Autoimmune hepatitis diet: What do doctors recommend?

While there is no recommended diet for autoimmune hepatitis, diet considerations related to weight management and alcohol consumption may make an impact on both symptoms and disease progression. Following a healthy diet and talking with your doctor about alcohol consumption can help you avoid complications related to obesity, reduce weight gain from common steroid treatments, and avoid alcohol-related liver issues.

Autoimmune hepatitis diet restrictions

Doctors don't recommend specific diet restrictions for autoimmune hepatitis, but certain factors can impact weight gain. Obesity is associated with a higher risk of fatty liver disease, so it's particularly important for those with autoimmune hepatitis to maintain a healthy weight.

Prednisone, a common treatment for autoimmune hepatitis, is associated with weight gain, particularly when patients first begin taking it. Steroids change the body's electrolyte and water balances, as well as its metabolism, which can lead to fluid retention, increased appetite, and changes in where the body stores fat. Even those who don't gain weight on steroids may still notice changes in physical appearance around their face, neck, and abdomen because of these changes in weight distribution. 

In autoimmune hepatitis, medications are taken until the disease goes into remission. The majority of patients go into remission by 18 months to three years of treatment. Adding a second medication, such as azathioprine (Azasan; Imuran) or 6-mercaptopurine (Purinethol), can also allow patients to stop or reduce prednisone. After ending steroid treatment, most people find it relatively easy to lose any weight gained during steroid treatment.

 If you are obese, work with a nutritionist to develop a healthy-eating plan. There is no particular diet recommended for autoimmune hepatitis. A mix of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, lean meats, and fish works best for most people in meeting nutritional needs and maintaining a healthy weight. A diet high in fiber in particular can help your liver function at an optimal level.

Autoimmune hepatitis and alcohol

Autoimmune hepatitis (AIH) is not caused by alcohol consumption. Researchers believe those with AIH may have a genetic disposition to the condition which is triggered by environmental factors. Those with other autoimmune diseases are also more likely to be diagnosed with AIH.

For those living with autoimmune hepatitis, it's important to talk with your doctor about recommendations around alcohol consumption. High alcohol consumption can worsen liver damage in several liver diseases, such as hepatitis C and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. Less research has been done on low or moderate alcohol consumption, or on the impact of high alcohol consumption on rare liver diseases, including autoimmune hepatitis (AIH).

Low-to-moderate alcohol consumption, considered in most countries to be a maximum of two drinks per day for women and three drinks per day for men, is not associated with an increased risk for liver disease. Those with existing liver diseases, however, should talk with their doctors about what a safe level of alcohol consumption may be for them, also taking into account how their current medications may interact with alcohol. The Liver Foundation recommends reducing alcohol consumption to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men for those living with liver disease.

Autoimmune hepatitis research

Currently, no treatments have been approved specifically for AIH. Clinical trials are researching potential new treatments as well as the impact of diet and alcohol consumption on disease progression and symptoms. 

Autoimmune hepatitis research can't move forward without volunteers. Interested in taking part? Answer a few questions to see if you may qualify for autoimmune hepatitis clinical trials near you.