Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease? You’re not alone – approximately 50 million Americans have an autoimmune disorder. And while medical professionals are still determining exactly why we get autoimmune diseases, more knowledge of how these diseases are impacted by our daily habits — including nutrition — comes to light each day.
Autoimmune (AI) diseases are conditions in which one’s antibodies attack healthy tissue and organs. There are over 100 types of autoimmune diseases, and the number of people diagnosed with autoimmunity is increasing for reasons unknown – in Minnesota alone, the number of individuals diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease has tripled in the last 10 years. AI diseases aren’t specific to the US either, as autoimmunity is increasing in countries throughout the world. And, 75% of those affected with autoimmunity are women.
As autoimmunity has increased, we’ve discovered several consistencies among these diseases. For instance, AI diseases tend to run in families, which indicates that genetics are a factor in developing the disease. We’ve also learned that one’s that environment can play a role in the development of autoimmune disease — for example, smoking can increase one’s chances of developing Rheumatoid Arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting many joints, especially those in the hands and feet. Many AI diseases also share the same symptoms, such as fatigue, weight gain, and depression, which can make it challenging to nail down an official diagnosis. A sensitive stomach can be a major symptom of autoimmunity as 70% of the cells that make up the immune system are located in the gut, so proper nutrition specific to your AI disease is essential in managing symptoms to continue to live your life without interruption. (Coincidentally, March is both Autoimmune Disease Awareness and National Nutrition Month – a great reminder of the importance of nutrition in managing AI diseases!)
Despite these consistencies among AI disease, it’s important to remember those autoimmunity impacts individuals differently. While some may not be able to work at all (Rheumatoid Arthritis can lead to disability within 10 years of diagnosis), others are able to perform daily functions with little impact from their disease (when following a proper nutrition plan, those with Celiac’s Disease can function as normal).
So, going back to our original question: Have you or someone you know been diagnosed with an AI disease? We encourage you to consider the following tips below:
- Stay persistent! A patient with autoimmunity will see an average of 4 doctors before diagnosis, and once diagnosed you may need to make major life-long changes to your habits. Learn to listen to your body and become your own advocate in your treatment.
- Nutrition can have a major impact on the management of AI diseases, so consider working with a Registered Dietitian who can help you determine what to eat.
(*Be sure to always consult with your physician prior to beginning any exercise program.
Maria Beall is an ACSM Certified Exercise Physiologist who has been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disorder that affects the thyroid. After years of being told her heart palpitations were all in her head, gaining 15 pounds, and experiencing chronic fatigue, a doctor finally discovered her autoimmune disease. Maria dedicates her time teaching Yoga and Senior Fitness classes and educating others on how they can survive and thrive with an AI disease with F.I.T. — Food, Inspiration and Training.
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