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Veganism and Autoimmune Disease: Can a Plant-Based Diet Help?

Veganism and Autoimmune Disease

Veganism and Autoimmune Disease: Can a Plant-Based Diet Help?

Approximately two million Canadians are affected by autoimmune diseases. 

These diseases disproportionately affect women. Overall, almost 80 percent of people with autoimmune disorders are female.  

Research is beginning to show that a healthy plant-based diet for autoimmune disease can be helpful. In some cases, individuals have reported a reduction – or reversal – of symptoms after making the switch to veganism.

Veganism has all kinds of health benefits. These include reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and other chronic diseases. Veganism has also been shown to protect against neurodegenerative conditions.

A healthy plant-based diet also provides a variety of antioxidants and can reduce inflammation.

Given all these benefits, can veganism play a role in managing autoimmune disease? Let’s take a look.

veganism and autoimmune disease

What are autoimmune diseases?

Autoimmune diseases are chronic illnesses that occur when healthy body cells are mistakenly attacked by the immune system. Researchers don’t exactly know what causes autoimmune diseases, but factors like genetics, diet, and infections may be involved. 

There are more than eighty different types of autoimmune diseases. Some of the most common include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, celiac disease, and type 1 diabetes, among others.

plant-based diet for autoimmune disease

Veganism and autoimmune disease

It is now understood that autoimmune disease symptoms and flare-ups may be modified by dietary factors. Recent studies have been showing positive associations between veganism and autoimmune disease.

Diets rich in fruits, veggies, and fiber have anti-inflammatory properties, are associated with lower BMI, and help reduce pain associated with autoimmune diseases.

Further, the vegan diet has many benefits on the gut microbiome, which can reduce inflammation and pain in patients with autoimmune disease.

Animal foods are typically pro-inflammatory and can exacerbate symptoms for some people.

 

In all these ways, the plant-based diet is a good option for autoimmune disease.

 

plant-based diet for autoimmune disease

Common autoimmune diseases

Let’s take a closer look at three common autoimmune diseases for some examples of how a plant-based diet can help.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1% of the world’s population. In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system attacks healthy joints, causing pain and reduced mobility, especially in the hands and feet.

A 2001 study showed that a gluten-free plant-based diet relieved symptoms in a small group of patients with rheumatoid arthritis, in comparison to a non-plant-based diet. found that a low-fat vegan diet improved symptoms of joint pain and swelling. 

These results are promising, however, it’s important to remember that trigger foods and preferences are unique to each person.

A vegan diet eliminates a lot of the common trigger foods (meat, dairy, etc), but might not necessarily be the magic solution for everyone with rheumatoid arthritis.

Lupus

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease in which the immune system attacks healthy organs and tissues, like the joints, skin, blood cells, lungs, heart, kidneys and brain.

Reducing the amount of inflammatory foods in the diet is a good place to start with lupus. These include refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup, alcohol, whole milk dairy products, and processed meats.

The addition of whole, plant-based foods high in antioxidants, and the reduction of inflammatory foods, can support the immune system and reduce whole-body inflammation.

Also, steroid medications are commonly prescribed to patients with lupus. It’s important to up calcium intake because steroids can weaken the bones. Vegan sources of calcium include calcium-set tofu, beans, fortified plant-based milks and yogurts, and dark leafy greens.

Multiple Sclerosis

Multiple sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong condition in which the immune system destroys myelin—the coating surrounding nerves in the brain and spine. The primary symptoms of MS are fatigue, problems with vision, and difficulties with movement.

Many diets have been explored in MS through research. Overall, there is insufficient evidence to suggest that a vegan diet can reduce MS disease progression.

However, several research studies have shown that a low saturated fat diet is beneficial in MS management. Vegan diets are low in saturated fat in nature, as animal products are the highest sources of saturated fat (with some exceptions like palm oil, coconut oil, and cocoa butter). In this way, a plant-based diet for autoimmune disease can be symptom-relieving.

 

plant-based diet for autoimmune disease

The benefits of a plant-based diet for autoimmune disease

Reduces inflammation

As mentioned above, inflammation is a response by the immune system and is a major characteristic of autoimmune diseases. Veganism helps to lower inflammation.

 

Research has shown that vegans that consume high quantities of fruits and vegetables often have lower inflammatory markers (such as C-reactive protein) when compared to meat-eaters. Diets high in animal products and saturated fat tend to promote inflammation.

 

For support on how to eat a balanced vegan diet and reduce inflammation, a registered vegan dietitian can help.