The Autoimmune Consequences of What We Eat

The nutritionally skewed "Western" diet relies on processed foods that foster obesity and may even promote autoimmune diseases.

Having reduced the burden of infectious disease, industrialized societies now face metabolic, cardiovascular, and autoimmune disorders as threats to long lifespans, and it is unlikely that any current or prospective medication will abolish those diseases in the same way antibiotics eliminated life-threatening bacterial infection.

Metabolic, cardiovascular, and autoimmune diseases have genetic origins, but genetics alone are not responsible for their large impact; Western countries’ lifestyles are more to blame. The nutritionally skewed “Western" diet relies on processed foods that foster obesity, metabolic syndrome (MetS), and cardiovascular disease. There is also a strong possibility that the diet can promote autoimmune diseases, which is the topic of a review published in the December 2013 issue of Current Allergy and Asthma Reports.

For their review, the authors honed in on multiple sclerosis (MS), rheumatoid arthritis (RA), inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), type 1 diabetes, and psoriasis, as the diseases share multifactorial etiologies, T cell-mediated autoimmune mechanisms, and chronic clinical courses that often mandate persistent disease management.

Although the researchers found evidence of environmental triggers playing an important role in those conditions, they relented that studies addressing nutrition as an etiological factor in inflammatory autoimmune diseases have not firmly established a specific link. However, those inconclusive results did not remove the authors’ suspicion that dietary nutrients influence autoimmune disorders. Thus, they advised scientists to take 2 steps in order to clarify the nutrition-immunology connection: (1) find better ways to detect a cause-response relationship, and (2) recognize complex risk profiles comprised of genetic and environmental determinants that force certain individuals’ responses to nutritional cues result in autoimmune pathology.

Despite the dearth of studies associating dietary factors and autoimmune diseases, the authors pointed out that many patients employ special diets or supplements as alternative therapeutic measures to manage their autoimmune conditions. Their summary of the links between a patient’s diet, gut microbiota, and autoimmunity is thought-provoking and presents information that can help redirect patients’ attention to balanced, healthy diets.