Here are the most likely suspects behind the current increase in autoimmunity:

  • Inflammatory diets high in sugar can double the risk of some autoimmune disorders[5][6].
  • Vaccines can increase the risk of lupus and other autoimmune disorders in vulnerable people[7][8][9][10][11].
  • Poor sleep and irregular sleep schedules can raise your risk of autoimmune disease, or make it more severe[12][13][14].
  • Environmental toxins like air pollution, pesticides, and microplastics heighten your risk of developing an autoimmune disease[15].
  • Low vitamin D and insufficient sunlight are risk factors for autoimmune disorders[16][17][18].

The good news is that you can reduce your risk of autoimmune disease by focusing on these factors. And if you already suffer from an autoimmune disorder, you can still take steps to decrease the severity of your symptoms.

How Your Diet Influences Autoimmune Disorders

Diet is a major factor behind the rise of autoimmune disorders[19].

The food you eat has an enormous impact on your health and wellness. Your body relies on your diet to produce energy, repair and rebuild your cells, and obtain essential nutrients.

More people are eating processed, packaged food or dining at restaurants than ever before. Generally, these foods lead to higher levels of inflammation, which increases the risk or severity of the autoimmune disease.

Here’s what an unhealthy, inflammatory diet looks like:

  • Low in fruits and vegetables
  • High in omega-6 fatty acids
  • Low in omega-3 fatty acids
  • Includes grains, sugars, and other processed carbohydrates

Ultra-processed foods that are high in carbohydrates and low in fiber increase inflammation, lead to unhealthy gut bacteria and damage your gut, all of which raise your risk of autoimmune disorders[20].

An improper balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids leads to inflammation and increases your risk of disease[21][22].

Sugar also heightens your risk of autoimmune problems[23].

What is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Basically, the anti-inflammatory diet is the opposite of the inflammatory diet outlined in the previous section. It’s high in whole food proteins, healthy fats (including omega-3 fatty acids), fruits, vegetables, and fiber.

Avoid the following inflammatory foods to reduce inflammation in your body and lower your risk of autoimmune disorders[24][25]:

  • Processed and packaged foods
  • Sugars, especially fructose and high-fructose corn syrup
  • Trans fats
  • Vegetable oils and other processed refined oils (canola oil, soybean oil)
  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Seeds

Instead, you can replace inflammatory trigger foods with healthy whole foods. Here are the staple foods you can eat instead to reduce your inflammation:

  • Whole-food protein sources like grass-fed beef
  • Fatty fish and shellfish for omega-3 fatty acids
  • Healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil and extra virgin coconut oil
  • Leafy green vegetables for fiber and phytonutrients

Research shows you can dramatically decrease your risk of autoimmune disorders by replacing inflammatory “Western diet” foods with healthier choices[26][27][28].

6 Ways the Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Help With Autoimmune Disease

#1: Reduces Inflammation and Pain

Inflammation and pain are common features of all autoimmune disorders. When your immune system attacks your body, swelling and inflammation occur as your body tries to heal from the flare-up. Inflammation is also a risk factor for developing autoimmune disease[29][30][31][32][33][34].

That’s why the anti-inflammatory diet so effective at preventing autoimmune disease or reducing the symptoms of existing autoimmune disorders. For example, in rheumatoid arthritis, spinach and blueberries can improve symptoms, while sugary drinks and desserts worsen them[35].

#2: Eliminates Allergens and Problem Foods

If you have a food allergy or food sensitivity, trigger foods can activate your immune system. As a result, foods like dairy or grains can increase your risk of developing an autoimmune disorder or cause flare-ups if you already suffer from one[36].

However, the anti-inflammatory diet eliminates common allergens and problem foods and replaces them with functional foods that enable your body to heal.

If you have an undiagnosed food allergy or sensitivity, you’ll begin to feel better within a week of trying the anti-inflammatory diet. And if you already have an autoimmune disease, the anti-inflammatory diet can prevent flare-ups and allow your body to recover.

#3: Boosts Beneficial Bacteria

Your gut microbiome contains trillions of bacteria. These bacteria shape your immune response, affect your body’s ability to absorb nutrients, and influence your risk of autoimmune disorders.

Research shows that people with autoimmune disease have unhealthy gut bacteria[37]. As a result, their bodies have altered immune responses and higher inflammation levels[38].

Unhealthy processed foods, sugar, and grains enable harmful bacteria to grow in your gut[39]. That’s a major reason why eating an inflammatory diet increases your risk of autoimmune disorders[40].

But the anti-inflammatory diet can enhance your microbiome by starving bad bacteria and feeding good bacteria with dietary fiber.

You can also use homemade probiotic fermented foods or probiotic supplements to boost your beneficial bacteria population and suppress autoimmunity[41].

#4: Improves Gut Integrity

Over time, inflammatory foods can damage your gut lining. In addition to stomach pain and inflammation, this can allow undigested food and bad bacteria to enter your bloodstream.

When you have a “leaky gut,” your immune system perceives the food and bacteria entering your bloodstream as hostile[42]. The result is that your body may attack itself, and autoimmune flare-ups can occur.

According to research, glucose, sodium, gluten, and chemical additives in processed food can harm your intestinal lining and lead to leaky gut[43].

However, because the anti-inflammatory diet focuses on healthy, whole foods and excludes harmful additives, it can help reverse these issues and heal your gut lining.

#5: Increases Insulin Sensitivity

Insulin is one of your body’s most important hormones. When you eat carbohydrates, your body uses insulin to store energy.

But when you eat too many carbs or too much sugar, your body releases large amounts of insulin. Eventually, your cells become resistant to the effects of insulin.

Research links insulin resistance to a heightened risk of autoimmune disorders and worsening of autoimmune symptoms[44][45][46][47].

Eating anti-inflammatory foods that offer healthy fats, fiber, and phytonutrients can increase your insulin sensitivity[48][49][50][51][52].

By increasing your insulin sensitivity you can reduce your risk of autoimmune disease and lessen your symptoms[53].

#6: Provides Adequate Nutrition for Healing

Studies show that people with autoimmune disease have lower levels of zinc, copper, selenium, iodine, iron, vitamin B, magnesium, potassium, and chromium [54][55][56][57][58]. Zinc deficiency alone can raise your risk of autoimmune disease[59][60].

A diet abundant in selenium, calcium, omega-3 fatty acids, and vitamins A, D, and E can reduce inflammation in your body and enable you to heal[61].

The anti-inflammatory diet is rich in nutrient-dense foods. By eating the proper macronutrients and sufficient micronutrients, you can prevent autoimmune disease or improve existing autoimmunity symptoms[62].

The Takeaway

Autoimmune diseases are complex, and they can be challenging to understand, prevent, or treat. Although it may seem daunting, the evidence clearly shows you can take action to decrease your risk or reduce your symptoms.

The most important steps are eating an anti-inflammatory diet, getting adequate sleep, avoiding environmental toxins, and ensuring your vitamin D levels are sufficient.

The anti-inflammatory diet is useful for preventing or managing autoimmune disorders because it lowers inflammation, eliminates problem foods, enhances your gut health, and gives your body the nutrition you need to heal.