Autoimmune diseases develop from a dysfunction of the immune system, where it mistakenly attacks your body.

While some affect specific organs, such as type 1 diabetes, which affects the pancreas, others – like lupus – affect the whole body.

Symptoms vary according to the condition but can include fatigue, rashes and achy joints.

The exact causes remain a mystery, although scientists have several theories.

Genetics plays a part, as does our environment – low vitamin D levels have been shown to be a risk factor for multiple sclerosis.

Certain infections, such as glandular fever, can also trigger an immune response while lifestyle links include obesity, prolonged stress, the western diet and poor sleep.

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Sick woman lying in bed
Auto-immune diseases are like living with the enemy within (stock image)

“There are two theories as to why women are more likely to be affected,” says Paul Howard, CEO of Lupus UK (lupusuk.org.uk).

“Firstly, women are more likely to inherit a faulty gene if it’s linked to the X chromosome because they have two X chromosomes.”

“Secondly, hormonal activity plays an important role.

“With lupus, many women ­experience the first signs of the disease during puberty, pregnancy and menopause. Disease flare-ups can also be associated with the menstrual cycle.”

Treatment varies according to the autoimmune disease, explains Paul.

For example, the main treatment for type 1 diabetes is insulin while those with coeliac disease need to eliminate gluten from their diet.

“For lupus, the first line of treatment is anti-malarial medication (hydroxychloroquine).”

Other common treatments includeimmunosuppressants and steroids.

How to help yourself

Dogged determination led physiotherapist Louise Blanchfield to create a diet to help improve her husband Richard’s health.

He had ­developed the painful bowel disease ulcerative colitis and was forced to use a walking stick due to arthritis.

“Modern medicine had run out of answers, except ‘take the tablet and get worse’,” she says.

“We started removing foods we believed may be causing the damage, eating foods which contain nutrients needed for the gut to repair itself and ones that are anti-inflammatory in nature,” she explains.

Fruit & vegetables pie chart/colour wheel
Eating the right foods is so important

Although sceptical at first, within weeks, Richard noticed improvements and over the following year slowly got better.

He is now totally pain-free without any medication.

“Richard followed the diet for nine months, before easing off some of the strict measures. Now, he can eat gluten and dairy on a rotational basis, and can even go off the plan on holiday for up to three weeks,” says Louise.

Inspired by this success, Louise qualified as a nutritional therapist and is now The Food Physio (thefoodphysio.com).

She now offers advice and guidance with Richard, plus they created more than 100 recipes in their book, Eating My Way Back to Health.

Keep your gut healthy

As more than 70 per cent of our immune system is located within the gut, many experts believe that the development of autoimmune disorders begins here.

The gut microflora (trillions of organisms, mainly bacteria) profoundly influences the immune system and can be damaged by antibiotics, infection, stress, diet and lifestyle.

Experts advise including fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, in your diet and taking a good quality probiotic.

Look at your whole diet

There’s growing evidence that diet can play a part in the management of symptoms associated with ­autoimmune disease, says Paul.

“Some research suggests eating a plant-based, wholefood diet, avoiding pro-inflammatory foods and increasing intake of anti-inflammatory foods can ­potentially benefit some people,” he explains.

Everybody is different, says Louise, who advises discussing any big diet changes with your doctor. For instance, following a gluten and dairy-free diet helped Richard to remove food intolerances that were inflaming and damaging the gut.

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She says aim for eight to 10 servings of colourful fruit and veg per day to boost antioxidants, vitamins and minerals needed for optimum body function. Include sweet potatoes, beetroot, turnip and carrots, as they feed beneficial bacteria.

Raw garlic helps balance gut bacteria. Chicken bone broth contains collagen to help heal the gut while cabbage contains glutamine, which is needed as a fuel by gut cells.

She advises including ­anti-inflammatory spices like ginger and turmeric and avoiding ­inflammatory foods, including white potatoes and white rice, processed foods, pork products, vegetable oils, alcohol and fizzy drinks, cakes, biscuits and crisps.

Deal with stress

This is an important trigger because of its effect on our immune system, says Paul.

“People have reported that their lupus developed following a traumatic event and their symptoms are more active in stressful times.”

Try to minimise work stress, advises Louise.

Fit young woman doing squats, strengthening her core, working out on a mat, lifestyle and health concept
Exercise can help reduce stress (stock image)

“Leave your desk at lunchtime to go for a walk, have a change of scenery, to switch off from your work and to bring down your stress levels before you eat.”

Feel stressed? Try listening to music or 10minutes of deep breathing exercises to calm you down.

“Take time for yourself each day – have a hot bath, read a book, meditate or take up a hobby,” she adds.

Prioritise sleep

Getting seven to eight hours a night is vital, says Louise. “Without good, deep sleep, the body has less time to perform its necessary jobs and our system simply does not function as effectively.”

Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Paul suggests going back to basics with sleep hygiene – no gadgets, winding down before bed and avoiding naps if possible.

And have an Epsom salt bath.

“Magnesium is a calming mineral that stops an overactive brain, but it also relaxes muscles so helps us settle down and drift off to sleep,” Louise says.

Get vitamin D

This plays an important role in the immune system, says Paul. “Many people with lupus are deficient.

"Unfortunately, the majority of patients are also sun-sensitive so require dietary ­supplements rather than getting it from exposure to sunlight.”

If you’re not sun-sensitive, a walk outside in the sun for 10-15 minutes will boost your vitamin D levels, suggests Louise.

And take a supplement from October until the end of March.

Keep moving

Exercise boosts energy, produces endorphins that act as natural painkillers and helps to reduce inflammation throughout the body.

It can also help combat the ­depression and anxiety that often accompany autoimmune illness.

“Some people with ­an autoimmune disease may be less active so the body can become ­deconditioned,” says Paul. “This can lead to muscle loss and less energy, causing a negative cycle leading to further deterioration. Activity can help break this cycle.”

He urges people to pace themselves and listen to their body. “It’s tempting to try to fit a lot into good days but it can be counter-productive.”

Find what works for you, get into a routine and stick to it. Always include body resistance, like squats, to maintain muscle mass.

“Some days will be harder than others, adjust your workout accordingly and remember, low-impact activities are easier on joints, backs and knees,” says Louise.

Find out more

“Those who learn about their condition feel in control and empowered,” says Paul.

“They feel more confident attending medical appointments and are more likely to ask questions and have a better relationship with their doctor.”

Find support through the relevant charities and patient forums.

Stay hydrated

“Our bodies are 60per cent water, so it is no surprise we need to make sure we replenish it often for optimum function,” says Louise.

Make water your drink of choice.