Autoimmune & Inflammatory Illness: The Foods We Eat- Part 1

What to do when the body turns against you.

Over the years, I have had multiple clients and friends approach me regarding their autoimmune disease and/or inflammatory disorders. I always found it interesting that the first question is, “what can I add?”.

While adding to an existing dietary pattern is not a bad thing, it is not always the answer. 

What most sufferers do not realize is there may be foods or beverages that need to be removed from your diet. 

There are various types of autoimmune diseases and inflammatory disorders and some suffer from more than one. Common types I have dealt with include Rheumatoid Arthritis, Hashimoto’s, Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Hypothyroid, and Gout

The most common denominator among all of these is inflammation. 

Preventing or working toward preventing inflammation is one of the best strategies for you to follow. Doing that does involve making some lifestyle changes, particularly in the area of food and beverages.

Please note that, while making dietary changes can be all around beneficial, these are not cures nor should you stop any medication until you have consulted your doctor. 

Ingredients, whether naturally occurring or added, that cause inflammation or an internal response are called excitotoxicity. Excitotoxicity is when nerve cells suffer damage or death, when levels of necessary and safe neurotransmitters become pathologically high, resulting in excessive stimulation of receptors. 

The following ingredients can trigger excitotoxicity or keep inflammatory response active. 

Glutamate, an amino acid that is produced in the body and also occurs naturally in many foods. Monosodium glutamine (MSG) is the sodium salt that is a common food additive used to enhance the flavor of sauces, salad dressings, and soups. Most common foods that contain MSG are Chinese food, canned soups and vegetables, processed meats, some chips and similar crunchy snacks. 

Studies in mice injected with MSG have shown after 6-12 months a significant increase in inflammation, NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) and NAFLD (nonalcoholic fatty liver disease) histology (J Autoimmunity, 2008).

MSG is an added ingredient to avoid if you want to help prevent inflammation. The FDA requires MSG to be listed on food labels when it is included in a product, so be sure to read them in order to avoid this ingredient. 

Aspartame, an artificial sweetener also known as NutraSweet and Equal. It is used in foods and beverages because it is sweeter than sugar and more concentrated so less can be used to obtain the same level of sweetness. 

Foods that contain aspartame are carbonated and powder soft drinks, chewing gum, dessert mixes, sugar-free foods/beverages, frozen dessert and sugar-free cough drops. According to Christine Gerbstadt MD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “Aspartame can trigger headaches or stomach discomfort in certain people, in some sensitive people, it can trigger an inflammatory response as well.”

Gluten, a structural protein naturally found in certain cereals and grains (Wheat, Barley, Rye). It is what causes the elastic and “stretchy” texture to dough. Gluten does not meet any essential nutrient need and for the most part, can be consumed with regular eating patterns. 

Some people do have celiac disease or are found to have a gluten sensitivity and can experience inflammatory side effects from consumption. If you do not have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, there is no evidence supporting why a go-to elimination period should be implemented. 

According to Harvard Health, “There is no compelling evidence that a gluten-free diet will improve health or prevent disease if you don't have celiac disease and can eat gluten without trouble. Of course, future research could change this. We may someday learn that at least some people without celiac disease or symptoms of intestinal disease are better off avoiding gluten.”  Gluten should not be the first food that is eliminated as there are many important and nutritious foods that also contain gluten. 

By first starting to eliminate processed foods, as well as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) from your diet- you can begin to head toward less inflammation and pain. 

To help with this you can visit https://www.eatright.org/find-a-nutrition-expert to connect with a Registered Dietitian who can assist you. 

Remember to always reference your nutrition label for specific ingredients in order to make the best choices. Eliminating aspartame can also provide benefits when combined with eliminating MSG. 

Lastly, after you have a set dietary pattern of no MSG and aspartame, and you still have inflammation, you can do a 2 week trial of gluten elimination. Eliminating gluten on top of MSG and aspartame may provide better outcomes with reduced inflammatory response and/or improved autoimmune symptoms. 

For more information follow along for the second installment of this series and check out this article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics on Inflammation and Diet.

For the second installment of this series I will take a deeper dive into the anti-Inflammatory diets; DASH, Mediterranean diet, as well as FODMAPs. 

 

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