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Top 10 Troublesome Foods for Lupus and Other Autoimmune Conditions

Autoimmune diseases are highly individualized conditions varying from their root cause, length of onset, type and severity of symptoms, response to treatments, and even inflammatory triggers.

What might set off a cascade of inflammation in one individual might not phase another. By examining the scientific literature, patient trends, and anecdotal evidence certain commonalities stand out - particularly in regards to gastrointestinal health.

Whether you have an autoimmune condition or you’re looking to be proactive in your health, it’s wise to avoid the following foods. Once you do for an extended period of time, your body will become more sensitive (in a good way) and in tune with your needs. You’ll better identify what you do and don’t tolerate by noting symptoms, reducing culprits, and simultaneously turning down the inflammation.

1) Genetically Modified (GM) Crops and Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) - Top GM crops to avoid include alfalfa, corn, soy, canola (aka: rapeseed), sugar beets, and mostly Hawaiian papaya. While research is limited due to food politics and financial incentives, we are learning the ramifications that GMO's have on our health.

According to the Institute for Responsible Technology (IRT), "Before the FDA decided to allow GMOs into food without labeling, FDA scientists had repeatedly warned that GM foods can create unpredictable, hard-to-detect side effects, including allergies, toxins, new diseases, and nutritional problems. They urged long-term safety studies, but were ignored."

Meanwhile The American Academy of Environmental Medicine (AAEM) reported that, “Several animal studies indicate serious health risks associated with GM food,” including infertility, immune problems, accelerated aging, faulty insulin regulation, and changes in major organs and the gastrointestinal system. In fact, the AAEM asked physicians to advise patients to avoid GM foods. You can do this by looking for non-GMO labels, the non-GMO Project verified logo and organic foods to reduce GMO’s in your diet. For more information, check out the IRT's article, 10 Reasons to Avoid GMOs, and watch the documentary Genetic Roulette.

2) Sprouts, particularly alfalfa - Not only is alfalfa 99% GMO (and therefore widely used as animal feed), but it also contains a natural plant toxin known as L. Canavanine (LC) that’s been shown to induce or exacerbate Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE)-like symptoms when large amounts are consumed. This non-protein amino acid is found in alfalfa sprouts, broad beans (aka: Fava beans), jack beans, legumes and animal feed (primarily for cows).

Back in 1982 a study in the journal Science revealed, “L-Canavanine sulfate, a constituent of alfalfa sprouts, was incorporated into the diet and reactivated the syndrome in monkeys in which an SLE-like syndrome had previously been induced by the ingestion of alfalfa seeds or sprouts (1).” The Science Watch article Alfalfa and Immune Disease goes on to describe, "that L-canavanine takes the place of a related human amino acid, arginine, in forming proteins; the body then regards these proteins as foreign and launches an immunological attack against them."

Just a few years later in 1985 Arthritis & Rheumatology published a study entitled, "Effects of L-canavanine on T cells may explain the induction of systemic lupus erythematosus by alfalfa (2).”

A study on immunological effects of LC in 1989 suggested, "The lymphocytes of SLE patients were poorly responsive to LC stimulation, suggesting that CD8(-)Leu8(+) T cells are specifically deficient in SLE (3)."

In 1990 those findings were supported in a Clinical Immunology and Immunopathology study which reported, “the lymphocyte response to LC depends primarily on the existence of functional CD8(-)Leu8(+) cells. Moreover, it appears that suppressor-inducer T cells, responsive to LC, are especially deficient in SLE (4).” To understand these findings, it’s important to note that suppressor-inducer T cells are a subset of CD4 T helper cells that induce CD8 cells to become suppressor cells that reduce inflammation. Since SLE patients are deficient in these particular cells, they experience the inflammatory effects of LC while others may not.

The Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America published a 1991 piece indicating, “a potential toxic and immunoregulatory role of L-canavanine in the induction of a systemic lupus-like disease in primates (5).”

Fast forward to 2006 and the Autoimmunity Reviews literature echoed "the role of (the) non-protein amino acid L-canavanine in autoimmunity (6)."

While the majority of these studies exist in the mid-80’s and early 90’s, we can turn to anecdotal evidence for clinical practice applications. For instance I myself (diagnosed with mild lupus in ’08), do not tolerate alfalfa or other sprouts without seeing a debilitating flare in symptoms ranging from pain, fatigue, joint pain, swelling and malaise. I have even experienced this reaction with sprouted nuts (resulting in a setback for weeks on two different occassions), so I have chosen to avoid all sprouts and encourage my lupus clients to do the same. In the past, I had a client (not diagnosed with lupus but experiencing autoimmune symptoms) who was eating alfalfa sprouts on her sandwiches and salads and experiencing increased joint pain and swelling. We immediately removed the sprouts to avoid exacerbating her symptoms and invoking the onset of SLE.

If you choose to consume sprouts, at your own risk, make sure that the seeds or sprouts are always grown into a mature plant until they produce leaves and avoid ingesting the sprouts on a daily basis or in large quantities to reduce your overall LC consumption.

3) Gluten and wheat, including processed gluten-free products - Today Celiac sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, has a wide range of symptoms from diarrhea to constipation and is more common than previously considered.

According to Dr. Mark Hyman, a functional MD, "A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 'diseases' that can be caused by eating gluten. These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, and rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage). It has also been linked to autism.”

Dr. Kenneth Fine’s research using Enterolab’s stool analysis has found that up to 35% of Americans are gluten intolerant, while nearly 80% of all Americans have one of the HLA DG gene types making them more likely to have an autoimmune disease, Celiac disease and gluten intolerance. His research goes onto suggest that, “1 in 3 Americans are gluten intolerant, and that 8 in 10 are genetically predisposed to gluten intolerance.” What this means is that very few people are exempt from the damage that gluten can cause.

According to Chris Kresser, “Several studies show a strong link between Autoimmune Thyroid Disease (AITD, like Hashimoto’s and Graves’) and gluten intolerance (7, 8, 9, 10, 11). The link is so well-established that researchers suggest all people with AITD be screened for gluten intolerance, and vice versa (12).” He goes onto explain that the molecular structure of the protein portion of gluten, gliadin, resembles the thyroid gland. "When gliadin breaches the protective barrier of the gut, and enters the bloodstream, the immune system tags it for destruction. These antibodies to gliadin also cause the body to attack thyroid tissue. This means if you have AITD and you eat foods containing gluten, your immune system will attack your thyroid."

Perhaps your thyroid is not an issue (to your knowledge), but if you have an autoimmune disease then the chances of your thyroid function and/or gut integrity being compromised are great. 90% of hypothryoid cases have been said to be autoimmune related, and there is data linking autoimmunity, GI activity and schizophrenia (13).

Keep in mind, the immune response to gluten can last up to 6 months each and every time you consume it (14). This explains why it is critical to eliminate gluten completely from your diet if you have AITD. I agree with Kresser when he says to, "avoid gluten if you have AITD, regardless of whether tests show an active antibody response. This is especially true if you have one of the genes (HLA DQ1,2, or 3) that predisposes you to developing gluten intolerance. In my opinion continuing to eat gluten when you have a confirmed autoimmune condition simply isn’t worth risking the immune destruction it could cause.”

Traditional Celiac testing using antibody tests and small intestine biopsies require gluten consumption for an extended period of time, which make you more susceptible to long-term inflammation. DNA tests (which don't waver based on diet) using an oral swab are more accurate and a positive result will detect the likelihood of your symptoms relating to CD, but they won't prove it. If you have risk factors such as European decent, a family member diagnosed with CD, an autoimmune condition (such as SLE, RA, Type 1 DM, AITD) and/or exude symptoms, you’re better off removing gluten from your diet all together.

While many people reserve gluten-free eating for Celiac patients on one end of the spectrum and trendy dieters on the other, there’s a vast space in between designated for gluten sensitivity. Dr. Hyman goes on to say that, "Gluten sensitivity is actually an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, with wide-ranging effects across all organ systems including your brain, heart, joints, digestive tract, and more. It can be the single cause behind many different 'diseases.' To correct these diseases, you need to treat the cause–which is often gluten sensitivity–not just the symptoms.”

This means removing gluten in it’s entirety through the use of whole foods like fresh or frozen produce (fruits and veggies), nuts, seeds (like flax, hemp, chia, pepita, sunflower), pseudo grains (like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat) beans and organic animal products - all as tolerated. This does not mean using highly processed and pro-inflammatory “gluten-free” packaged products filled with ingredients like GM corn and soy and pro-inflammatory vegetable oils.