It’s no secret to people living with lupus: diet can have a major impact on symptoms. The foods we eat can alter the bacteria throughout the gastrointestinal tract, from the stomach to the rectum. Though microscopic in size, these gut microbiota have a giant impact on the human body including:
- regulation of the immune system (immunomodulation)
- digestion and metabolization of nutrients
- metabolism of medications
- antimicrobial protection
Online, there are plenty of advertised diets for the mitigation of lupus symptoms. High-fiber diets and high-vitamin foods like whole grains and green, leafy vegetables are commonly included in these diets. But, how do high-fiber diets provide benefit? Let’s explore the research.
High-Fiber Diet & Gut Health
A 2018 Yale study explored how high-fiber diets effect the bacteria in the guts of laboratory mice. First, the scientists identified a type of bacterium, Lactobacillus reuteri, in the gut of mice which triggered an immune response, and perhaps even the development of an autoimmune disease. Then, the researchers altered the diet of the mice to see how the change would impact the bacteria present.
The mice were fed a “resistant starch” diet. This mimics high-fiber diets in humans. Resistant starch is not fully absorbed in the small intestine. It continues into the large intestine where it ferments, enriches good bacteria, and secretes fatty acids. The presence of these good bacteria “suppresses both the growth and movement of L. reuteri bacteria outside the gut that would otherwise lead to autoimmune disease.”
This study builds off of a 2013 study on meat-based diet. When mice were given meat-based diets, symptoms of colitis (an autoimmune condition in the intestines and colon) worsened. When given resistant starch along with the meat, however, the mice had lower levels of inflammation.
Understanding animal studies
Animal studies are a part of the development of both the human understanding of biology and the development of new medications. The practice does raise some ethical dilemmas and has brought about a number of guiding principles, including The Three Rs (developed by W. M. S. Russell and R. L. Burch).
The 3Rs aim to guide researchers when using animals in studies and encourage:
- Can include the use of tissue cultures, perfused organs, cellular fractions, etc.
- Strategies to obtain comparable levels of information from fewer animals
- Methods that alleviate and/or minimize potential pain or distress; enhancing animal welfare
In addition to the ethical considerations, it is not possible to simply extrapolate all findings from an animal studies to humans. However, animal studies are an important step on the development roadmap to ensure that products are successful in animals and are not toxic.
At a biological level, there are many similarities between animals and humans. 98% of human genes have a comparable gene in mice, and mice have a similar gene expression. Additionally, they are mammals with similar reproductive and nervous systems, and they suffer from many common diseases as humans including cancer and diabetes.
Research in context
We already know that there are many benefits to a fiber-rich diet for both humans and animals, and that good gut health is one of them. While more work is necessary to understand how this can fully be translated to humans, the Yale study shines a light on the link between diet and autoimmunity. Said Martin Kriegel, one of the study authors, “We identified a pathway that is driving autoimmune disease and mitigate by diet.”
Diet and Health
Clearly, food plays a crucial role in health and fighting inflammation for Lupus Warriors. It may be worthwhile to include a nutritionist on your lupus treatment team and bring up any dietary challenges or restrictions with your primary care doctor.
Some strategies for a healthy diet:
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and healthy fats
- Avoid saturated fats and processed starches
- Get enough vitamin C
- Eating omega-3 fatty acids
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