Diet for Chronic Illness and Immune Support
Overcoming a chronic illness requires a multi-faceted approach. One of the foundations to healing is to support an optimum functioning immune system and to limit harmful inflammation throughout the body. Your diet and nutritional status are central players in achieving these objectives.
A diet that supports the immune system includes foods that provide the necessary raw ingredients from the three main food groups of proteins, carbohydrates and fats/oils. You want these to be as nature intended, with minimal alteration or processing. The best way to eat healthy is to buy fresh, local ingredients and to cook at home from scratch, limiting eating out at restaurants, and especially at fast food vendors.
Proteins are incorporated into every cell in our bodies. They are instrumental for cell growth and repair. Proteins make up a large part of the immune system and so protein deficiency will impair immune function. Excluding food intolerances, your proteins can include whey (dairy), eggs, fish, fowl, and meat, and to a lesser extent legumes (soy) and some cheeses. Depending on your build and your activity level, aim for 0.4 grams of protein per pound per day; for example, a 120 lb individual would require about 50 grams of protein daily and a 180 lb adult would require 70 grams per day (growing adolescents may require higher amounts).
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of fuel and are plant derived. You want to choose carbohydrates that are complex, meaning high in fiber and unrefined, such as whole grains, fresh fruits and fresh vegetables. Steer clear of the refined, highly processed ‘high glycemic carbs’ such as sodas, cereals, bagels, donuts, pastries, fluffy buns, sweets, alcohol, waffles, pancakes, and even a lot of fruit drinks. Poor choices in carbohydrate ingestion and the associated chaotic blood sugar levels may lower your immune function and promote inflammation that also dysregulates your immune function. Highly refined carbohydrates can also contribute to candida (yeast) overgrowth -- particularly in antibiotic users.
The last main food group, and a secondary source of fuel for our bodies, is fats and oils. There are good fats that are essential for health and there are bad fats that are detrimental to health. Fats are incorporated into every cell membrane in our body and the quality of fat thereby influences the functioning of every cell. Healthy fats are extra virgin olive oil, avocado and small amounts of organic butter and coconut oil as well as raw or plain-roasted nuts and seeds.
Super healthy oils are from the omega-3 family and are best obtained by eating cold water fish (salmon, sardine and mackerel). Plant sources for omega-3 oils are not as bioavailable as fish sources and include flax seeds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds. Omega-3 oils are anti-inflammatory, immune-supportive and can help with memory and nervous system functioning. Aim for 1500 to 3000 mg. per day, or at least several times per week.
Fats that should be avoided include partially hydrogenated oils that are found in fast foods, snack foods, many restaurant foods and in vegetable oils like cottonseed, shortening, and margarine. Limit oils such as safflower, corn, and even canola. These oils are often found in commercial foods and tend to push inflammatory fires in the body.
In addition to choosing healthy foods and limiting less healthy food choices, some people will also have food allergies and food intolerances that will require them to limit these foods. There are a range of food intolerances, some inherited but many acquired. A true food allergy is typically thought of as an immediate hypersensitivity reaction that results in tissue swelling and inflammation, and even shock and collapse. The foods typically associated with this type of allergy are peanuts, shellfish, fish and eggs. Then there are delayed food reactions or “food intolerances” that are due to enzyme deficiencies and other mechanism that mimic allergic reactions but without the risk for shock and collapse.
The most common food intolerance is to dairy, or more specifically to lactose, the main sugar in dairy products. Up to 75% of the world’s population have some degree of difficulty in digesting lactose and manifest symptoms such as nausea, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and gas when they eat dairy. Only 3% of people actually have an allergy to milk, and that is to the protein in milk called casein. The symptoms are similar to lactose intolerance but can be more severe and also involve the skin and lungs.
Another food that many people have unrecognized trouble with is wheat, and to a protein called “gluten” that is found in barley, rye, oats, wheat and spelt. One can have either an actual wheat allergy, gluten intolerance, or an autoimmune reaction to gluten called celiac disease, or a blending of these conditions. Celiac disease (also called gluten sensitivity) differs from gluten intolerance or wheat allergy in that the long term effects of eating it can be much more severe. Gluten sensitivity is thought to affect 1/100 people worldwide and most people don’t know that they have it. Unlike celiac disease, there are no immunologic markers, i.e. gliadin or ttg- IgA antibodies, for this acquired dietary disorder. If an individual has celiac or gluten sensitivity and continues to eat gluten they can complicate their illness by contributing to systemic inflammation.
Even if you choose a high quality, whole foods diet, a chronic illness often results in excessive systemic inflammation, oxidative stress and mitochondrial dysfunction (mitochondria are the power station of each cell). These are problems at the cellular level that often benefit from taking selected antioxidants supplements which can help neutralize the excess production of free radicals inside the mitochondria. Testing is available to better assess antioxidant and nutritional deficiencies but even without testing these basic dietary guidelines can go a long ways towards better health.
For more information these resources can be helpful:
It Starts With Food, Melissa Hartwig
Practical Paleo: A Customized Approach to Health and a Whole Foods Lifestyle, Diane Sanfilippo
Primal Blueprint, Mark Sisson & Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals, Mark Sisson
The Inflammation Syndrome, Jack Challen
The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book, Jessica Black, ND
1,000 Gluten Free Recipes, Carol Fenster
The Road to Immunity, Kenneth Bock, MD
Celiac disease/gluten hypersensitivity: http://www.celiac.com
Elimination diet: http://www.drcranton.com/elimination_diet.htm