Gluten and Autoimmune Disease
Can cutting inflammatory foods prevent or reverse autoimmune symptoms? Amy Myers, MD, says dietary and other simple changes can make a big difference.
Amy Myers, a former emergency room physician, knows just how powerful conventional medicine can be when a life is saved. But when it came to managing her own autoimmune condition, a thyroid disorder called Graves’ disease, conventional medicine fell short. Initial treatment nearly destroyed Myers’ liver and so, at just 32 years old, doctors said her only option was to remove her thyroid altogether.
Frustrated and still not feeling well with her thyroid gone, Myers vowed to find a better way to treat thyroid and other autoimmune diseases. She’d eventually find it with the help of functional medicine.
A blend of traditional and alternative medicine, functional medicine focuses on treating the whole person, rather than a set of symptoms. Proponents say food sensitivities, a leaky gut, toxins, infections and stress are at the root of most chronic diseases.
When Myers tested these tenets on herself—she cleaned up her diet, healed her gut, reduced her exposure to toxins and reduced her stress—the improvement in her health was, in her words, “a medical miracle.” Her longstanding issues with anxiety, panic attacks and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) disappeared. And although she’s unable to reverse her autoimmune disease—she no longer has a thyroid—she feels empowered with tools to prevent future autoimmune diseases. (Having one autoimmune condition ups the risk of developing another.)
Myers has since set up a bustling functional medicine practice in Austin, Texas. In her new book, The Autoimmune Solution, she shares the dietary changes and immune boosting strategies that she says work for her and her patients. Health editor Christine Boyd recently chatted with Myers about the plan the author has dubbed, “The Myers Way.”
GF&M Conventional medicine says if you have an autoimmune disorder, you’re stuck with it for life. Do you agree?
Amy Myers, MD In conventional medicine, we’re taught to figure out what disease a person has and to give medication to combat the symptoms of disease. You hope this works. If this treatment stops working, you go onto harsher medications that may leave you with miserable side effects and a lousy quality of life. We’re not trained to question why, how or is this something that can be changed. We can turn the immune system around to support the body, rather than attack it. We may not be able to get someone 100 percent off medication if, for example, their thyroid has been completely destroyed or removed like mine. But we can reduce inflammation, reduce antibody levels and reduce medications that block the immune system and have harsh side effects.
There’s a line of thinking that contends there’s little you can do to avoid developing an autoimmune disorder. What’s your view?
Back in the day, we thought genes were static and if you had a genetic proclivity for rheumatoid arthritis, for example, you were at risk, if not destined, to develop it. But we now know through epigenetics that it’s much more complicated than that. Genes aren’t static and there are environmental influences that change the genes and whether or not they get turned on. Through identical twin studies with type-1 diabetes, we’ve learned that only about 25 percent of autoimmune risk is genetically determined. The rest—75 percent—results from environmental factors that are turning on and off genes.
So how do we reduce the autoimmune burden?
Reducing inflammation is your biggest weapon in reversing and preventing autoimmunity. In The Autoimmune Solution, I detail four pillars that address the different environmental factors that contribute to chronic inflammation.
What are the four pillars?
The first is to eliminate toxic foods like sugar and caffeine. We also eliminate highly inflammatory foods, like gluten, grains, soy, dairy and legumes. The second pillar is to introduce restorative foods, like healthy fats, and supplements, like probiotics, to heal the gut. Third, we identify toxins in our everyday life—from our shampoo to drinking water. Fourth, we focus on strategies to cope with stresses that tax the immune system. All four pillars are important but the main focus for one person may be diet while eliminating toxins may be more important for another.
Do you recommend that everyone with an autoimmune disorder avoid gluten?
If you have an autoimmune disease, I consider you somewhere on the gluten sensitivity spectrum. The work of Alessio Fasano, MD, introduced the concept that gluten creates a leaky gut. Some people’s bodies can’t quickly repair these leaks because of various insults to the gut. A leaky gut lets gluten and other partially digested proteins into the bloodstream. Not only does this fire up the immune system, it can lead to a phenomenon called molecular mimicry, where antibodies intended to attack gluten get confused and attack similar-looking healthy tissue instead. The thyroid is especially vulnerable to this. I definitely encourage anyone with a thyroid disorder to get off gluten. Editor’s note: Celiac experts strongly advise that you be screened for celiac disease before embarking on a gluten-free diet.
Why are legumes off limits?
Legumes and grains, even gluten-free grains, contain lectins, which are inflammatory substances that inhibit the absorption of minerals and nutrients. Another reason to avoid all grains is because of the potential for cross-contamination with gluten-containing grains.
The four pillars is what you call The Myers Way. How does The Myers Way diet differ from a Paleo diet or other autoimmune protocol diets?
What these diets have in common is a return to real, whole, nutrient-dense food. These diets strip away the misconception that you need to have a sandwich or bread at each meal. What differentiates The Myers Way from other plans is that it was developed by a medical doctor trained in functional medicine.
Is it hard to convince patients to stick with The Myers Way?
Frankly, when patients come to me with longstanding health problems, I don’t have to do much convincing.
I provide simple solutions, like getting water filters and air filters and doing your best to focus on non-GMO and organic foods. In the book, we give you a 30-day meal plan—and the food is delicious. When I got married last March, we served a simple filet, sweet potatoes and broccolini. People loved it.
Does it always work?
For the typical person who’s eating gluten, dairy, soy, etc., it’s rare if there’s not some improvement in autoimmune symptoms, as well as better sleep, more energy and weight loss. These improvements may begin as soon as a week on the plan. If a patient says they followed the diet but haven’t seen any improvement, then we need to re-address the remaining three pillars, particularly the gut. This person may have a problem with yeast or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
The Autoimmune Solution is part cookbook. What’s your favorite recipe?
I have a lot of favorites but I love the Tropical Nicaraguan Salad. It’s truly a salad I ate while vacationing in Nicaragua. The Chicken Coconut Curry is a favorite among patients, family and friends.
Tropical Gluten-Free Nicaraguan Salad
4-6 cups organic mixed field greens
¼-½ small mango, peeled and grated
½ cup strawberries, thinly sliced
½ cucumber, thinly sliced
1 avocado, diced
¼ teaspoon sea salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1. In a large salad bowl, combine greens, mango, strawberries, cucumber and avocado.
2. In a small bowl, mix together salt, oil and vinegar to make the dressing.
3. Drizzle desired amount of dressing over the salad and serve.
Each serving contains 353 calories, 29g total fat, 4g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 0mg cholesterol, 328mg sodium, 25g carbohydrate, 11g fiber, 10g sugars, 4g protein, 7Est GL.
Gluten-Free Chicken Coconut Curry
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 medium onion, diced
½ tablespoon ground turmeric
½ tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon onion powder
1 sweet potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
2 celery stalks, chopped
½ cup chopped scallions
1 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 organic, pasture-raised chicken breast, cooked and cut into bite-size pieces
1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
1 avocado, sliced
1. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Coat the pan with olive oil.
2. When the pan is hot, sauté garlic until slightly browned. Add onion and more oil, if needed. Cover pan and let mixture simmer until onions are translucent.
3. Stir in turmeric, cumin, coriander and onion powder, coating onions. Then add sweet potato, celery, scallions, water and salt. Simmer vegetables until sweet potatoes are soft.
4. Add cooked chicken and coconut milk. Continue to simmer to mix the flavors until ingredients are heated through.
5. Serve warm topped with avocado slices.
Each serving contains 411 calories, 29g total fat, 14g saturated fat, 0g trans fat, 16mg cholesterol, 695mg sodium, 24g carbohydrate, 6g fiber, 7g sugars, 11g protein, 6Est GL.
Recipes reprinted with permission from The Autoimmune Solution (HarperOne) by Amy Myers, MD.