“Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system—your body’s defense against invaders—becomes confused. In other words, your body is fighting something, whether that’s infections, toxins, allergens, or a stress response. But somehow, that immune army can’t distinguish friend from foe. Your own tissue gets caught in friendly crossfire, and your joints, brain, skin, and sometimes your whole body become casualties.” – Dr. Mark Hyman
My passion for autoimmune disease stems from my own personal battle. For many years, I suffered from a hormonal imbalance known as hypothyroidism. I experienced symptoms such as hair loss, constipation, weight gain, irregular menstrual cycles, brain fog and chronic fatigue. My doctor agreed that my thyroid was not functioning optimally, but chose to take a wait-and-see approach while my health continued to deteriorate. I decided to take my health into my own hands and seek out a naturopath, who eventually diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
I started taking natural desiccated thyroid (NDT) medication and after a few months, began to feel like myself again. But the thought of relying on a pill for the rest of my life didn’t sit well with me. And I knew that medication was only a band-aid for what was really going on in my body. I started researching for holistic alternatives and stumbled upon The Autoimmune Protocol. I discovered that genetics wasn’t the only factor in autoimmune disease, and that diet and lifestyle were two major components.
While I couldn’t change my genes, I had complete control over what I ate and how I lived my life. It never occurred to me that the healthy whole grains and legumes I was consuming were contributing to the problem. Or that the two jobs I was working to put me through nutrition school could be affecting my gut health. In the same way that diet and lifestyle can contribute to autoimmune disease, they also play a key role in the body’s ability to heal. By giving your body a clean slate, you can halt the progression and even reverse autoimmune disease.
What is the Autoimmune Protocol?
The AIP is a diet and lifestyle protocol, designed to bring your body back to balance over the long-term. It helps those suffering from autoimmune disease discover their environmental triggers, determine food sensitivities, reverse nutrient deficiencies, balance hormones, restore gut health, regulate the immune system and support overall healing. While there is no cure for autoimmune disease, following the autoimmune protocol can get you back on the road to health and put your autoimmune disease into remission.
In general, the AIP diet involves eating nutritionally dense foods and removing those that are most likely to be problematic for people with autoimmune disease. Whole foods such as organic fruits and vegetables, bone broth, wild-caught fish, quality animal meats and healthy fats are added to promote healing. While foods that trigger an immune response, irritate the gut and cause inflammation are removed. These include dairy, soy, eggs, nightshade vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, grains and food additives. After the elimination phase (which can last from a couple of months to a year), foods are re-introduced slowly and systematically. This helps to identify which foods are not well tolerated and may be triggering your autoimmune disease. Over time, you will be able to build a life-long diet that is tailored exactly to your needs.
The autoimmune protocol also addresses lifestyle factors that may be affecting your autoimmune disease. Getting good quality sleep, managing stress, making time for hobbies and connecting with nature can be just as important as eating a nutrient-rich diet. These changes are something that you have to figure out on your own as they are completely individual. For you it might be best to focus on sleep, while someone else might need to focus on improving their environment.
While the AIP diet provides all the necessary nutritional requirements, some people may also benefit from the use of supplements. It’s important however to check the labels carefully, as supplements are often derived from common allergens like wheat, corn and dairy. Look for statements like “certified gluten-free” and avoid ingredients that may trigger your autoimmune disease. Some practitioners recommend herbs to help reduce inflammation, modulate the immune system and combat stress. While this can be incredibly helpful for some people, it can be like playing with fire for others. I recommend working with a knowledgeable practitioner such as a registered nutritionist or naturopath, to determine what’s right for you.
My experience with AIP
I started the AIP after my laparoscopy surgery for endometriosis in January. I had already been dairy and gluten free for almost a year, so it wasn’t too overwhelming for me. The part I found to be the most difficult, was going from a largely plant-based diet to one that is very heavy in animal protein. I was a vegetarian for many years, so legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains made up a large portion of my diet. I ate eggs and fish occasionally, but meat was pretty foreign to me at the time. It took a while to get over the fear of eating meat again, but I just kept reminding myself that it was necessary for my healing.
This diet is not ideal for vegans or vegetarians, since it eliminates most of the plant-based protein sources. I personally didn’t feel like I could get adequate nutrition or maximize my healing potential without following the protocol completely. One of the things that helped me accept this, was knowing that I could still make ethical food choices. I spent some time getting to know my local grocers/butchers and the farmers they source their animal products from. I always ensure that the meat I buy comes from animals that have been humanely raised and that fish is wild caught and sustainably sourced. This is important to me from both an ethical and health stand point and is a big part of the AIP diet and lifestyle.
A typical day for me on the AIP diet looks like this:
- Breakfast – a low glycemic fruit smoothie (such as raspberries and blueberries) with spinach, coconut oil, collagen protein and coconut milk OR sweet potato toast with herbal tea
- Lunch – homemade grass-fed beef , lamb or turkey patties with salad greens, avocado, cucumber, radish, carrots + olive oil, lemon and apple cider vinegar
- Dinner – grilled wild salmon or roasted organic chicken with roasted vegetables such as sweet potatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, turnip + sauteed dark leafy greens (kale, swiss chard, collard greens)
- Snacks – homemade bone broth, coconut yogurt, chopped apples or vegetables with tigernut butter
I usually reserve treats for once or twice a week (or special occasions) and they include things like carob chocolate, cassava flour tortillas, AIP morning glory muffins and tigernut cookies. I also do my best to hide organ meats in my burger patties every week, which usually consists of chicken liver. I flavour everything with a variety of dried or fresh herbs, ginger, himalayan salt, olive oil, avocado oil, vinegars and AIP compliant spices. I do batch cooking once a week to help me stay on track and save time in the kitchen. There are many great blogs and resources out there with tons of recipe tips and inspiration. Some of my favourites include:
The lifestyle component can often be the most difficult to address on the autoimmune protocol. The idea of making lifestyle changes is easy to understand, but actually doing so is another story. It’s easier to change your diet than to switch careers, manage stress or ditch a toxic relationship. But no matter how ideal your food choices are, you won’t experience healing without making the necessary lifestyle changes. I chose to start the protocol immediately after my surgery, because I knew it would literally force me to rest. Not everyone is going to have the opportunity to take time off work or other obligations, but there are still many other ways to make positive lifestyle changes. Practicing stress management techniques, spending more time outdoors, getting quality sleep and meditating are just a few of the lifestyle factors I have focused on since going AIP. I engage in mild-moderate physical activity that supports my body in a positive way, such as yoga, stretching, walking and biking. High-intensity exercise can be counterproductive for those with autoimmune disease, and may not only slow healing but exacerbate your condition.