Autoimmune diseases encapsulate a range of chronic, incurable illnesses which occur when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body.
From type 1 diabetes to lupus to multiple sclerosis to Coeliac disease to psoriasis, the symptoms can vary from mild to extremely debilitating. And worryingly, the exact cause of autoimmunity is unknown.
So, is there any link between diet (particularly sugar) and autoimmune disease? While the science is definitely fledgling, there’s enough that we need to talk about it.
Could sugar possibly trigger autoimmune disease?
We’ll be clear – it’s nobody’s fault if they have an autoimmune disease. Yet there’s no denying that autoimmune diseases are on the rise, especially as our lifestyles and environment worsen.
“Our genes may load the autoimmune gun but our environment and lifestyle pulls the trigger,” says nutritionist Angelique Panagos, who specialises in autoimmune disease (she herself has autoimmune hypothyroidism).
Indeed, there is higher prevalence of autoimmune disease in Western cultures where processed foods, environmental toxins and harsh antibacterial chemicals are commonplace. The mechanism may still be a mystery, but the correlation has many concerned.
Could sugar make autoimmune disease worse?
The theory that sugar and other lifestyle factors could speed up the progression of autoimmune disease is still pretty unfounded. But that doesn’t mean people with autoimmunity (or anyone for that matter) won’t benefit from a real food diet.
“Too much sugar can lead to insulin resistance, hormonal imbalance, blood sugar spikes, ‘bad’ bacteria and leaky gut syndrome, all of which are huge problems for our bodies,” says Angelique.
“It also triggers inflammation, which can cause hidden damage and may even increase our chances of an autoimmune reaction. This can make already weakened bodies and immune systems weaker still.”
Using diet to manage autoimmune disease.
Many people find a whole foods diet – yep, no sugar or processed junk – really beneficial for their autoimmune disease. In fact, that’s the sole reason why Sarah, who has Hashimoto’s disease, quit sugar.
“Quitting sugar had the biggest impact on my disease more so than any other medical ‘fix’,” says Sarah. “My doctors and endocrinologist confirm that the concerted changes I’ve made to my diet are the most probable cause.”
The best thing is, managing autoimmune disease in this way is delicious, sustainable and much cheaper than any expensive supplement or diet regime.
“Enjoying a nutritious, gut-healing diet (probiotic foods and fibrous, detoxifying leafy greens) that’s free from processed foods will help your body to stay as strong as possible, and lessen inflammation,” says Angelique.
“ I’d also suggest trying to drink green tea every day and adding pinches of anti-inflammatory turmeric to your foods – I even add mine to porridge!”
But note – food is not a replacement for medicine. See a doctor before making drastic changes to your diet and always seek professional help for your autoimmune disease.