One way or the other, I have been dealing with nutrition and alternative diets for as long as I remember. I was diagnosed with celiac disease at the age of eight, and I have been eating gluten-free ever since. At 21, a breath test confirmed that I had a strong lactose intolerance and – on that same day – I decided to completely exclude all dairy products from my diet. With such a background, my interest in nutrition and alternative eating habits comes as no surprise.
For most of my teenage years, I have been more concerned with eating an extremely low-carb diet than with having a healthy and balanced diet. Between the age of 16 and 22, I was very, very skinny and I just wanted to stay that way. Plus, being forced to have a salad while watching all of my friends enjoying their tasty pizzas virtually every Saturday night turned food into something I just could not consider a pleasure. In my teens, I regarded food as something I needed in order to survive, but nothing more.
This approach of mine started to change during the summer of 2015, when I accidentally came across a TEDx talk held by Dr. Terry Wahls. For those who don´t know her, Terry Wahls is a clinical professor of medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College in Iowa City, USA, who has cured her Multiple Sclerosis by changing her lifestyle and eating habits. In her talk, she discusses her condition and her healing journey, claiming that by simply changing her diet she was able to put her disease into remission and improve the quality of her life. After a few months on her protocol, she could stand up from her wheelchair, walk, talk and even do sports again.
Dr. Wahls’ story fascinated me. I was impressed by her testimony and by the scientific information she gave in her talk, all of which sounded groundbreaking to me. Crucially, MS is an autoimmune disease. Having celiac disease and Hashimoto´s thyroiditis myself (which are autoimmune conditions, too), the link between autoimmunity and nutrition was incredibly interesting for me. It was because of Dr. Wahl’s talk that I actually started to actively look for and read books and articles about this underrated connection and that, eventually, I got to know the so-called Autoimmune Protocol.
The link between autoimmune conditions and diet is not given much space in the official medical literature, but, thanks to some research, I could quickly identify some blogs and other trusted sources (books, talks, podcasts) which would help me on my journey. As PhD. Sarah Ballantyne often says during her interviews and talks, if you have been looking for a connection between nutrition and autoimmunity, you have probably come across her name and the Autoimmune Protocol.
Sarah Ballentyne, Phd, blogs at http://www.thepaleomom.com and has written an amazing book called The Paleo Approach, in which she explains all of the research and scientific information behind the AIP and gives the most complete description of the paleo approach. If you are planning to start the AIP, you should definitely read her book. If you are not, you might want to read it anyway. Indeed, the book is nicely written and it offers a great deal of scientific overview on nutrition and biology, and, most of the times, it goes deeper than an advanced biology class. Sarah Ballentyne has also published a Paleo Approach Cookbook, in which she has gathered lots of amazing and easy recipes.
The Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) is essentially an elimination diet, and, more specifically, a stricter version of the paleo diet. Its aim is to eliminate from your diet all foods that may potentially damage your gut and, crucially, it has you eating whole and nutritious food, which promote gut health. In this way, the Autoimmune Protocol not only helps but actively promotes healing. The basic assumption is that gut health and autoimmunity are strongly interconnected. As Sarah Ballantyne points out in her book, 60 to 70% of our immune system is located in the gut. This does not mean, of course, that a leaky gut is the one and only cause of all autoimmune diseases: in fact, different factors combined (among others, genetics and environmental factors) seem to lead to the outbreak of an autoimmune disease. However, the assumption is that none of these factors would be able to lead to an autoimmune disease without the presence of a leaky gut. If you consider that there is no cure for autoimmune diseases at the moment and that most patients are simply put on corticosteroids or immunosuppressants for the rest of their lives, you will understand how groundbreaking the AIP approach is.
So what are the principles of the AIP? What can you eat and what should you avoid?
Basically, as you should on the Paleo diet, you should eliminate gluten, processed foods and dairy from your diet. Plus, you will have to avoid nightshades (like tomatoes and eggplants), all grains (also gluten-free grains like quinoa), eggs, potatoes (but sweet potatoes are ok! 🙂 ), alcohol, nuts, legumes, coffee, sugar (all kinds of sugars, also agave and honey are out) and all spices derived from seeds. So what can you eat? You can eat all fruits, vegetables (except nightshades), mushrooms, fish, meat, offal, coconut and coconut derived products.
I know, it sounds extrem and very hard. Well, it is. But it is not impossible. I have been following the AIP for over three months now and I can tell you that you can make it. Indeed, there are moments when you will want to give up and say yes to a nice glass of wine with your best friend. But there are a number of ways to cope and it is important to have the support of the people you love. Moreover, the Internet is filled with stories of people who managed to put their disease into remission with the AIP and there is a growing community of amazing people sharing experiences, recipes and positive vibes.
Once the first two or three weeks are over – when your body (and mind) tries to get used to your new eating habits-, things will get much easier. For me, the hardest part is the “social” side of the AIP approach: not being able to enjoy a drink on a Friday night and experiencing difficulties eating in virtually any restaurant will make it hard for you to maintain your previous free time habits. But, as always in life, everything (really everything!) can be discussed and rearranged, and not all of the change is for the worst. And, most importantly, the AIP is not forever. Although there is no strict rule, the diet should be followed for a minimum of 3 to 4 months to see some results. Still, everyone is different and whilst for some people 30 days might be enough, others will need to follow the AIP for years before feeling better. After reaching this point, one can start slowly re-introducing foods, although Sarah Ballentyne and other experts advise to give up gluten and dairy for good and stick to whole and nutritious foods.
As for me, it is still a long way to go, but I am on my way. 🙂