Gut Health and Autoimmune Diseases

Note from Shelby: Back in October at the DiabetesSisters Weekend for Women, I heard a fascinating talk about gut health by Kelly Schmidt, a dietitian who actually has type 1 diabetes herself. Afterwards, I asked if she would be willing to write a guest post on the topic for Diabetic Foodie. Luckily, she agreed! If you have at least one autoimmune disease, read on. As always, please discuss any dietary and lifestyle changes you are considering with your health care team.


It was late September and I was driving through the backroads of Indiana listening to an episode of the The Paleo View podcast while my husband and I headed home from a very fun weekend in Chicago. I nearly had to pull over when I had an “ah-ha” moment.

Gut Health and Autoimmune Diseases

Dr. Sarah Ballantyne was discussing the risk of getting another autoimmune disease for people who have already have one. As if one disease wasn’t enough, right?!

Autoimmune Diseases

Autoimmune diseases affect more than 50 million Americans. People with an autoimmune disease tend to have an overactive immune system (it’s genetic). The risk of getting an additional autoimmune disease, according to Dr. Ballantyne’s literature review, is one per decade.

As someone who’s had type 1 diabetes (T1D) for more than 26 years, this hit close to home. I learned that T1D is associated with autoimmune thyroid disease (AIT), celiac disease (CD), Addison’s disease (AD), and others. I decided to be proactive.

A Gluten-free Experiment

I remembered that back in 2009, my life changed when I did a gluten-free experiment. Multiple endocrinologists thought I was wasting my time, as I had tested negative several times for celiac disease.

Yet, my A1C and blood sugar control were immediately (and continue to be) more predictable and better than ever under a gluten-free diet. Additionally, my eczema, insomnia, and female hormones improved.

Food Sensitivities

Just last July I did a food sensitivity test on myself. My reaction to wheat was off the charts, followed by gluten. Celiac (an allergy) is very different than a sensitivity, but taking my food sensitivity results seriously has improved my overall well-being. I hope it’s also helping me to avoid additional autoimmune disorders.

In the last two years, I’ve experimented more with my diet and am hoping to wean myself off thyroid medication. (My thyroid tanked when I became pregnant with my second child). It will be a slow process, but I just made a decrease in my thyroid medicine dose, so it’s working. No doubt, food is powerful. Slower than medicine, but powerful.

The Progression of an Autoimmune Disease

Fortunately, the progression of an autoimmune disease is not predetermined. Research concludes there are 3 things that contribute:

    1. Genetics
    2. Environmental factors – including everything from heavy metal toxicity to a stressful emotional event
    3. Leaky gut

It’s valuable to understand that an autoimmune disease can sit brewing in the body for years before a diagnosis occurs. The great news is we can do a lot to prevent this last “straw” from breaking the camel’s back.

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach, the best way to stave off additional autoimmune diseases is to work on your gut health. Focus on:

  • what you eat
  • what your body absorbs
  • how you take care of your body (i.e. lifestyle)

Gut health - diet

Diet/What We Eat

  1. Anyone with one or more autoimmune diseases may want to take a look at the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). Similar to paleo, this diet excludes grains, dairy, and legumes, but also eliminates nightshades, nuts, seeds, eggs, alcohol, and sugar. You basically eat meat, seafood, certain vegetables, some fruits, healthy fats, and spices that help to promote anti-inflammatory reactions within the body. This diet can be a very low-carb diet, but it can also be higher in carbs because it includes foods like plantains, sweet potatoes, yams, fruit, yucca, and taro. This approach can be tough for someone with diabetes. Thankfully there are great resources to help you manage, from books to websites to podcasts. Phoenix Helix is a leader in communicating effective ways of living this lifestyle.
  2. Another way to make sure you are eating the right things for gut health is to do an elimination diet. Remove the biggest potential offenders: gluten, wheat, sugar, eggs, soy, dairy, seed/man-made oils (think corn, canola, soy, safflower), and corn. Take notes about how you feel.
  3. Increase vegetables and fruits in your diet.
  4. Diversify your meals.
  5. Incorporate beneficial spices and herbs.

Gut Health/What We Absorb

  1. The first step in improving gut health is known as the 4 R Protocol. First REMOVE inflammatory foods and chronic stressors, REPLACE the problem foods with healing foods, REPAIR the gut with specific supplements, and REBALANCE and nurture the gut going forward with probiotics.
  2. Research suggests the gut can take on average 2 to 12 weeks to heal, and maybe even longer for those of us with an autoimmune disease. Someone with a gluten sensitivity may need six months for their gut to heal. Note there is little benefit in a “gluten-light” diet. A fraction of a crumb can inflame the body; I know this first-hand. When the cook in a café I used to work in cut my chicken breast with the same knife he used for slicing chicken sandwiches, I’d get ill. Bottom line, it’s important to be 100% gluten-free when experimenting.
  3. Increase fermented foods in the diet along with coconut products, bone broth, and collagen.
  4. Learn your food sensitivities and avoid them. Get tested using Cyrex Labs, MRT LEAP, or KBMO. (I can be a resource in acquiring a test). Learn how well you tolerate FODMAPs.
  5. Moderate saturated fat as it can impair the microbiota.
  6. Replenish nutrient stores with potent supplements, and ask for advice from a health professional to find high-quality products that are right for your needs and background.

Lifestyle/How We Take Care of Ourselves:

  1. Prioritize sleep, both quantity, and quality. Did you know in 1965 we got on average 90 minutes more sleep per night than we do today? That’s a big difference, and females need more sleep than males. Learn how to sleep better.
  2. Engage in adventure and hobbies. If you don’t have the time, shift things around so you do.
  3. Continue to prioritize blood sugar control. Swings cause inflammation and affect gut health.
  4. React better to stress. It isn’t always easy to reduce stress. Instead, put your energy into how you respond to challenges and tough tasks.
  5. Work on communication so you can be heard and respected.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kelly Schmidt, RD, LDNKelly Schmidt, RD, LDN is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian, Author, and a real food wellness advocate also known as the Diabetic Dietitian. In 1991 she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and as a child she learned the power of the phrase “food is thy medicine.” Visit her at Kelly Schmidt Wellness.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice. Always discuss any dietary or lifestyle changes with your doctor first.

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