How the Autoimmune Paleo Diet Heals the Immune System

Kelly Candela, MS, RD
Health Coach
September 20, 2017

The AIP diet is an elimination diet that promotes healing of the immune system and gut lining in people with autoimmune disease. Could it help you?

Autoimmune diseases occur when your body’s immune system mistakenly attacks your own cells, perceiving them as a dangerous foreign invader or pathogen. This reaction causes systemic inflammation as autoantibodies start to attack your healthy tissue. It’s estimated that more than 20 million people in the United States have some sort of autoimmune condition and millions of them are yet to be diagnosed. Symptoms of autoimmunity can vary but commonly include skin rashes, joint pain, brain fog , and fatigue –just to name a few.

The autoimmune paleo diet , also referred to as the autoimmune protocol or AIP diet, is a variation of the paleo diet that strives to heal the immune system and digestive tract lining in those suffering from autoimmune disease by eliminating potential dietary triggers that may be causing inflammation and further fueling autoimmune reactions.

The protocol requires at least 30 days of elimination of dairy , gluten , grains and pseudo-grains (like quinoa, buckwheat, and amaranth), legumes, nuts, seeds, nightshade vegetables, eggs, modern vegetable oils, alcohol, added sugar or sweeteners, food additives and NSAIDs (Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug), which are medications like ibuprofen.

How does the autoimmune Paleo diet work?

After the elimination phase of the diet, you reintroduce eliminated food groups one at a time and assess your reaction. If a reaction occurs, these foods should be re-eliminated and retested for tolerance again at a later date (usually at least after another month of removal from the diet). The autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet helps to uncover a more personalized Paleo-based diet that helps to reduce inflammation , promote gut healing, and diminish autoimmune-related symptoms for the long-term.

Beyond just a diet, the autoimmune protocol also emphasizes a way of life that prioritizes adequate sleep , stress reduction, and regular physical activity, as these lifestyle factors are known to have a direct influence on symptoms of autoimmunity. At Parsley Health, we promote these self-care practices as essential components in achieving optimal health and wellness for all individuals.

Until recently, the success of the autoimmune Paleo diet was only supported through the anecdotal stories of the thousands of people who successfully used the protocol to help treat and even reverse their autoimmune disease. But new research in the past few years in both the journals Inflammatory Bowel Disorders and Current Developments in Nutrition examined the effectiveness of AIP for inflammatory bowel disease, a group of inflammatory conditions of the colon and small intestine. In both studies, the researchers found that the majority of study participants, greater than 70% in each study, achieved remission after 6 weeks of following AIP. These results bring much needed scientific support to the autoimmune protocol and its ability to help those with autoimmune disease.

Is the AIP Diet right for you? Is it healthy?

If you don’t have an autoimmune disease, it’s unnecessary to follow the autoimmune Paleo diet. There is no need to fear any food groups if you are otherwise healthy and symptom-free, as the healthiest diet is truly the one in which offers the greatest diversity of nutrients from whole food sources.

If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease and want to better manage active and ongoing symptoms, AIP could be a good option for you. However, because of the extremely restrictive nature of AIP, it’s not appropriate to try if you are at risk of eating disorders, have food aversions, are unwilling to make dietary changes, or have other diet-related medical conditions. If you feel the AIP diet might be too limited for you, many members at Parsley Health often see positive results when implementing less restrictive elimination diets or the Paleo diet first. If you’ve already tried other types of elimination diets without success or reduction in symptoms, AIP might be worth experimenting with as a next step.

Get started with the autoimmune Paleo diet

For the initial 30-day period, you eliminate dairy , gluten, grains and pseudo-grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, nightshade vegetables, eggs, modern vegetable oils, alcohol, added sugar or sweeteners, food additives and NSAIDs. With the elimination of these suspected gut irritants, the diet focuses on including more anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods such as vegetables of all kinds and colors (except nightshades), well-sourced organic meat and organ meats, wild-caught fish, fermented foods, bone broths, healthy fats from avocados, olives and coconuts, and small amounts of antioxidant-rich fruits like berries.

While AIP may feel daunting and restrictive, many healthy recipes can be easily adjusted to fit the bill.

Some great Parsley Health recipes you can try out if you’re going AIP include:

  • Easy Wild Salmon Salad : To make AIP-friendly, just exclude the sundried tomatoes and added black pepper to taste.
  • Bison Burgers : Ditch the tomato slice on top, opt for some fresh cucumber or red onions instead, and skip out on sprinkling with black pepper.
  • Green Detox Smoothie : Replace the almond butter with coconut butter or avocado and swap our Parsley Health Rebuild plant-based protein powder for some collagen peptides and you’re good to go!

How to know if the AIP diet worked for you

While 30 days is a suggested minimum amount of time to follow the diet, it is ideal to wait to see clear improvement in the autoimmune conditions and associated symptoms before starting reintroductions. An elimination diet is not meant to last forever but it could take some people 30 days and others a few months to see marked improvement in symptoms success with AIP. Once improvement is seen, you reintroduce foods safely and slowly following a formal schedule. At Parsley Health, we recommend working with one of our health coaches for guidance and support while challenging and reintroducing foods. The ultimate goal of AIP is to create a personalized diet that uncovers specific dietary triggers and will promote healing in the long-term.

For those suffering with symptoms related to autoimmune disease including fatigue , muscle and joint pain, bloating , gas , rashes, hair loss and overall body aches, reduction in these symptoms can often be an obvious indication that AIP is working. In addition to reduction in overt physical symptoms, getting tested by your doctor for changes in inflammatory markers and the health of the gut microbiome is the most objective way to ensure the diet has produced a decrease in inflammation in the body.

At Parsley Health, we have seen success and even complete disease remission in those with autoimmune conditions such as multiple sclerosis, eosinophilic esophagitis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and inflammatory bowel disease, among others!

One member came to us with eosinophilic esophagitis, an autoimmune cause of reflux, and with the AIP diet combined with a gut healing protocol we use at Parsley Health, her disease completely resolved.

Our takeaway

  • AIP can be extremely effective for individuals with a diagnosed autoimmune disease who have tried other dietary changes without a successful change in symptoms.
  • Elimination diets are highly regarded in the medical community as an effective means of identifying dietary triggers.
  • The autoimmune Paleo diet should be thought of as an elimination diet that is focused on analyzing all potentially inflammatory foods for a highly reactive population.
  • The autoimmune protocol is best used as a tool to help personalize the diet to include the foods that help individuals feel their best while keeping inflammation and symptoms to a minimum. It should not be followed long-term.
Kelly Candela, MS, RD
Health Coach

Kelly Candela is a registered Dietitian Nutritionist with six years of experience in the health and wellness field, four of which have been spent right here at Parsley Health supporting members with everything from gut issues and autoimmune disease to cardiometabolic health concerns and fertility. She holds a Master's of Science in Nutrition from one of the leading science-based natural medicine schools in the country, Bastyr University, and completed her dietetic internship at Sea Mar Community Health Center in Seattle, WA.

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