Eat + Drink
What is The Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) Diet ?
Megan O’Kelly CNP
The Autoimmune Protocol - Autoimmune disease is becoming commonplace these days. It is actually hard to find someone who doesn’t at least know someone who has an autoimmune disease and unfortunately, many people have one for years without knowing. I have Celiac disease, my Mom has Hashimoto’s, my Grandma had Lupus, my friend has Psoriasis and I see more and more clients every day with one or more. It is enough to be considered an epidemic, affecting close to 50 million Canadians. The good news is it doesn’t have to be! About 1/3 of your risk of developing an autoimmune disease is genetic. That means that 2/3 of your risk is totally up to you! It comes down to your diet, your lifestyle and your environment. In fact, the autoimmune disease is so dependant on these things that it is being placed in the same class as other diet & lifestyle-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. So how we live and what we put in our mouth can be the difference between developing or not developing the autoimmune disease, just as it can be the difference between finding remission or worsening symptoms and developing other autoimmune diseases. There are over 100 autoimmune diseases out there, and some that have yet to be confirmed but are suspected to have autoimmune origins. Autoimmune disease is generally understood as a glitch in the immune system, wherein rather than protecting us from pathogens and other invading microorganisms, it turns against us and attacks our own proteins, cells, and tissues instead. Rude, right? Whichever cells or tissues are being attacked determines the classification of your autoimmune disease and its symptoms. For example, in Celiac Disease, your immune system attacks your gut and the little microvilli that help you absorb nutrients! In Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, your thyroid gland takes the attack. In Rheumatoid Arthritis, your joints have to deal with the bullies. What the Autoimmune Protocol does, is strategically implement diet and lifestyle habits that are scientifically proven to help regulate the immune system so that it stops being such a big bully and starts working for us again, instead of against us!
TOP 5 QUESTIONS ABOUT THE AIP DIETHow long do I have to be in the elimination phase? The elimination phase of the AIP diet is NOT intended to last forever, but the amount of time you need to stay on it is different for everyone. It is an intensive elimination that disqualifies any food that may irritate or permeate the gut lining, disrupt hormonal balance or disrupt the immune system. Some of these foods to avoid include grains, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, dairy, and alcohol. It gets quite detailed and may require working with a qualified nutritionist, naturopath or AIP coach in order to navigate it successfully. When I am working with clients, I give them a general timeline of 30-90 days. The goal is to get to a baseline of wellness where you are virtually symptom-free so that we can begin reintroductions in a way that will clearly allow us to pinpoint reactions. What if I don’t see improvements during the elimination phase? If you do not see improvement, it does not mean that the autoimmune protocol can’t work for you. It may just mean that there is another underlying concern that needs to be dealt with first. There are some conditions that commonly occur in those with autoimmune disease that will not resolve without extra treatment, including methylation dysfunction, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, candida, and parasite infection. Because the gut is always compromised in autoimmune disease and the immune system is poorly regulated, there are often extra sensitivities to foods that are not always eliminated on the autoimmune protocol including high-histamine foods and high-FODMAP foods. (Stay tuned for more on FODMAPS in my next blog post!) These may also interfere with the body’s ability to heal on AIP alone. Again, working with a qualified practitioner will help you sort through these roadblocks. Can I have just a little bit of a non-AIP compliant food during the elimination phase? Unfortunately, just a little bit of some of these foods can cause inflammation and the build-up of antibodies that can last for several months! Anything that will irritate your gut lining, throw off your hormones or boost your immune system can prevent healing and result in a longer elimination phase. It is best to go for it 100% to give your body the best chance to heal and you the best chance to reintroduce sooner and find the foods that your body will be able to tolerate safely. I have even seen some clients that didn’t find improvement until we got rid of the gluten that was hiding sneakily in the toothpaste they were using every day! Our bodies are sensitive, especially ones with the autoimmune disease. Why can’t I do food allergy testing instead of the reintroduction protocol? Food allergy testing does not replace the reintroduction process. A “true allergy” is always to a protein and can be tested through identification of IgE-antibodies. Unfortunately, more common intolerances and sensitivities are found through IgA, IgD, IgG and IgM antibodies and the tests that we have for them at this time are unreliable, pointing more so to the presence of a leaky gut rather than to a true allergy. However, the symptoms of these types of sensitivities are similar to allergic reactions, which is why the elimination and reintroduction process of AIP allows us to discover them. What may also be comforting to know is that these types of intolerances are usually the result of a damaged gut or digestive process and so with a nutrient-dense diet & some pointed lifestyle changes, they can generally be healed! I get that I need to heal my gut with the right diet in order to heal my autoimmune disease, but what does that have to do with lifestyle? You would be surprised how many clients I have seen who have their diet on point and don’t experience the improvements they’re looking for until they really start to take the lifestyle components seriously. The autoimmune protocol encourages 8-10 hours of sleep every night, managing stress, protecting circadian rhythms, nurturing social connection, having fun, making time for hobbies, relaxing and getting lots of mild to moderately intense activity (while avoiding intense/strenuous activity). These things all play into the ways in which stress, hormones, and the immune system are interconnected. For example, elevated cortisol due to chronic stress can cause the opening of the gut lining (ie. exacerbating leaky gut). Lack of sleep can cause elevated cortisol as well as the dysregulation of certain hormones that influence the immune system and cause it to overreact. Excess exercise can promote elevated cortisol levels, while moderate exercise may lower them. All of these lifestyle factors are connected so it is important to nurture all of them in order to see real change.
TIPS FOR GETTING STARTEDStock Your Pantry Your first instinct will likely to be to throw everything out that you can’t have on the AIP elimination phase. That is a great start! Out of sight, out of mind. However, you might find your shelves pretty baron at the end of that and as a huge part of healing on AIP is not only about eliminating but also about including nutrient-dense foods that will help you heal, it is best to stock up immediately on some AIP staple food. I recommend stocking your freezer with high-quality fish & grass-fed meats, including liver! Consider it an AIP superfood! Fill your fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables galore. Stock your pantry with AIP-friendly convenience foods like coconut chips, coconut butter, plantain chips, and grass-fed jerky. A real life-saver for me when I’m on the elimination phase is Organika’s Bone Broth Powder, which is incredible for adding gut-healing nutrients to any soup or stew that you make or for simply adding to hot water for a makeshift cup! Save you the stress of having to constantly brew your own and provides the same nutrition and a brilliant flavour. I always have one beef and one chicken bone broth powder in my cupboard for emergencies. Check out my AIP Beef Stew Recipe to see how to use the bone broth at the end of this blog! Batch Cook On a diet that requires most, if not all, of your meals to be home-cooked it is important that you don’t burn yourself out by making all of your meals from scratch. The best way to get through the AIP protocol is to make big batches of things like soups, salads, stir-fries, and roasts that will last you for at least 3 meals worth. I would also batch cook different sauces and dressings so that you can enjoy the same base meal with a bit of different flavour throughout the week. This will save you hours in the kitchen, while still keeping things interesting! Stock up on some good glassware containers and mason jars and keep leftovers in the fridge to eat over the next couple of days or in the freezer for next week! Think Outside the Breakfast Box Breakfast is often the trickiest meal on AIP dieters. When you take eggs, toast, bagels, oatmeal, and cereals off the table most people don’t know what else to do! I often encourage thinking outside the box and enjoying things like soups for breakfast, giving your body a chance to start off with something nourishing but still easy on the digestive system. Other great ideas are breakfast sausages with avocado & greens and sweet potato hash! Technically, smoothies are not recommended on the AIP elimination phase because there is no chewing required. This means that many of the preliminary enzymes needed to properly break down your food are not activated, and although it may seem like a smoothie is already broken down, you still need those enzymes to turn your food into a base of amino acids, fatty acids, etc. Without that, you will not absorb as much nutrition as you can and may experience some digestive distress! My recommendation is to enjoy your morning smoothie with Organika’s Enhanced Collagen Powder (collagen being the only AIP-compliant protein powder) as a smoothie bowl topped with whole fruit, coconut chips and other AIP-friendly toppings that will make you have to chew your way through this smoothie! Create a Reliable Supplement Regime You don’t have to be on every supplement under the sun. They are, after all, intended to be SUPPLEMENT to a proper diet. And, in fact, many supplements are contaminated with non-AIP friendly ingredients including soy, dairy, and gluten. I recommend finding high-quality supplements, like Organika’s and working with a practitioner to figure out which are necessary for you. Some of the most helpful supplements I have used in practice include:
- Digestive support supplements such as enzymes, ox bile and betaine HCl for those with particularly poor digestive symptoms.
- L-glutamine for healing the cells of the gut lining & restoring its function
- Magnesium for reducing tension, regulating bowel movements, improving energy and managing stress
- Vitamin C for supporting the immune system, managing stress and helping to resolve some skin-related symptoms
- DGL capsules with no fillers to help repair the gut
- Collagen for those with diseases affecting the skin and/or connective tissue and for supporting gut healing.