Holistic Nutrition & Prevention

Get to the root of autoimmune disease

By Nonie DeLong, ROHP, CNP

Dear Nutritionist,

Inflammation is an issue I deal with, as I have lupus, arthritis and sinusitis.  In one of your previous articles, you stated that ‘malnutrition and toxicity’ contribute to inflammation. Would you be more specific about that?  What should I be doing to fix these two possible issues?  


Mary S.

Dear Mary,

Yours is a very complex health picture and obviously outside of the scope of my column to address fully, but you’re correct: holistic treatment for said issues must include addressing inflammation. And to address that I’d start with targeting gut dysbiosis and permeability – which relates directly to your questions around toxins and malnutrition. I’ll try to unpack this a bit.

First, let me clarify the meaning of malnutrition. The root mal means disordered (Latin) or badly (French). We tend to take malnutrition to mean a lack of proper nutrition from not getting enough to eat. But it can also mean a lack of nutrition from not eating enough nutrient rich food or from not extracting adequate nutrients from the food one does eat. So, it’s possible to be well fed, and even eating a ‘healthy’ diet, and yet be severely malnourished if the digestive system isn’t working properly.

Healthy intestines don’t just absorb nutrients and channel waste, their mucosa and structure also act as a barrier to pathogens and an informant to the immune system. When there’s permeability in this barrier (think of it as tiny gaps in a tube-shaped, tightly woven screen) food, various toxins, and microorganisms we’ve been exposed to actually leak into the bloodstream. In a healthy body, only select, fully digested nutrients are given entry into the bloodstream; all the dangerous or improperly digested products are locked inside the tube and swept along to be excreted.

But our bodies are wonderfully designed! Our immune systems are set up to detect leaks and tag antigens on the surface of all potentially harmful substances that get in, creating antibodies to them!  A tag is a signal to obliterate: a sort of seek-and-destroy function, if you will. Toxins, viruses, fungi, bacteria, chemicals, drugs, foreign debris, and proteins all have surface antigens that identify them.

So do many of our own cells, it turns out. But with an immune system that is functioning properly, these are clearly recognized.

In a healthy body the tagged antigens (invaders) are limited and of a specific duration under normal circumstances (a flu virus, for example), after which the body recuperates and the immune response dies down. But, in the case of a leaky gut, the invaders are continual; every time food is consumed there is a slow leak of antigens from various sources. The immune system goes crazy tagging them all as a threat. Even proteins we need get tagged when they leak through the intestinal barrier imperfectly digested! They are identified as offenders and BAM, a food reaction (sensitivity) is borne.

And the immune system response doesn’t stop there. When invaders are non-stop, as they are once there are multiple food sensitivities due to a leaky gut, there is systemic inflammatory response. You see, inflammation can be localized when a tissue is damaged, for example. In this case, we get local swelling, heat, redness, and pain as chemicals are released to bring blood to the injured area to facilitate healing. But inflammation can also be non-specific and systemic if the injury is continual or overwhelming. Systemic inflammation looks like this:

“Seek and destroy botched it again.”

“Not surprising. Snort. Okay, let’s get this done right. Initiate operation overkill.”

Fever: “Let’s torch these guys”

Mucous: “Let’s trap these guys.”

Tissue swelling: “Let’s lock these guys down.”

Call in the killer T-cells: “Let’s attack these guys.”

“Okay, but we’re running low on energy…”

“Right. Slow down energy to the brain and limbs and draw all the energy reserves.”

For someone with lupus, these symptoms will sound very familiar.

The current medical paradigm is that this type of systemic inflammation is the product of a spontaneously overactive or delusional immune system. It’s recognized that people with chronic inflammation are more likely to develop autoimmune disease, but it’s not really understood how. It’s perceived that the body just randomly attacks its own tissues. And these people, in turn, develop multiple chemical and food sensitivities, by unknown mechanisms. Painkillers and anti-inflammatories are the only means by which this model can address such chaos.

But what if the leaky gut sets all this in motion? When antigens are appearing several times a day because food is continually coming in maldigested, the immune system naturally goes on high alert. This isn’t a dysfunctional immune system, it’s a smart one!  It has to become hyper vigilant to do its job in such a scenario. Since the body’s cells have their own antigens, it’s easy to see how they could get accidentally tagged. When quality control in any factory is dealing with three or four times the normal maximum capacity, there are mistakes. And once the ‘self’ antigens have been tagged, the body now targets those cells, those tissues, for destruction without recognizing what it’s doing.

BOOM! Now you have continual systemic inflammation with multiple food and chemical intolerances and an immune system on overdrive, attacking not only outside offenders, but itself. This is a holistic understanding of “autoimmune” disease. It covers RA arthritis, lupus, and chronic sinusitis, among many other diagnoses. And it all starts in the gut.

Moreover, these are often linked to gluten intolerance. Why? Gluten, in particular, damages the gut lining in sensitive individuals. It burns the microvilli and causes gaps in the junctions of the intestinal lining. Remember, these gaps are how antigens ‘leak’ into the bloodstream to initiate and fuel the immune system mayhem.

Undiagnosed non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been shown to masquerade as lupus. As such, I would recommend testing for celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

As for toxins, mycotoxins (molds), parasites, candida, bacteria from root canals, heavy metals, synthetic fragrances, chemical cleaners, chemical body care products, environmental toxins, processed foods, and food additives should all be considered and eliminated. These can precipitate the overactive immune response or just add fuel to it.

Thus, the person with an autoimmune disease will have an overburdened liver. Because the liver is trying to deal with all these toxins any subsequent toxin will have an exaggerated impact compared to the impact they would have on a healthy host. It may be helpful to think of toxicity as anything that adds to the burden of the body. Something as benign as perfume can trigger migraines or seizures in such people. Their livers just can’t handle any more. Discerning and eliminating these toxins can make a big impact on the burden of the body. Removing common toxins like sugar, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and processed foods is imperative for managing symptoms and discomfort.

Of course, it only makes sense that if the immune system is working this hard and the burden on the liver is increased, the body is going to need extra nutrients to keep up. Unfortunately, when we are chronically ill the first thing to go is often our diet. We eat convenience foods instead of quality, nutrient dense foods.

Even if we make the effort to eat quality foods when ill, in the absence of proper digestion and absorption (low stomach acid or leaky gut), deficiencies will develop. These deficiencies, in turn, make it difficult for tissues (like the damaged gut tissue) to self repair. And the overburdened immune system and systems won’t have the nutrients they need to self regulate and relax. This is why I say malnutrition plays a large role in chronic inflammation.

As such, healing the digestive system and adding strategic supplements to a nutrient dense, easy-to-digest diet is essential to address chronic inflammation. And autoimmune conditions require identifying and avoiding (or rotating) food intolerances. Together these help people caught in the cycle of chronic inflammation to start to repair damaged tissues and calm the inflammatory response for symptom relief.

As always, if readers have their own health questions, I welcome them. Just send me an email. Of course, if you need further direction or assistance, you can always reach out! Find me online at https://www.hope-health.ca/ or by email at nonienutritionista@gmail.com.


Nonie Nutritionista

Nonie DeLong is a registered orthomolecular health practitioner, licensed nutritionist in both Canada and the U.S., and student of the Ontario College of Homeopathy.  

Photo credit: © LaylaBird via Canva.com

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