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If you’ve been around this space for awhile, you know my passion for and pursuit of reversing autoimmunity. I’m incredibly passionate about autoimmunity and determining autoimmune food triggers because I’ve personally spent years dealing with autoimmune disease and I’ve watched countless clients suffer for far too long. In fact, according to the AARDA, 50 million Americans are living with active autoimmunity. To make matters more pressing, there are about 100 different known autoimmune diseases. And some people are at greater risk of developing autoimmunity than others, including women, African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
In my opinion, this is unacceptable, especially when we can be addressing and preventing these diseases through diet and lifestyle changes. So, how can we start reducing these numbers and reversing autoimmunity? The first step is to identify and address autoimmune triggers. But before we dive in, let’s cover the important basics of autoimmunity.
As previously stated, there are at least 100 known autoimmune diseases, but the most common ones are:
Regardless of the autoimmune condition, the most common symptoms include general fatigue, gastrointestinal issues, skin problems, chronic headaches, joint pain, and swollen glands.
Research is still needed to identify the exact cause of an autoimmune condition. We know that autoimmunity arises when the body’s immune system begins attacking itself. It mistakenly views the body (ie. thyroid, skin, gut, etc) as a dangerous pathogen and does what it does best: attacks.
That being said, there are multiple reasons why autoimmunity may occur in the first place, including:
If you suspect autoimmunity is at play in your life, I recommend looking into these causes. Once you identify the cause of autoimmunity, you can begin working to reverse it. The first step? To work on your gut health and reduce autoimmune food triggers from your diet!
Autoimmune triggers come in all shapes and forms, but arguably one of the most common ones is inflammatory foods. Food has changed drastically over the years due to convenient processed and packaged foods, food chemicals, and genetically modified organisms that can alter genetic makeup. Many experts believe our diet is a main contributor to the rise in autoimmunity.
In the case of autoimmunity, these nine foods can create an immune response in the body, which ignites flare-ups. If you’re actively working to heal and reverse your autoimmunity, I recommend looking at how much of this list of autoimmune food triggers you are consuming or doing a food sensitivity test to determine your unique triggers.
Gluten is a protein found primarily in wheat, rye, barley, triticale, spelt, and often other grains like oats. Even if you don’t have Celiac disease, which is a true allergy to gluten, it’s likely you could have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), especially if you struggle with an autoimmune condition. I see NCGS in about 70% of the clients I work with. Processed gluten creates intestinal permeability in your gut lining, which is directly correlated with autoimmunity. This occurs because your immune system detects undigested proteins from gluten (gliadin and glutenin) in your gut, causing an inflammatory response.
It’s important to note that many other foods, even gluten free grains, are cross-contaminated with gluten making this an important trigger to pay attention to if you have an autoimmune condition. The good news is we now have advanced functional medicine testing that can help us determine if you have NCGS and need to avoid gluten from your diet.
Although gluten free, quinoa and other grains, like rice, corn, buckwheat, and oats, can mimic gluten in your body due to molecular mimicry. These are often known as “pseudo-grains.” These grain-like foods are high in a protein called saponin which can damage your gut lining, triggering autoimmunity and flare-up symptoms. In fact, these grains can be just as problematic as gluten for those with an autoimmune condition!
Again, it is always worth running the right blood tests to see how foods like grains might be cross-reacting in your body and if you need to avoid them. Some individuals will find soaking and sprouting grains such as rice and quinoa can improve the way they are digested.
Nightshades, like tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplant, and potatoes, contain higher amounts of lectin, which is an anti-nutrient. As the name suggests, lectin prevents nutrient absorption in your body. Plus, they’re difficult to digest if you suffer from gut issues. They also contain solanine, which can trigger an inflammatory response.
Most individuals with autoimmunity will feel an increase in joint pain after consuming nightshades, especially those with Rheumatoid arthritis, MS, or lupus. Unfortunately this is one of the top triggers I see most individuals having to avoid long term with any autoimmune condition as having them often usually can result in a flare.
Conventional dairy, specifically A1 casein dairy (a protein in dairy products), is digested in the small intestine and is often the cause of stomach upset, especially if you have an autoimmune condition. There are two types of casein in milk— A1 and A2. Regular milk that is predominant in the U.S. contains A1. Your body likely doesn’t have the enzyme to properly process and break down this protein, regardless if it’s organic or lactose-free.
Some individuals are able to tolerate A2 dairy which is in raw milk, cheese, and cream once they have healed their gut. This is great news for any dairy lovers. In fact, the A2 proteins and nutrients in raw dairy are extremely beneficial to your health and can actually help support your immune system and autoimmune wellness goals! A2 dairy is the same beta-casein in human breast milk which is beneficial for building a healthy microbiome in infants..
Eggs are a complete protein source with an abundance of nutrients such as choline. They can unfortunately be problematic for those with an autoimmune condition. A lot of this has to do with having a compromised gut which makes the enzyme in eggs called lysozyme very difficult to breakdown and digest. This results in an immune response that can trigger autoimmune reactions making a flare or condition worse.
Not everyone with an autoimmune condition should avoid eggs, however it is helpful to reduce consumption especially during a flare or at the beginning of a new diagnosis to allow the gut to heal. The good news is most can bring back eggs and enjoy them in moderation, especially in cooked recipes once you reverse autoimmunity. This is another food I like to test my clients for and something I see that pops up frequently.
I hate to say this because I’m a huge fan of chocolate but unfortunately this is a common autoimmune trigger for many individuals. Since chocolate and cacao contain phytic acid, it can block mineral absorption leading to increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and dysbiosis (bacteria overgrowth).
In addition, most chocolate products will contain processed dairy, soy, and refined sugar, all of which can trigger autoimmunity. It’s not the chocolate itself that’s bad, it’s the additives and high sugar content that does so much harm. Oftentimes some form of sugar is the first ingredient in a chocolate bar or chocolate based dessert.
This doesn’t mean you need to avoid everything chocolate however! Cacao powder, cacao nibs, or dark chocolate of at least 85% cacao in moderation can actually be GOOD for your gut! This is where an individualized approach to diet can pay off as some can enjoy chocolate with no issues. I typically suggest my clients eliminate chocolate for a period of time (along with actually doing a food sensitivity test) and we look to see how the body responds. Most individuals do see symptom improvement without it.
Unless thoroughly tested, mycotoxins are common in coffee, especially instant and decaf coffee. Poor quality coffee can actually become rancid, which leads to moldy beans. Toxins and molds wreak havoc on the gut lining, especially when trying to reduce inflammation and improve leaky gut. The only coffee I trust and drink is Purity Coffee because of its high quality and thorough testing. Some individuals with autoimmunity do react to coffee seeds (yes, coffee is actually a seed) in general, and if that is the case it is worth eliminating for a period of time to see if your symptoms improve.
Conventional and processed sugar products and artificial sweeteners destroy a healthy gut, triggering autoimmunity. There is sugar hiding in so many food products in the standard American diet, even foods that are not blatantly sweet. Added sugars such as high fructose corn syrup leads to increased inflammation and a myriad of health conditions, including worsened autoimmunity.
When it comes to sweetening your food and recipes, I recommend using simple and natural sweeteners that are best for gut health and autoimmunity as much as possible
There are lectins not only in nightshades, but also in legumes such as beans, peas, nuts, peanuts, and soy. They can make leaky gut worse because they’re difficult to digest. They resist breaking down in the gut and stick to the lining of your intestines. This makes them more inflammatory for those with autoimmune conditions and can result in a flare.
Some lectins don’t have to be removed long-term and can be enjoyed in moderation based on your immune system and gut health. Most individuals can bring back small amounts of soaked and sprouted nuts and seeds with no issues once they reverse autoimmunity.
Now, you might be thinking this list sounds extensive and long and wondering what you should eat. After all, what’s left to eat? Luckily, even with autoimmunity, you can enjoy many delicious and nutritious foods, like high quality meats and seafoods, seasonal fruits and vegetables, herbs, stable fats and oils, and more! Check out what the best diet is for autoimmunity here.
As a part of the gut and autoimmune healing process, it’s also worth looking into functional medicine testing and working with a practitioner who can help you come up with a custom diet, lifestyle, supplement, and testing plan. This can help you identify the specific foods that are creating an inflammatory response in your body. Learn more about how to start reversing autoimmunity here.
Once you learn which foods work for your body and those working against it, you can finally embark on your healing journey. Although the healing journey looks different for everyone, I promise healing is possible. I’m living proof. And, I can honestly say the journey is worth it!
"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."
-Nikki Yelton, RD
If you are ready to stop wasting precious time, get off the never-ending hamster wheel, and finally surrender trying to figure things out on your own—this is your moment.
You don’t have to settle for just getting by and hoping tomorrow is a better day. We both know you are a woman who deserves better and are made for so. much. more.
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