What to Eat When You Have Mixed Connective Tissue Disease

Dietary Recommendations for Better Management

Anti-inflammatory medications are a cornerstone of treatment for mixed connective tissue disease (MCTD). But dietary choices are also important. Eating foods that suppress inflammation may help prevent flare-ups.

This article looks at the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet, how the diet works, risks to consider, what to eat, and what to avoid.

What Is Mixed Connective Tissue Disease?

MCTD is an autoimmune disorder, or a disease in which your immune system attacks healthy cells. While it is its own diagnosis, MCTD is actually a combination of at least two connective tissue disorders. These can include systemic lupus erythematosus, scleroderma, polymyositis, and less often,rheumatoid arthritis.

Woman with wrist pain looking at her hand

ljubaphoto / E+ / Getty images

MCTD Diet Basics

There's no official consensus on the best way to eat for MCTD. However, emerging science on diet and autoimmunity suggests focusing on:

  • Fresh fruits
  • Fresh vegetables

And avoiding:

  • Sodium
  • Highly processed foods

This may help promote healthy gut bacteria, which reduces inflammation and chronic diseases.

Gut Symptoms of MCTD

About half of people with MCTD have digestive issues. That's because the condition impacts the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract.

Digestive symptom can include:

  • Problems swallowing
  • Heartburn and acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease, GERD)
  • Abdominal pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Alternating diarrhea and constipation
  • Fecal incontinence
  • Malabsorption of nutrients
  • Unintentional weight loss
  • Overgrowth of gut bacteria

In case of these symptoms, a dietitian or other healthcare provider may prescribe supplements to prevent muscle loss and re-balance gut bacteria. A healthy diet may help with these problems, as well.

Recap

A diet beneficial to MCTD involves fresh fruits and vegetables and cutting out sodium and highly processed foods. MCTD can cause many digestive symptoms and balancing gut bacteria may help ease them.

Why Diet Matters

Finding a balance of unprocessed foods that support a healthy heart and a diverse gut microbiome can help you feel your best with MCTD.

These nutritional changes can benefit your overall health. View them as a lifestyle change, not a short-term plan.

When you have an autoimmune disorder, it can be hard to predict what will trigger a flare-up. Day-to-day stressors or catching a cold can shift your immune system into overdrive.

Maintaining a nutritious diet will give your body the best defense against unexpected setbacks.

What to Eat

Most doctors advise patients with autoimmune disorders to follow a balanced meal plan composed of:

  • Roughly 50% carbohydrates
  • 15% protein
  • 30% fat

High-fiber foods, like apples, oatmeal, and bananas, are a good source of prebiotics and make an inexpensive and convenient snack or breakfast food.

Once you adjust to eating less-processed foods, there's a good chance you'll notice additional benefits, such as clearer skin, more energy, and better digestion.

Combining your dietary improvements with an added focus on physical activity and proper sleep can help promote a greater sense of overall well-being.

Eating well with an autoimmune disease means making heart-healthy food choices that are low in sodium and rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.

Incorporating lots of prebiotic fiber foods and avoiding specific "immune-boosting" ingredients helps to support a calm and effective immune system.

Foods to Eat
  • Homemade soups and stews

  • Steel-cut oats

  • Asparagus

  • Apples

  • Bananas

  • Ground flaxseed

  • Salmon

Foods to Avoid
  • Alfalfa sprouts

  • Garlic

  • Echinacea teas/supplements

  • High-sodium canned soups

  • Salty snack foods

  • Processed meats (bacon, jerky, salami, cold cuts)

Ground flaxseeds: These tiny seeds offer a dose of omega-3s and serve as a prebiotic for digestion and immunity. Grinding flaxseeds helps release their beneficial nutrients.

Homemade soups and stews: Learning to make soups at home can help you avoid high-sodium canned products. Plus you can throw in lots of nutritious vegetables.

Processed meats: Processed meats are loaded with sodium and solid fat that are known to exacerbate autoimmune issues. Choose fresh protein instead (especially heart-healthy salmon).

What to Avoid

Research suggests you may want to avoid:

  • Alfalfa sprouts: They contain an amino acid called L-canavanine that boosts the immune system. That can prompt an autoimmune flare-up.
  • Garlic: Garlic has multiple components that enhance your body's white blood cell response and may aggravate an already overactive immune system.
  • Echinacea: Similarly, echinacea's impact on the immune system can lead to increased symptoms.

Check labels for problem foods like these. Garlic is in a lot of packaged foods and echinacea is in herbal teas and supplement blends.

Always involve your healthcare provider(s) in choices about diet and supplements. They can steer you away from choices that may be harmful to you. You may also benefit from seeking advice from a dietitian.

What About Fasting?

Some studies suggest calorie restriction and fasting help prevent autoimmune disorders but may not be beneficial in treating them once the condition is established.

Meal timing appears to impact gut bacteria and longevity. The research is promising, yet still too young to apply specific recommendations to MCTD management.

Making Modifications

Everyone's body is different, especially when it comes to digestion and metabolism. What helps one person may not help you.

For instance, gluten may trigger inflammation in those with gluten sensitivity but not in others.

Keeping a food diary or experimenting with an elimination diet (under the supervision of your doctor or a registered dietitian) can help you pinpoint the nuances of your condition and determine your optimal diet for MCTD.

Recap

Balancing your gut bacteria is important for managing MCTD. It's a long-term plan that helps you avoid flare-ups. Focus on high-fiber foods (apples, oatmeal). Get lots of omega-3 fatty acids and keep sodium low. Prebiotics can help.

Avoid foods and supplements that boost your immune system, such as alfalfa sprouts, garlic, and echinacea.

Everyone is different. Keeping a food diary can help you identify what foods do or don't help you.

Cooking Tips

Learning to cook is essential with MCTD because it gives you a wider range of unprocessed options. Look for simple recipes for things like:

  • Salads
  • Soups
  • Fruit and yogurt parfaits
  • Cereal bars

Preparing these items at home lets you cut back on sodium and other preservatives, and helps you consume more prebiotic fiber (which tends to be lacking in processed foods).

Shifting your eating habits toward home-cooked meals can help balance gut bacteria and fight systemic inflammation.

Summary

Your diet can help lower inflammation and balance gut bacteria, which can help reduce your MCTD symptoms. Fresh food is generally better than pre-packaged. Fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and prebiotics may be the most helpful.

Avoid immune-boosting foods and supplements, highly processed foods, and high sodium levels. A food diary can help you figure out what works for you.

Learning to make simple, fresh meals at home makes it easier to avoid processed foods.

A Word From Verywell

Healthy eating is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to MCTD. Regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing stress can help your body weather the ups and downs of autoimmunity.

Sometimes even when you do everything right, flare-ups strike. Work closely with your healthcare provider to manage your symptoms using lifestyle changes and medication.

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Article Sources
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