A (Simple) Cure for Autoimmune Disease?
Autoimmune diseases like lupus, Crohn’s, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and colitis are some of the most frustrating diagnoses, in part because of conventional medicine’s inability to effectively cope with them. There just aren’t a lot of answers out there. As a result, many patients turn to lifestyle and diet changes—i.e., things they can actually control—which, as it turns out, just might be the perfect instinct. According to Dr. Steven Gundry, a celebrated heart surgeon and cardiologist who transformed his entire career to treat these difficult cases, autoimmune diseases have their root in our gut microbiomes. Since starting his Palm Springs clinic, Dr. Gundry has reversed thousands of autoimmune cases, using diet as an environmental variable to manipulate our genes (and the genes of our microbiome). Below, he breaks down his signature diet and the supplements that bring it to life.
A Q&A with Steven Gundry, M.D.
You are an unlikely convert to the importance of supplementing the diet with additional vitamins and minerals—what changed your mind?
I had a special major at Yale University in Human Evolutionary Biology, where I defended a thesis that you could alter the food supply and environment of a great ape and arrive at a human. The field, which investigates how food and other environmental factors turn genes off or on, is now called epigenomics. Fast-forward to the present, and we now know that not only are human genes affected by food and other environmental factors but more importantly, the genes of our microbiome, the trillions of bacteria and viruses that live in our gut and our skin, are also affected. In fact, both my own research and work others have done show that foods, supplements, the environment, and even light have a powerful influence in activating genes of the microorganisms in our gut. We are a super-organism, a symbiotic living mixture that constantly receives information from our environment and manipulates both our human genes and our bacterial and viral genes in response. Since bacterial and viral genes make up 99 percent of our combined genes (yes, you are only 1 percent human by genetic count and 90 percent human by actual cell count), everything that happens to us starts in the gut.
“Since bacterial and viral genes make up 99 percent of our combined genes (yes, you are only 1 percent human by genetic count and 90 percent human by actual cell count), everything that happens to us starts in the gut.”
In 2000, I was a professor and the chairman of cardiothoracic surgery at Loma Linda University, performing infant and pediatric heart transplants, studying immunology and doing groundbreaking work on protecting the heart during open heart surgery. I took on cases deemed too high-risk for other centers. That year, a gentleman from Miami was referred to me with such severe coronary artery blockages that he had been turned down at multiple universities for bypass surgery; he was only forty-eight years old, and weighed 265 pounds when I met him. I looked at the angiogram of his coronary arteries from six months earlier and I agreed with all the other surgeons who had seen him: He was inoperable. When I told him this, he explained that he had gone on a diet, started a major supplement regimen, and had lost 45 pounds in six months. He suggested that maybe his coronaries had gotten better, and asked for a new angiogram. Well, I congratulated him for losing weight, thinking that I already knew what those supplements had done: make expensive urine. But he was persistent, and to my shock, the new angiogram showed that he had cleaned out half of the blockages in his arteries! I performed a five-way bypass, and he did great. The researcher in me was intrigued, so I asked him to explain his diet and supplements. The diet he described was exactly like the thesis of my Yale major! And the supplements? I had been using many of them in the lab intravenously, to keep hearts alive for 48 hours for transplant, or to even bring dead hearts back to life after an hour in a dead body. I was giving these compounds intravenously, but it never occurred to me to swallow them!
This work is also personal for me. At the time I saw this patient, I was about 70 pounds overweight myself. Even though I was running 30 miles a week, going to the gym every day, and eating a healthy Adventist vegetarian diet (Loma Linda is the Medical School of the Adventist Church), I suffered from pre-diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, and arthritis. I had done every diet in the world: you know, lose 20 pounds, then gain 25! Despite a “healthy” lifestyle, I could not control my weight.
“The supplements? I had been using many of them in the lab intravenously, to keep hearts alive for 48 hours for transplant, or to even bring dead hearts back to life after an hour in a dead body. I was giving these compounds intravenously, but it never occurred to me to swallow them!”
I put myself on the diet from my Yale thesis, started taking lots of supplements, and started tracking my own specialized blood work every three months. The blood work is extensive: It looks at different particles of both good and bad cholesterol, markers of inflammation far more sensitive than CRP and fibrinogen (such as inflammatory cytokines), markers of heart function, insulin levels, and HbA1C, a marker of handling sugars and proteins. I lost 50 pounds my first year, and have shed another 20 since. My results were so dramatic that I started putting my staff, and some of my patients, on the program; the same things happened. Diabetes vanished, blood pressure normalized, arthritis disappeared, and other people cleaned out their coronaries. After a year of doing this, I resigned my position and moved to Palm Springs, where I established the International Heart & Lung Institute, and within it, the Center for Restorative Medicine. Seven days a week I teach people from around the world to reverse whatever disease or problem they present with changes in food and additions of supplements, all based on cutting edge blood work that we send to labs around the country.
Why do you think the modern diet is so deficient, and can the delta be overcome by eating higher-quality (i.e., organic, local) food?
As early as 1936, the US Senate recognized that our soil quality had been so eroded and become so devoid of minerals that even if people ate huge amounts of vegetables, they would be literally starving for proper nourishment. As I tell my patients: Our ancient ancestors ate approximately 250 different plants on a rotating basis, and these plants were growing in six feet of loam soil. The animals they ate were also eating those plants. Now, if we think we can duplicate that huge number of minerals, vitamins, and plant phytochemicals by eating an organic diet of about 20 fruits and veggies, then I’ve got some ocean front property here in Palm Springs to sell you. It simply can’t be done.
You believe that the gut is deeply related to the uptick in, and prevalence of, autoimmune disease—what do you think is going on?
Hippocrates, the father of Medicine, taught that all disease begins in the gut. After years of studying tens of thousands of patients, manipulating their diets and supplements, and observing the changes in them (in part through their blood work), I can only agree. In my upcoming book, The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in Healthy foods that Cause Disease and Weight Gain, I show the Seven Deadly Disruptors that have completely altered our gut flora, the microbiome, our gut wall, and our immune system’s response to these alterations. In the coming months on goop, I’ll take you on a tour of these new disruptors and how to protect yourself.
What are the biggest diet culprits/contributing factors?
Some of the biggest dietary pitfalls often involve eating so-called healthy foods that humans were never designed to eat. As hard as it is to believe, plants do not want to be eaten! They were here first! They protect themselves and their seeds by putting proteins in their leaves and seeds called lectins. Gluten is by far the most famous lectin, but what most people don’t know is that it’s quite a minor one and that most gluten-free substitutes have far worse lectins! Half of my patients with autoimmune disease avoided gluten before seeing me but did not fully improve until I removed other lectins from their diet. Quinoa, corn, beans, and nightshades like potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and others, are loaded with lectins.
The CDC states that 20-30 percent of all cases of food poisoning in the US occur from the lectins in undercooked beans—plants simply do not want their seeds to be eaten (cooking beans diminishes the amount of lectin, though some remains).
Which autoimmune diseases are the most responsive to diet changes? What do you recommend?
I have yet to see an autoimmune disease that cannot be cured or put into remission by simple dietary changes and supplementation. In October of 2016, I presented a paper at The Pasteur Institute in Paris showing 78 patients with autoimmune diseases like lupus, Crohn’s, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, and colitis who were cured by these manipulations. Autoimmune disease comes from the gut and is cured in the gut. If you have an autoimmune disease, treat your gut, and the “disease” will subside.
Which supplements do you typically employ?
Supplements are important, but the first step in any healing program is to eliminate the foods that are causing the problem. The point that I make in The Plant Paradox is that it’s not so much what you eat, but rather what you don’t eat that makes a big difference!
Having said that, we now know that our gut and skin microbiomes have certain likes and wants. For example, they love prebiotics. Prebiotics are primarily soluble fibers and resistant starches that the enzymes in our gut don’t digest into sugar, but they’re exactly the food that our gut buddies need to grow and thrive. What’s more, the more of this kind of good-gut-bug food we eat, the less chance bad bugs have to get the upper hand, as they can’t digest these prebiotics. Second, you and your microbiome are dependent on information from plant compounds called polyphenols. These are the dark pigments in berries, chocolate, and coffee beans, which I have shown manipulate both our genes and those of our microbiome to improve multiple markers of inflammation. Grape seed extract, pcynogenol, turmeric, and green tea extract are good supplements for polyphenols. You could also have a piece of 72 percent or greater dark chocolate every day. I can’t stress enough that really good olive oil is an amazing source of polyphenols, as well. In fact, one Spanish study shows that people who used a liter of olive oil per week for five years had better memory and 67 percent less breast cancer than folks eating a low-fat Mediterranean diet!
Why is there so much mystery around autoimmune diseases? And why are women disproportionately affected?
It is now estimated that one in four people have one or more autoimmune diseases. Most people believe that autoimmune diseases are the result of your immune system attacking your own cells, but they are actually caused by a case of mistaken identity when immune cells attack proteins in our body because they bear a striking resemblance to the proteins in lectins. The result is an attack on ourselves because of molecular mimicry. This is a classic plant strategy for making predators (you and me) suffer, fail to thrive, or otherwise encourage you to eat something else besides them. Autoimmune diseases are hard to understand because we’ve been looking in the wrong places: It starts in the gut and it stops in the gut.
“Most people believe that autoimmune diseases are the result of your immune system attacking your own cells, but they are actually caused by a case of mistaken identity.”
Why are so many more women affected? Simply put, a woman’s immune system must be able to do two things that are diametrically opposed; always be on the lookout for pathogens like bacteria and viruses and parasites, but simultaneously switch to totally ignoring the largest parasite ever when you become pregnant. I believe, along with many others, that this dual role contributes to confusion for the immune system.
Between our food, products like Aleve or Advil, and the prevalence of antibiotics in ourselves and the animals that we eat, our microbiome has completely transformed, making these diseases more prevalent now than ever.
What tests should those who have autoimmune diseases ask their doctors to run? Anything in particular that stands out?
Make sure your doctor orders a vitamin D level. Contrary to what you have been likely told, that vitamin D can be toxic at high levels, keep taking vitamin D until a level of at least 70 and hopefully 100 ng/ml In my experience over the past sixteen years, I have yet to see vitamin D toxicity, even in people who purposely run levels of 270 ng/ml. Most people should take 5,000 international units (IUs) of vitamin D3 daily, but people with an autoimmune disease should start with 10,000 IUs per day.
Also, have your doctor order an Adiponectin level and TNF-alpha level; if either are elevated (Adiponectin greater than 16, TNF Alpha 2.9 or above), avoid major lectin-containing foods.
Dr. Gundry is the director of the International Heart & Lung Institute in Palm Springs, California, and the founder/director of the Center for Restorative Medicine in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara. He is the author of Dr. Gundry’s Diet Evolution: Turn Off the Genes That Are Killing You and Your Waistline and Drop the Weight for Good and the forthcoming The Plant Paradox: The Hidden Dangers in “Healthy” Foods That Cause Disease and Weight Gain.
The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. Originally Adapted from goop.com