“With autoimmune disease, the power to turn your life around rests not with your doctor, not with a pharmacist, not in a bottle of pills, but in your own hands. That’s scary, but incredibly empowering.”
—Dr. Terry Wahls
Autoimmune disease affects 50 million Americans, and that number is on the rise. The standard course of treatment is a lifetime of medication, which can cost as much as $2,000 a month, comes with potentially dangerous side effects, and varies widely in its effectiveness—meaning that for some people, it doesn’t work at all. Patients are left feeling terrified and out of control, with a condition that worsens over time, often involves severe pain and disability, and can even be life-threatening.
The Paleo diet offers hope. Where conventional medicine has failed to find answers, people are discovering that diet and lifestyle have a huge impact on the severity of their autoimmune symptoms. While there is no cure, it is possible to get better, and more and more people are doing this through diet and lifestyle intervention. Robyn Latimer put her lupus into remission. Dr. Terry Wahls got out of her wheelchair and now bikes to and from work. I personally stopped my rheumatoid arthritis flare-ups. Those are just three examples, but there are many others, and the testimonials are increasing all the time. There are even clinical trials showing its effectiveness.
How it works. Autoimmune disease is a case of mistaken identity: The line between self and non-self becomes blurred. Our immune system mistakes certain parts of our own bodies as foreign invaders, and in its effort to heal us, unintentionally hurts us instead. The Paleo diet works on multiple levels: calming our immune system, reducing body-wide inflammation, healing leaky gut (one of the causes of autoimmune disease) and even turning harmful genes off through the power of epigenetics. That’s a big word for something really cool: We can’t change our genes, but we have the power to affect how they express themselves. When Dr. Terry Wahls researched how food affects the body, she found that the Standard American Diet turns on 65 genes that increase inflammation, whereas the Wahls Paleo Diet turns on 72 genes that decrease inflammation. Never underestimate the power of food.
What’s the difference between the Paleo diet and the Paleo autoimmune protocol? The Paleo diet is a permanent change to the way you eat, avoiding foods that are inflammatory to the body, and eating foods that are deeply nourishing. This means avoiding grains, legumes, processed foods, refined oils and sugars. Strict Paleo also removes dairy. “Primal” is a more flexible Paleo approach that allows full-fat, grass-fed, raw dairy in moderation. Some people with autoimmune disease go into remission at this level, with no need to take it further. Others like myself continued to have inflammation, and that’s where the Paleo autoimmune protocol comes in. It’s a temporary elimination diet designed to identify common food intolerances. In addition to avoiding non-Paleo foods, you also eliminate the following for at least 30 days (eggs, dairy, nightshades, nuts and seeds). If that sounds intimidating, don’t worry—it’s not forever. It’s followed by a careful reintroduction process to test your body for tolerance to these foods, allowing you to personalize your diet for optimal health.
Healing isn’t just about the foods you avoid; it’s about choosing the right foods to eat. It’s not uncommon to just try to replace familiar foods with Paleoized versions of them. You’ll find lots of recipes on the Internet for Paleo pizza, lasagna and brownies. While it’s fine to treat ourselves once in a while, these aren’t the foods that heal. We need to give our cells the building blocks they need to repair and regenerate. What are the most nutrient-dense foods we can choose? Organ meats, seafood, fermented food, bone broth and plenty of vegetables. Also choose organic, as well as grass-fed or wild-caught meats, as your budget allows.
Lifestyle matters. Your diet may be 100 percent, but if you’re living a stressed-out life, sitting for all of your waking hours, never seeing the sun, and not getting enough sleep, you’re setting up obstacles to healing. Poor lifestyle choices can cause autoimmune flare-ups just as much as poor food choices can. The Paleo lifestyle is about reclaiming the healthfulness of ancestral living, and that includes time for relaxation, play, sleep, sunshine, fresh air and movement. These are the activities we often sacrifice, prioritizing our to-do list instead. It takes a shift in thinking, but it’s important to make healing your top priority.
Start loving yourself. After years of hearing that our bodies are attacking us, it’s easy to disconnect and see them as the enemy—but this is a false view. Autoimmunity is a miscommunication within the body, not an intentional war within, and symptoms are the body’s cry for help. Telling you to replace anger with love isn’t some soft, New Age philosophy. Studies show that negative emotions increase inflammation, so if you’ve been mad at your body for years, it’s in your best interest to start practicing forgiveness. Healing through the Paleo diet and lifestyle is a true partnership with your body, where every choice you make impacts your health, and your body communicates what it needs.
Healing takes time. We all want to be one of the overnight success stories we sometimes see online, and if we’re not, we can start to think we’re not healing at all. It’s important to remember that autoimmune disease doesn’t happen overnight (even if it felt like it did.) It takes many years for the changes to develop in our bodies that create the perfect storm for autoimmune disease to trigger. Then, we’re often sick for many more years before we’re ready to take our health into our own hands. Keep that perspective, and expect change to happen slowly—month by month, not day by day. That’s where a symptom journal comes in handy. Keep track of things like pain levels, energy levels, mental clarity, emotions, sleep quality, strength, and the things you are and aren’t capable of doing. Then mark the changes as they happen. It took a full year before my rheumatoid flare-ups went away, but I was healing that whole time. First, my flare-ups diminished in intensity, then in frequency, and eventually they went away altogether. Simultaneously, my health improved in every way, from regaining strength and energy, to sleeping better and feeling more balanced emotionally. I’ve been on a healing diet for two years now, and I’m still improving each month, feeling the remaining inflammation recede even further. Remember the classic folk tale of the tortoise and the hare: Slow and steady wins the race.
You’re not alone. There are experienced bloggers to guide you, support groups of people walking your same path, and detailed resource books, delving into the whys and hows of healing: The Paleo Approach by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, The Wahls Protocol by Dr. Terry Wahls, the Autoimmune Paleo Cookbook by Mickey Trescott, and a guide to reintroducing foods by me. Take advantage of the global Paleo community to get the support you need.
Personalization is key. The Paleo diet and lifestyle is a template that gives us all a beginner’s map to healing. But we are unique individuals, and sometimes we need answers outside of the template. If you hit a roadblock in the healing process, don’t be afraid to ask for help. There are qualified people you can hire to help find those keys: Paleo physicians, nutritionists and health coaches.
“Autoimmune disease is an epidemic in our society. But it doesn’t have to be.”
— Dr. Sarah Ballantyne