There has been a lot of talk in the last few years in the autoimmune community in regards to the autoimmune paleo (AIP) diet/protocol. One of the most common questions I get from patients is “Does the AIP diet really work in helping to reduce my autoimmune symptoms?” The answer to this question complex, but let’s try to break down the AIP diet and some of the effects it can have in autoimmunity.
The AIP diet, in essence, is a combination of what is popularly known as the Paleo diet and the elimination diet. The Paleo diet has been around for many years, and was created as a means to mimic the foods that were thought to be eaten primarily by Paleolithic humans. In doing so, it greatly reduces the intake of processed foods, mainly through reducing the ingestion of carbohydrates, which has become a mainstay of the Western diet for the past 50+ years. The elimination diet on the other hand, is comprised of a very strict diet that eliminates all the major known food allergens for a limited period of time (usually 3-8 weeks) and then reintroduces them back into the diet one by one as a means of identifying foods that may be triggering particular symptoms, or inflammation in the GI tract or elsewhere.
Now in going back to the AIP diet. With all autoimmune diseases, the goal of treatment is to help identify triggers that are stimulating the immune system and to reduce inflammation. In looking at the Paleo diet – we know that a reduction in carbohydrate intake over time helps to lower blood glucose (blood sugar), helps people to lose weight, and can help to promote the intake of healthy vitamins and nutrients through vegetables and whole foods. But in particular to autoimmune diseases, it’s the effect on blood sugar that we look at the most. When blood sugar is low or normal, our body increases its production of a hormone called cortisol, which is responsible for a number of things, one of which is to help increase blood sugar levels. Cortisol also has a very strong effect on the immune system, and when it is high in the blood, it has a suppressing effect on the immune system, reducing inflammation. It was the study of cortisol that lead us to the use of anti-inflammatory steroids like oral prednisone and cortisone injections.
The elimination diet on the other hand, also has a direct effect on the immune system. By identifying and reducing foods that may potentially cause immune system activation in the GI tract, we can thereby directly reduce inflammation by reducing dietary triggers. When we combine the elimination diet with the Paleo diet, what we get is a seemingly perfect combination of not only increasing hormones like cortisol that decrease inflammation, but we are also removing potential food triggers that may be causing the inflammation in the first place.
So this leads us back to the question: “Does the AIP diet really work?” Well the answer to that in essence is, yes, for a majority of people with autoimmune diseases, it can be helpful in reducing inflammation in the long run. But there is a caveat to this as well. For some people, just implementing the AIP diet is not enough. It is a very restrictive diet and can be difficult for a majority of people to take on. It required time to be able to prepare foods, a knowledge of how to choose healthy foods over harmful foods, and an understanding that it can sometimes take time for inflammation to die down, even with the most restricted diets. Another problem I see a lot of people make when they go on the AIP diet is that they are so restrictive with their diets that they are actually minimizing healthy nutrients that their body needs on a daily basis, which can lead to some nutrient deficiencies, which cause other problems later on down the road.
With all autoimmune diseases though, successful treatment relies on a comprehensive approach, with diet as only a piece of a larger picture. There are other factors that can lead to inflammation in the body despite how well your diet is controlled. Anyone with an autoimmune disease should be under the care of a provider that is skilled in working with the various complex factors that play a role on autoimmune diseases. At Aria Integrative Medicine, we work with all of our patients to help find the right diet for them, and do thorough assessments of each person to ensure that all components of health are taken into consideration. For more information about the services we offer, call our office at 206-588-1227. For more information about the AIP diet in particular, you can visit some of the following websites: AIP Lifestyle; Autoimmune Paleo