The body's immune system is a marvelous thing. When an unwanted antigen invades the body, armies of white blood cells work hard to provide protection. The body produces antibodies to destroy whatever it perceives to be harmful. Typically, that means antigens such as viruses, bacteria, or toxins. Sometimes, an allergic response occurs due to a reaction to an external antigen that the body would otherwise normally ignore, creating a hypersensitive response. Another type of hypersensitive response occurs when the body responds to normal body tissues. Sometimes this happens in transplant patients because the body doesn't recognize the tissue as its own. It can also happen with the body responds to what is its own in an autoimmune response. These hypersensitive responses can affect almost every major system of the body including the nervous system, gastrointestinal and endocrine systems as well as the connective tissue and skin, eyes, blood and blood vessels. Typically, management of allergic hypersensitive responses is accomplished by reducing exposure to the allergen. Transplant responses can be reduced with specific medications. However, when the hypersensitive response is to normal body tissues causing the body to attack itself, it is not always so easy to identify and control. This autoimmune response many times leads to disorders and diseases that cause tissue deterioration and adverse side effects that can alter day-to-day life more than just avoiding allergens or controlling responses. There are about 50 million Americans living with autoimmune disorders or diseases today and it is estimated that about 30 million of those people are women who are affected about three times more often than men are.
As I shared in my But What if I Can’t Lose Weight blog, I had two-thirds of my thyroid gland removed back in the spring of 2002. What I did not mention in that blog was why.
After finding a goiter on my neck and undergoing blood tests, an ultrasound, and a needle biopsy that was inconclusive and unable to rule out thyroid cancer, exploratory surgery and a partial thyroid removal was necessary. While I was extremely relieved when I woke up after surgery to the news that there was no cancer, I was surprised to learn I had an autoimmune disorder called Hashimoto's thyroiditis. Antibodies had reacted against proteins in my thyroid gland and caused increasing inflammation that resulted in a large mushy mass of inflamed tissue as my surgeon explained it. After learning the news, my mother told me my great-grandfather had died of an autoimmune disorder called pernicious anemia. Research on the internet quickly provided a list of around 100 autoimmune related disorderswhich not only included Hashimoto's and pernicious anemia but also Graves disease, lupus, scleroderma and Crohn's disease to name a few. Many of these disorders or diseases I was familiar with from my work in the hospital as well as some of the common issues that accompany them.
Autoimmune disorders do not typically go away but instead go through periods of increased and decreased inflammatory response and disease progression. Many diseases such as lupus or rheumatoid arthritis cause chronic systemic inflammation. Those with Hashimoto's have periods where the gland (in my case, the remaining gland) is inflamed more than other times, which influences its ability to function properly. Sometimes medications are required to help reduce the inflammatory response and to provide relief from the pain and discomfort that accompany it. Many times it is as simple as an occasional non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) like aspirin or ibuprofen. Other times it takes ongoing therapy with corticosteroids such as prednisone or other medications like methotrexate. Typically, these medications also bring other side effects that must be dealt with as well.
We know that what we eat and how we live have an effect on how we feel. This can be especially true for those with autoimmune diseases dealing with inflammatory issues. There are numerous books based on anti-inflammatory diet principles with each having a slightly different approach or spin. Much of this is nothing more than marketing hype to sell books. However, most of them are centered on the idea of reducing inflammation to help reduce the risk of or improve the consequences of disease. Anti-inflammatory diets grounded in healthy eating practices simply reinforce what we already know to be true, healthy eating reduces your risks of disease. But, what if you have an autoimmune disorder that you want to minimize risks of worsening or to control an inflammatory response? Is there any benefit for them? There are experts that believe following some anti-inflammatory eating guidelines can be beneficial and effective for some medical problems and autoimmune disorders.
So what specific anti-inflammatory guidelines could be helpful? Of course, there are the basics of good nutrition for all such as minimizing saturated and Trans fats, eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, limiting your intake of refined carbohydrates in favor of whole grains while limiting refined and processed foods as possible. Here is a more specific eating guideline you may want to keep in mind if you have inflammatory disorders or diseases. Pharmacologic agents such as corticosteroids and cyclosporine have been known to affect a cellular process that reduces the production of cytokines. Omega 3 studies related to inflammation have also shown that they can provide a similar response. Both animal as well as human studies demonstrate that omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) suppress cell-mediated immune responses. Specifically, there is good response to eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) supplements that seem to decrease elevated levels of cytokines. At the same time you are increasing intake of Omega-3 PUFAs, it is also important to decrease your intake of Omega-6 PUFAs. Research shows that a lower ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids is needed for the prevention and management of chronic diseases. Some experts suggest a reasonable ratio might be eating one to four times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. This is a significant reduction since many people consume a ration more in line with a 10:1 ratio.
The Bottom Line
A Mediterranean eating style provides a good framework for anti-inflammatory eating. The beans, vegetables, and fruits provide fiber and are rich in nutrients. Nuts, fish and seafood provide the beneficial omega-3 PUFAs while olive oils help to reduce the omega-6 PUFAs that would be in corn, peanut, sunflower or soybean oils we would be using instead.
If you suffer from autoimmune disorders or bouts of inflammation, you may also want to pay a little more attention to your omega-6/omega-3 ratio. You can reduce your omega-6 intake by eating fewer processed and fast foods that contain omega-6 rich sources of PUFAs from vegetable oils made of corn, sunflower, safflower, cottonseeds, and especially soybeans and by reducing your intake of foods made with these items when possible. At the same time, increase your omega-3 PUFAs intake by using extra virgin olive oil for your cooking, sautéing and in salad dressings. Include more oily fish such as canned or vacuum-packed light tuna or salmon as well as walnuts, ground flax seeds and fortified eggs. Fish oil supplements can be an option but care is necessary since the source of the oil is not always from low mercury fish sources. DHA enriched foods or supplements may also be beneficial as well. NO SUPPLEMENTS should be used until you speak with your medical provider especially if you have macular degeneration or take blood-thinning medications. The risks of bleeding outweigh the benefits of the supplement unless followed by your medical provider. Eating omega-3 rich foods does not demonstrate the same risk so use food when possible.
For me, many of these anti-inflammatory guidelines are nothing more than healthy eating guidelines that I have already been following. However, the Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio is something new that I will take a closer look at as I make my meal selections.
How about you, anything new you learned that you will use in your daily meal and menu planning to reduce inflammatory responses?
More From SparkPeople