By Dorothy Greco
Last year when my doctor diagnosed me with a mild form of Hashimoto’s disease, she gave me two options: go on synthetic thyroid meds for the rest of my life or try the autoimmune paleo diet—a specialized version of the paleo diet.* Because I always experience side effects from whatever pharmaceutical I use and the first side effect listed for the synthetic thyroid was osteoporosis, I immediately leaned toward the dietary approach. That is until she handed me a packet explaining AIP. Tears started running down my face before I got to the bottom of page one.
The paleo diet was re-popularized when Drs. Stanley Eaton and Melvin Konner wrote a paper for The New England Journal of Medicine back in 1985. The basic premise is that due to our genetic heritage, we’re better off eating nutrient dense foods similar to what our African ancestors consumed (e.g., grass fed meats, wild fish, unlimited vegetables, limited fruits, and omega 3 oils) than a typical North American diet that contains high amounts of carbohydrates and sugar (e.g., soda, white bread, corn chips, etc.). A paleo diet eliminates all processed food and four of the top eight food allergens (gluten, soy, dairy, and peanuts). The AIP diet takes it up a notch, adding nightshades (like tomatoes and white potatoes), eggs, nuts, seeds, and all sweeteners, including honey and maple syrup to the forbidden list. Fruit is limited to a single, daily serving. Hence my tears.
Proponents of the paleo diet believe that certain foods contribute to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, lupus, Crohn’s, psoriasis, candida, diabetes, and thyroid disorders. It’s a complicated chain of events but apparently, some foods compromise our immune systems, potentially leading to intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut syndrome. In leaky gut, the lining of the small intestine is damaged creating enlarged spaces between the cell walls that allow food to enter the bloodstream and trigger autoimmune disorders.
Though I am not a doctor or a nutritionist, I’ve been navigating autoimmune and food issues for the past 17 years. Until I was diagnosed with celiac disease at age 40, I had chronic skin issues, annual respiratory infections, and digestive problems (including gas, stomach aches, and diarrhea). Less than a month after I eliminated gluten and dairy from my diet (because celiac disease and dairy intolerance are often connected), symptoms that had side-lined me for my entire life mostly disappeared. I’ve been gluten and dairy free since.
However, even I harbored doubts about AIP. How could it be wrong to eat brown rice, quinoa, or lentils? And weren’t experts assuring us that dark chocolate was actually good for us? How could I and why would I eliminate even more foods from my already limited options?
Thyroid disorders, which have become increasingly common especially for women, are not to be dismissed. According to the Mayo Clinic, Hashimoto’s disease “is an autoimmune disorder in which your immune system creates antibodies that damage your thyroid gland” causing a host of possible symptoms including sleep disorders, low energy, weight gain, and muscle weakness. If Hashimoto’s disease or Grave’s disease go undiagnosed or ignored, they can lead to severe health issues and in some cases, even death. Obviously, I could not afford to ignore this. So I dove in. Head first.
The first thing I noticed was how much more time I had to spend thinking about and preparing my meals. (And the second was a 20-30% spike in our grocery bill.) Even if you are a genius in the kitchen, you will need to find a few good cookbooks or alternately, bookmark websites that list recipes. You will quickly become an expert on how to coax flavor from obscure vegetables like Kabocha squash. Kombucha (in limited quantities of course) may become your favorite drink. Because my normal breakfast options of a fruit/vegetable smoothie, a GF/DF muffin, or eggs on toast were out, the first meal of the day was undoubtedly the most difficult. Bone broth for breakfast? Um, no thanks.
By God’s grace and sheer stubbornness I survived six weeks on the AIP. Many holistic heath care practitioners suggest following this for an entire year to give your digestive system a chance to fully heal. I figured that I had a head start since I had been gluten and dairy free for almost two decades. The truth was, I couldn’t last another week because I was ferociously hungry and highly irregular. By the end of the six weeks, I had lost 12 pounds, was getting to sleep in less than 30 minutes (my previous norm was two to three hours), and my plantar fasciitis disappeared.
That was almost a year ago. I’ve stuck with a paleo diet because nothing else was working and I was tired of trying new medicines to help me sleep or reduce my pain levels. (I also have fibromyalgia.) Some critics claim this is just another ridiculous fad that will gradually fade away like the Atkins, South Beach, or grapefruit diets.
They might be correct but if you suffer from auto immune or inflammatory diseases, the only downside to trying this approach is the added time and cost. (I’m obliged to add, please check with your primary care doctor, but in my experience, most western trained physicians dismiss the food-health connection.) If you try paleo even for a month, which is essentially what Whole 30 is all about, you might see a reduction in certain symptoms. If you think you might have food allergies, or if you have constant yeast infections or candida, your best bet would be trying AIP.
A few weeks ago, I had another round of blood drawn work done and my levels are now within a normal range, including my thyroid. I cannot guarantee that you will experience similar results but neither can I ignore these metrics. (Evidence is not merely anecdotal. Several studies seem to confirm that this approach does help some individuals.) Though I sorely miss certain foods (mainly rice and corn chips), I think paleo has become my new normal.
Dorothy Littell Greco spends her days making photographs, writing about how following Jesus changes everything, and creating decent paleo meals. She is the author of Making Marriage Beautiful. Her work can be found on her website or by following her on Twitter (@dorothygreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by DorothyGreco).