In recent years there’s been a lot of talk about the autoimmune diet. But what exactly is an autoimmune diet and which foods have anti-inflammatory properties? These are some of the most common questions my patients ask me in clinic. Essentially, what foods help autoimmune diseases? In certain cases, it’s pretty cut and dry. If you have celiac disease, avoid gluten. If you have ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis, try to follow the FODMAP diet. There already exists evidence-based research that supports these interventions.
But what about other autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome? What should you be eating if you have any of these? Do they have their own autoimmune diet? Should you avoid nightshades, dairy, gluten, eggs, etc. In recent rears a myriad of “anti-inflammatory diets” have surfaced on the web. For the most part, they are supported by little if any evidence-based research. This is unsurprising. Good quality research requires money. Lot’s of money… pharma money. It simply does not make any business sense for these companies to fund large and expensive studies that have no commercial potential. Believe me, I am not defending big pharma, I’m simply stating reality.
What is epigenetics?
Even though we do not have great scientific evidence supporting a particular autoimmune diet or foods to prevent, cure, or lessen autoimmune diseases, it’s kind of obvious that some lifestyle practices lead to better health outcomes. Take smoking. People that smoke tend to get lung cancer and develop heart disease compared to those that don’t smoke. But how does that work exactly?
Everyone is born with genes. Some of these genes are active and some remain dormant. Your genotype is the entire makeup of your genes. Your phenotype is the result of how your genetic material is expressed. For example, you may have the genes for blue eyes and brown eyes. If the genetic material for brown eyes is dominant, you’ll have brown eyes.
This is where it gets really interesting. Over the course of your lifetime, some of your genes are turned on and off. This is influenced by factors like aging, the environment, and lifestyle. Epigenetics is the study of how genes are turned on and off based on external influences.
Epigenetic changes can be good but can also cause harm. We think that some of these changes can result in autoimmune diseases. It’s important to remember that epigenetics is in its infancy. Researchers still are not 100% sure how this happens, let alone, how to specifically manipulate the environment to cause favorable epigenetic change.
Autoimmune diet: what foods should I eat?
This simple answer to this question is, “I don’t know”. One day, when researchers crack the epigenetic code, I may be able to answer this questions more accurately. I may be able to tell you, if you follow the rheumatoid arthritis autoimmune diet, this should help control your inflammation. Unfortunately, I am unable to say that yet.
But like I was saying at the beginning of this post, some people who adhere to certain lifestyle practices tend to be healthier. Given we don’t really have actionable epigenetic data to guide lifestyle choices, the goal when it comes to nutrition and lifestyle is to adopt habits that have a tendency to result in overall general health to live happier, healthier, and longer.
The Blue Zones®
The Blue Zones® are 5 regions in the world where people statistically people tend to live to 100 years AND who tend to reach this age in health. The project spawned from the National Geographic Society. The goal was to find “hot spots of longevity” around the world. The researchers identified 5 zones and circled them in blue ink. These regions are as follows:
- Ikaria, Greece
- Okinawa, Japan
- Ogliastra region, Sardinia
- Loma Linda, California
- Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica
One would think that there are no similarities between people living in Japan versus people in Greece. What the researchers identified was a core list of lifestyle practices and environmental factors that shared between all the different regions.
People that live to 100 years don’t necessarily run marathons or go the gym. They are always on the go and they move naturally. For example, they tend a garden, they walk to the market, they use stairs instead of the elevator.
People that live in the Blue Zones live with purpose. They wake up every morning, and they know “why I wake up in the morning”. Having a clear purpose in life can add an extra 7 years of life expectancy.
We all know that stress can cause inflammation. I often see people in my clinic who’s rheumatoid arthritis was in perfect control until something really bad happened, like a divorce, job loss, or a death in the family. Chronic stress leads to chronic inflammation. People in the Blue Zones develop daily habits to help reduce stress.
The Japanese have a saying “Hara hachi bu”. This is a mantra that Okinawans say before every meal, reminding them to stop eating when they feel about 80% full. There is a delay between feeling full and actually being full. When you feel 80% full, you are actually full. So if you stop eating when you feel full, you are overeating. People living in the Blue Zones tend to eat their largest meal at breakfast and their smallest meal at dinner.
Although not all regions of the Blue Zones eat meat, their diets all mainly consists of fresh veg and beans. Lot’s of beans: fava, soy, lentils, etc. They eat meat very sparingly and servings are small, “about the size of a deck of cards”.
Wine @ 5
Thank goodness for this one! People in the Blue Zones, expect for Adventists, drink alcohol moderately and regularly. Typically, they drink 1-2 glasses of wine per day with friends and family at the end of the work day. They found that people who drink regularly and moderately tend to live longer than those who don’t.
Almost all people who live until 100 tend to belong to some sort of faith-based community. They found that attending a service 4 times a month can add up to 4 – 14 years of life expectancy.
Loved Ones First
People living in Blue Zones tend to live close to their families. It’s common to have children, parents, and grandparents living under the same roof. They also tend to commit to a life partner.
People in the Blue Zones keep strong social networks. Not only are these social strong, but they also foster healthy behaviors. Women in Okinawa create “moais” early on in life. These are groups of 5 friends that are completely committed to each other for life.
The true beauty in the Blue Zones Project® is that you don’t need to live in a Blue Zone to reap the benefits. By living the Power 9® you can set yourself up to live with vitality to a ripe old age.
Medications certainly have made a huge difference in the prognosis of many autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and lupus but it’s not enough. By integrating healthy habits we can potentially turn on an and off genes that contribute to ongoing autoimmunity and inflammation. Although we still don’t know exactly what the perfect autoimmune diet is, by adopting healthy habits set forth by the Power 9®, you can increase your odds to live a long, happy and healthy life.