Can a Vegan Diet Treat Autoimmune Disease? (Study Summary)

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The idea that a vegan diet can help those with autoimmune diseases is not a new one.

It’s been studied for decades.

The idea behind it is that vegan diets are associated with lower levels of inflammation, while autoimmune diseases (where the immune system attacks healthy tissue) leads to inflammation and damage to various tissues.

While a vegan diet isn’t a cure, it can help manage pain and hopefully limit long-term side effects of autoimmune diseases.

In this post, I’ll summarize the research I found on this topic.

Effect of a Vegan Diet on Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is perhaps the most common autoimmune disease, affecting about 1% of the world’s population.

People suffering from RA experience chronic pain and stiffness, and joint health deteriorates over time to the point of developing deformities.

That’s why so much research has been done on RA, and there’s a great deal of it that looks at the effect of different diet types on the symptoms of RA.

Here’s what the research has shown:

  • Both being overweight and eating a diet that includes animal products in it (particularly red meat and dairy) have been shown to make symptoms worse. (Source)
  • In a study that lasted just 4 weeks, a low-fat vegan diet has been shown to improve the severity of symptoms in RA patients including joint pain, swelling, and stiffness. It also led to weight loss, which was likely a major factor in the symptom improvement. (Source)
  • In a 1-year intervention study (about as good as you can get for nutritional studies), patients were put on a gluten-free vegan diet for 3.5 months, and then gradually adopted a vegetarian diet for the rest of the time. After 1 month, patients saw a significant improvement in joint tenderness, swelling, pain, duration of morning stiffness, and other RA symptoms. These improvements were still present at the end of the 1-year study. (Source)

Now, RA is just one autoimmune disease, but studies of the impact of a vegan diet on other autoimmune diseases have shown similar results.

That leaves one other interesting question – can vegan diets lower the risk of developing autoimmune diseases?

Vegan Diets May Also Lower Risk of Autoimmune Disease

It’s known that genetics is the biggest risk factor in developing an autoimmune disease.

However, more recent research suggests a link between a vegan diet and a lower risk.

A 2013 study looked at the data from the Adventist Health Study-2 cohort. They found a significant correlation between vegan diets and a lower risk for hypothyroidism (which is most often caused by an autoimmune disorder known as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), compared to all other diet types (including multiple vegetarian diets). This is after controlling for confounding factors like BMI and demographic variables. (Source)

It’s not definitive, but the link does seem promising, even if it just looked at hypothryroidism.

Summary: Vegan Diets Appear Beneficial for Treating Autoimmune Disease

While it’s not clear if vegan diets can actually help prevent autoimmune diseases, it is very clear that vegan diets can help reduce the severity of symptoms in diseases like RA.

It’s not going to cure one of those diseases, but will help manage symptoms.

This is likely due to most vegan diets promoting lower levels of inflammation, which is the cause of most pain in patients with autoimmune diseases. That’s why a vegan diet may also help treat other conditions triggered by inflammation like ulcerative colitis.

About the author

Dale Cudmore

Your friendly neighborhood vegan from Toronto. Chemical engineer turned semi-professional soccer player and freelance nutrition writer. I've been vegan for years and try to make life easier for others by sharing what I've learned.

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