After finishing my Master’s degree at the University of San Francisco about five years ago, I decided to reward myself for all of my efforts by taking a three month sabbatical from “the daily grind” by traveling the world. I visited Japan, India, Thailand, Egypt, and France. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times (sorry, Dickens).
It was the best because of the amazing and life altering experiences I had, the unique people I was able to connect with, and the personal challenges I was forced to overcome. It was the worst because of some of the health problems I faced while abroad.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I had the time of my life and would not change a thing. I am truly grateful because that time of my life clarified for me just how important proper nutrition is for building a life full of energy, enthusiasm, and well-being.
In the run up to my trip in 2008, I had been following a strict (90-95%) paleo diet for four to five years. At this time most restaurants didn’t cook with healthy fats, so I’d say the only time I really got away from paleo was when I dined out or had an adult bev with friends.
I was dedicated to trying different cuisines and embracing the different cultures while traveling, so I made a promise to myself to not be so stringent with my food choices and to embrace the uncertainty that came with non-paleo-friendly foods.
Little did I know how much havoc this would wreak. This article is dedicated to my experiences with various autoimmune-related ailments and to those of you who currently have autoimmune-related diseases or who simply wish to avoid them.
What Are Autoimmune Diseases?
Autoimmune-related diseases occur when your body mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. Your immune system creates antibodies to destroy harmful substances known as antigens that find their way into your system.
Some of these antigens include:
- Unhealthy bacteria
- Various toxins (including environmental ones)
These antigens can be genetically related, a product of your environment, or based on current healthy or unhealthy habits you may have (diet, exercise or lack thereof, alcohol consumption, drug use, smoking, etc.)
When you develop an autoimmune disease, your immune system cannot tell the difference between these antigens and healthy body tissue.
Some autoimmune diseases are:
- Eczema (as well as various rashes)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Graves’ disease
- Celiac disease (gluten intolerance)
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Multiple sclerosis
- Reactive arthritis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type I diabetes
As you can see from the list above, autoimmune diseases can affect your blood vessels, connective tissue, thyroid, pancreas, muscles, skin, and red blood cells. They can also affect your mood, energy, digestion, and a whole host of other things.
While I’ll be focusing on eating for all autoimmune diseases in this article, I’d like to note that my experiences with autoimmune conditions while traveling were mostly related to chronic fatigue, eczema, rashes, and extreme joint pain.
Some of you may already be experiencing autoimmune-related conditions, while others may now be freaked out and wondering if they have one. For the most part, if you’ve been consuming a mostly processed food diet that consists of industrial seed oils and gluten, there is a good chance that you may have an autoimmune-related condition.
Genetics, heavy metals (mercury), mycotoxins (or molds), infections like candida, chronic inflammation due to food sensitivities (gluten, caffeine, alcohol), frequent consumption of NSAIDs or steroids and alpha-blockers (Advil, etc.), and antibiotics can also contribute to autoimmune-related conditions.
Look for signs such as:
- Chronic joint pain
- Frequent muscle pain and weakness
- Poor cognitive function (foggy brain)
- Frequent colds/sickness
- Abdominal pain or constant bloating after eating
- Blood/mucus in your stool
- Tingling hands and/or feet
To know for sure whether or not you have an autoimmune-related disease, you can take one of several tests:
- Antinuclear body test
- Autoantibody test
- CBC test
- C-reactive protein test
- IgG food test
What To Do If You Have Or Want To Avoid Autoimmune-Related Diseases
Because many people with autoimmune-related disease have what is know as “leaky gut”, I’d like to touch on that real quick.
Leaky gut is when bacteria, toxins, waste, or incompletely digested protein and/or fats enter the blood stream because of poor intestinal permeability, causing autoimmune reactions.
80% of the immune system is found in the gut, and much of the focus on avoiding or reducing the effects of autoimmune-related diseases is on healing your digestive system. The GI tract doesn’t just digest and absorb nutrients; it also contains neurotransmitters, hormones, enzymes, and chemical messengers that deliver information to your brain.
For most people, adherence to a strict (and by strict I mean strict) paleo diet for three to four weeks, paired with a more mindful eating approach, will usually alleviate any ailments and help them become healthy again. You can find a list of paleo-approved foods right here to help you get started on this.
I like the 4R approach for avoiding and improving autoimmune-related diseases:
- Remove all toxins and gut irritants like alcohol, caffeine, drugs (over the counter, antibiotics, etc.), gluten, dairy, corn, soy, legumes, industrial seed oils, and sugar.
- Replace with healthy and healing foods like those found on the paleo diet, super foods like bone broth, and fermented foods.
- Repair with specific supplements such as L-glutamine, zinc, omega-3s, and vitamins A, C, D, and E.
- Restore with healthy bacteria and probiotics (25-100 billion units), digestive enzymes, hydrochloric acid, and soluble fiber.
However, because all of us are different, this may not be enough.
How To Practice An Elimination Diet
If you have been on a strict paleo diet for a while now, but are still experiencing symptoms related to autoimmune diseases, or if you would just like to find out whether or not you have any food intolerances, you may find an elimination diet to be beneficial.
One of the biggest issues most people face when carrying out an elimination diet experiment is maintaining willpower. Make it easier on yourself by performing a kitchen makeover and by removing all non-paleo friendly foods from your home.
To perform an elimination diet you’ll need to be able to commit to a minimum of three to four weeks on the diet. You’ll also want to make sure not to complicate the process by concerning yourself with calories, weight loss or gain, or specific ratios of macro-nutrients.
You’ll be eating a very simple diet based around paleo-friendly foods. You’ll also want to remove the following as they can cause various autoimmune-related responses in the body:
- Fruit: Citrus fruits (orange, grapefruit, lemon, and limes)
- Veggies (mostly nightshades): Tomatoes, eggplant, and white potatoes
- Starches: Wheat, corn, barley, spelt, kamut, rye, oats, and other gluten-containing products
- Legumes: Soy beans and all soy products, tofu, tempeh, beans, peas, and lentils
- Nuts/Seeds: All nuts and seeds
- Animal proteins: Meat substitutes, shellfish, bacon, cold cuts, hot dogs (if you eat beef, chicken, or pork exclusively, you may want to switch to other sources of protein that include wild game meats)
- Dairy: Milk, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, butter, non-dairy substitutes, and eggs
- Fats: Margarine, butter, hydrogenated fats, veggie and industrial seed oils
- Beverages: Alcohol, caffeine, soda, and drinks with artificial sweeteners
- Spices: Ketchup, mustard, soy sauce, bbq sauce, vinegar, and chocolate
Now I know what you may be thinking: “What the heck can I eat then?”
- Cold water fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel
- Game meats such as bison, elk, and venison
- Grass-fed beef (if you currently do not consume a ton)
- Other grass-fed and wild-caught animal proteins
- Animal fats
- Coconut oil
- Red palm oil
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Butternut squash
- Brussel sprouts
- Sweet potato
- Swiss chard
Extras that are highly recommended:
- Organ meats (livers)
- Cod liver oil
- Fermented foods (saurkraut, carrots, and cabbage)
- Kombucha tea
- Bone broth
- Pink Himalayan sea salt (for its trace minerals)
Make the process of performing an elimination diet easier on yourself by spending a little extra time prepping and preparing foods ahead of time. Cooking in bulk and using very simple recipes will make this much easier.
How To Reintroduce Foods
After removing some or all of these foods for three to four weeks, you can then start to reintroduce them very slowly and one at a time. On the first day of reintroduction, you may decide to include some dairy like cheese. After this first day of reintroduction, you’ll want to wait two to three days before reintroducing another food. This is because it can often take 24-72 hours for your body to have a response to what you have eaten.
Aside from some of the more obvious physical reactions, make sure to pay attention to things like your mood, energy, sleeping habits, digestion, headaches and sinuses, bloating, and cognitive function. It’s a great idea to use a journal throughout this process to record your results, measure progress, and to refer to later on.
Many of you may be wondering about eating at restaurants while trying an elimination diet. My advice would be to avoid them if possible for the time being, as you never really know what oils they may be cooking with or if gluten is somehow finding its way into any of the meals.
If you absolutely cannot avoid eating out, preview the restaurant’s menu ahead of time to see if there are any options available that will allow you to stick to the elimination/autoimmune plan. Look for grilled, broiled, and baked items.
Always ask your server or the cook which frying oils they use, and see if they can accommodate you by using olive oil, coconut oil, or animal fats.
Most restaurants are also very accommodating with those looking for gluten-free meal options. However, these options are not always included on the menu, so make sure to ask your server if there are any gluten-free options.
For the majority of you, taking a consistent paleo approach to your nutrition will help to elevate any minor autoimmune-related issues. However, an elimination diet may be necessary for some.
Are you dealing with autoimmune-related conditions using a paleo approach to your nutrition? We’d love to hear about your approach in the comments below.