Your immune system is a complex machine, and just like a car, it can’t function properly without the right fuel. Here are six key nutrients that one functional medicine doctor considers to be the premium fuel. If your body is deficient in any or all of these key nutrients, your immune system is at risk of going haywire and attacking the body’s own tissues, which could lead to autoimmune disease. Restoring optimal levels of these nutrients can help prevent autoimmune disease, and even help reverse autoimmune disease.
Six Common Nutrient Deficiencies in autoimmune patients
Here are the six nutrient deficiencies that research has linked to autoimmune disease, and that I most commonly see in my autoimmune patients. Make sure you’re getting enough of each of them to help prevent autoimmune disease from onsetting.
1. Vitamin D
Even if you live in a warm climate and get plenty of sunlight, your vitamin D levels could still be below optimal levels. This is particularly problematic for patients with an autoimmune disease, because vitamin D plays a critical role in the immune system. Vitamin D supports your ability to fight off viral and bacterial infections that can trigger or worsen autoimmune diseases. Additionally, vitamin D stimulates regulatory T cells, which are responsible for differentiating between dangerous invaders and “self” cells, or cells that belong to the body. When vitamin D promotes the T cells, it teaches the immune system to not attack itself.
2. Omega 3 fatty acids
Many Americans are deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids, mostly because our modern day diet tends to contain more polyunsaturated vegetable oils instead of quality animal fats. Studies have shown that Omega 3 oils enhance B cell activation and select antibody production, which can lower the inflammatory response and help your immune system fight off pathogens.
3. B vitamins
B vitamins have a lot of important functions including providing energy to our cells. They also control immune function, hormones, mood, sleep, nerves, circulation and digestion. Vitamin B12, for example, supports the production of white blood cells, which are essential components of the immune system. When your body is low in B12, the white blood cell count is lowered, which in turn weakens the immune system, making it more susceptible to mistakenly attacking its own cells.
Studies show that this mineral is essential in regulating excessive immune responses such as those from autoimmune diseases. It is also a crucial nutrient for proper thyroid function, and studies show that increasing selenium in autoimmune thyroid patients decreases their thyroid antibodies. You can learn more about this in my book, The Thyroid Connection.
Zinc affects multiple parts of the immune system, from the skin barrier to gene regulation within lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). In fact, zinc is crucial for the production of white blood cells, and studies show that people with zinc deficiency are more susceptible to pathogens.
Magnesium is important for both immune function and heart health. It is a mineral that most people are chronically lacking, mostly from stress filled lives and diets high in sugar (sugar depletes magnesium levels). Magnesium deficiency has been shown to cause increased production of proinflammatory cytokines, which raises your overall level of inflammation,
contributing to autoimmune diseases.
What Causes Nutrient Deficiencies in Autoimmune Patients?
Now that we know which nutrients play a critical role in the immune system, let’s look at why autoimmune patients are often low in them and why it’s critical to increase these nutrients to help prevent autoimmune disease from starting or getting worse.
A Nutrient-Poor and Inflammatory Diet
If you are eating a lot of white flour products, refined sugars and processed foods, these foods are completely devoid of nutrients, and what little vitamins they offer typically are added synthetically.
In addition to nutrient-poor, processed foods, a diet high in inflammatory foods can also cause nutrient deficiencies. Inflammatory foods, including gluten, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, nightshades, eggs, dairy, sugar and caffeine, not only stimulate your immune system, but they also cause leaky gut.
A Leaky Gut
We know from Dr. Alessio Fasano’s research that virtually all autoimmune patients have a leaky gut. What you may not know is that when your gut is leaky, the junctions in the intestinal walls that keep your GI lining tight become “loose” allowing food proteins, bacteria, yeast and viruses to enter the bloodstream. In addition, some people have blunted villi — the small hair-like projections in your small intestine that absorb nutrients — and so they can’t absorb foods properly, eventually becoming deficient in vitamins and minerals.. This causes a wave of inflammation that triggers or worsens autoimmunity. Collagen may help reduce symptoms of leaky gut.
Common gene mutations such as MTHFR significantly reduce your ability to convert certain nutrients that contribute to methylation, including B vitamins, choline, folate and more. VDR mutations can cause low vitamin D, and mutations that control Sulfation, a liver detoxification pathway, can cause zinc deficiency. If you have one or more of these gene mutations, you might be getting plenty of nutrients from your diet or supplements, but your body simply isn’t able to
optimally utilize them.
How To Test For Nutrient Deficiencies
If you have an autoimmune disease and want to get your levels tested, there are standard lab tests your doctor can order to assess your nutrient states. However, conventional medicine relies on “normal” reference ranges that are far from optimal. I discuss the lab ranges I prefer in my books, The Autoimmune Solution and The Thyroid Connection. If you are working with a Functional Medicine doctor, I highly recommend getting an ION® (Individual Optimal Nutrition) Panel which analyzes both urine and blood samples to measure levels of key vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and organic, fatty, and amino acids. It can provide very insightful clues to what
might be causing your health conditions.
How to Prevent or Overcome Nutrient Deficiencies
Restoring optimal levels of these key nutrients is possible! By upping your dietary intake, and addressing the underlying causes of your deficiencies, you can replenish your levels and strengthen your immune system which in turn helps prevent autoimmune disease. Here are 4 helpful tips:
1. Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet
Getting your nutrients through food is always the best, so you’ll want to add plenty of these foods and nutrients to your diet:
2. Heal Your Gut
Healing your gut is one of the most important steps to take in your autoimmune journey. It will improve your ability to absorb nutrients, and also dramatically reduce your inflammation and calm your immune system.
I use Functional Medicine’s 4R Approach to healing the gut:
Vitamin D - fatty fish, grass-fed or pasture-raised proteins and organ meats
- Selenium - garlic, turkey, liver and red meat
- Magnesium - dark leafy greens like spinach and chard, figs, fish, avocado and bananas
- Zinc - oysters and seafoods, grass-fed beef and lamb
- Omega 3 - grass-fed meats, fatty fish, flax and chia oil
- B vitamins - leafy greens, animal proteins, fresh and dried fruits, seafood and avocados
3. Take High-Quality Supplements
Although optimizing your diet, healing your gut and eating for your genetics go a long way, you may need to add in supplements as well to help prevent autoimmune disease. The unfortunate truth is that our nutrient-depleted soil, high-stress lifestyles and toxic environments make it very difficult to get all of our nutrients from food alone. Fortunately, high-quality supplements can step in to fill the gap.
Here are the supplements I recommend for everyone with autoimmunity take on a daily basis:
Remove the Bad – Get rid of gut infections and toxic and inflammatory foods.
Restore the Good – Add back the essential ingredients for proper digestion.
Reinoculate with Healthy Bacteria – Reestablish a healthy gut flora.
Repair the Gut – Rebuild the mucosal lining of your gut.
Dr. Amy Myers is a functional medicine physician and New York Times Bestselling Author of The Autoimmune Solution and The Thyroid Connection. Her second book, The Thyroid Connection, explores why thyroid disease is such an epidemic and what truly causes thyroid dysfunction, and provides a 28-day plan to jumpstart your health and reverse thyroid symptoms, whether you have Graves’, Hashimoto’s, thyroid cancer, nodules or cysts, or have had your thyroid removed or ablated.
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- Multivitamin – A daily multivitamin to build a foundation of optimal health. The one I carry in my store contains the full recommended levels of selenium, magnesium and zinc.
B vitamins – The best source for this is my Vitamin B Complex which contains all eight B vitamins in a form that is easily absorbable. If you have one or two MTHFR mutations, please use my Methylation Support that includes premethylated B vitamins and other important nutrients needed for methylation.
Omega 3 – Omega-3 supplements often come from fatty fish which can also be high in mercury. Make sure that the omega-3 supplement you choose is from a reputable source that verifies through a third party that they have no detectable mercury in their product.
Vitamin D – When supplementing with vitamin D, be sure to choose one that combines D3 (the active form of vitamin D) with vitamin K2 because these nutrients are complementary and work together for proper immune, brain, hormone and bone health. The K2 also prevents calcium buildup in your heart from the vitamin D.
Collagen-These amino acids from grass-fed beef provide nutrients that can improve gut health by repairing the intestinal lining and healing a leaky gut. Additionally, collagen can help with repairing damage to joints and detoxing the liver. Collagen is especially helpful for those that have Rheumatoid Arthritis or joint pain.