Nutritional Therapy Oxford Dip ION, mBANT
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Homemade drinks and autoimmunity

coconut kefir

What is Autoimmunity?

Autoimmune diseases include a number of illnesses that you’re probably familiar with, either yourself or through someone you know. There are over eighty types, ranging from multiple sclerosis to rheumatoid arthritis, from type 1 diabetes to inflammatory bowel disease, from lupus to schizophrenia.

Autoimmunity is when the immune system begins to attack healthy cells in the body, instead of just harmful substances (such as viruses or toxins). It has been poorly understood for a long time, but it’s steeply on the rise in ‘developed’ countries such as the UK and the USA.

We usually see autoimmunity affect a specific organ, such as the brain – as in MS cases – or the pancreas, as in type 1 diabetes. What is becoming increasingly accepted, however, is that the huge variety of autoimmune diseases can all be linked to the health of the gut.

Autoimmunity and the Gut

The gut is known to represent around 70% or more of the body’s immune system. The integrity of the gut walls is vital to ensure that undigested proteins do not enter the bloodstream, and to ensure that the body knows what is ‘self’ and what is ‘not-self’: what to tolerate and what to attack. But if the ‘tight junctions’ in the gut wall become ‘leaky’, the wrong proteins and microbes can enter the bloodstream and trigger autoimmune reactions.

Recent research suggests that increases in autoimmunity are the result of changes in the beneficial bacteria that live in the gut, due to dietary habits and the widespread use of antibiotics, both of which can drastically alter the balance of bacteria in the intestine. Changes in gut microbes have been detected both in human studies of autoimmune patients and in animal models.

Because the immune system relies upon cells which travel in the body as well as reside in the gut, it’s possible for certain types of bacteria in the intestine to trigger dormant immune cells which relate to, for example, the brain and central nervous system – and trigger brain-specific autoantibodies. This is part of the mechanism behind MS.

Beneficial bacteria

Although the exact mechanisms are yet to become common scientific consensus, much recent research agrees that probiotics could form an important part of alleviating autoimmune diseases. By balancing the gut bacteria more in favour of beneficial bacteria, probiotics may strengthen the gut’s integrity and reduce the ‘leaky gut’ that can trigger autoimmunity.

There are many types of over-the-counter probiotic pills available in health food shops, about which I will probably write at a later date. But for now, let me suggest one simple, fun way to build up your gut health: make coconut water kefir! This is a great activity to do with children, and it is wonderfully EASY.

A Homemade Drink

Coconut water kefir is a homemade fermented liquid, which you can mix with fizzy water to make a refreshing drink. (Though do ask me about it first if you have a tendency to histamine problems.)

I make coconut kefir at home regularly! Here is one recipe, with links to buy the ‘kefir grains’ used to make it. The kefir grains ferment the natural sugars in the coconut water to make beneficial yeasts and bacteria which can support your gut’s healthy bacteria.

Do let me know how you get on if you give it a try!

And above all, my warmest wishes to you for a happy, healthy Easter holiday,


Emma Maitland-Carew, Nutritional Therapist in Oxford and Bloxham, Oxfordshire


  1. Diabetes Digital Media. Autoimmune Disease – Causes, Symptoms, Tests and Treatment [Internet]. 2017. Available from:
  2. Fasano A. Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases. Clinic Rev Allerg Immunol. 2012 Feb 1;42(1):71–8.
  3. Rosser EC, Mauri C. A clinical update on the significance of the gut microbiota in systemic autoimmunity. Journal of Autoimmunity. 2016 Nov;74:85–93.
  4. Ochoa-Repáraz J, Kasper LH. Gut microbiome and the risk factors in central nervous system autoimmunity. FEBS Letters. 2014 Nov 17;588(22):4214–22.
  5. Severance EG, Yolken RH, Eaton WW. Autoimmune diseases, gastrointestinal disorders and the microbiome in schizophrenia: more than a gut feeling. Schizophrenia Research. 2016 Sep;176(1):23–35.
  6. Wekerle H, Hohlfeld R. Chapter 9 – Gut Microbiota in Multiple Sclerosis: A Bioreactor Driving Brain Autoimmunity. In: Arnon R, Miller A, editors. Translational Neuroimmunology in Multiple Sclerosis [Internet]. San Diego: Academic Press; 2016 p. 113–25. Available from:


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