July 30th, 2013… that was the day I truly realized I awas in a UC flare. I was chaperoning a youth day trip to the beach. I woke up that morning to abdominal pain, low back pain, and bleeding. As the day progressed it got worse. I remember sitting on the beach surrounded by thirty crazy teenagers talking, playing games, swimming, goofing around and the only thought going through my mind was, “I can’t believe this is happening again, I can’t be bleeding, I can’t be flaring. I’m scared and it just needs to stop”. Sadly, I had that same thought every morning for another 137 mornings. Quite honestly, even now, my fall feels like it was a blur of pain, anxiety, tears, medications, panicked phone calls to the doctor and worst case scenarios. After spending about a month trying to deal with the flare on my own with rest, strict adherence to the primal diet I had been following for the past few years, and a variety of natural supplements and remedies I finally went to the doctor. He put me on a topical steroid that made my bleeding about ten times worse than it had been, an oral steroid that reacted with my immunosuppressant and gave me hives, a combination of mesalamine medications that left me zombie-like from fatigue, and finally prednisone which did nothing. All of this was mixed with a continuing circuit of supplements and natural remedies that I would research for hours, read about on online boards, and run Whole Foods for at 9pm just in the hopes that something would change. Every day was spent mustering up the energy to get up and get dressed, go to work, and get home so I could go back to bed. My husband went to the grocery store, my cousin ran my errands, and at one point my mom even came from out of state to help me clean and cook. I was quite literally down for the count.
Now as I said, I spent hours, days, weeks and months researching things that could possibly help my health. I know all about the paleo diet, the SCD diet, gluten, curcumin, aloe, L-glutamine… you name the natural remedy I have read the testimonies and looked at the research. One such “remedy” I had read about was called the Autoimmune Protocol Diet or AIP. I was well aware of it and I was also well aware that I wanted nothing to do with it! I read about it, I saw that it would mean cutting out even more foods than I was already avoiding, and I scoffed. I didn’t eat wheat, grains, sugar, vegetable oil, legumes, and only consumed limited dairy… and I was still sick. Yet there were people out there eating potato chips by the bag and knocking back a two-liter a day that didn’t have to deal with internal bleeding day in and day out… my diet was not the issue…. At least that’s how I felt.
However, the days continued and my options started to run out. Medically speaking I had exhausted the options I was comfortable with. The only medication left was a class of drugs with the potential to cause lymphoma. As if that wasn’t scary enough, it was also a medication that I was uncomfortable being on if or when I decided to have children, which would mean I was basically setting myself up to get very sick at some point in the next few years. Outside of that, the only option left was surgery to remove my entire colon. This would make it impossible for me to ever easily have biological children, and would give no guarantee of healing, as the disease still has the potential to show up in other organs at a later time. I had reached the end, and a funny thing happens when you reach the end. Options that sounded unmanageable before suddenly feel manageable, because compared to having cancer or major organs removed from your body, limiting your diet is No. Big. Deal.
That being said, I started the AIP diet on November 22nd and by December 15th I was no longer having bleeding. I have not had bleeding since December 14th and as of January 31st I will be off of the steroids and only on my maintenance medications.
So what is the AIP diet? In short, it is an offshoot of the paleo diet specifically designed to heal the underlying issues behind autoimmune disease, namely leaky gut syndrome. It begins with a full elimination phase that lasts at least 30 days or until symptoms start to improve, followed by a slow and careful process of reintroduction in order to identify what foods are personal triggers. The foods that the diet eliminates all contribute in some way to the health of the gut, be it gut permeability, gut flora health, or inflammation. For more information and explanation on the science behind it all I really recommend that you check out The Paleo Mom’s website. She is a scientist and a mom who has committed herself to researching the connection between food and autoimmune disorders and is the brains behind this food protocol.
The thing that I have found really interesting as I have connected with others on this diet is that so many people have found it to be effective in treating autoimmune diseases that do not seem directly correlated to digestion. From skin disorders to thyroid problems people are finding relief from following the AIP diet. It truly seems to be a breakthrough in the arena of autoimmune diseases.
Here is a brief overview of the allowable and eliminated foods on the AIP diet:
Foods that should be avoided include foods regularly avoided on the paleo diet such as gluten, grains, sugar, vegetable oil and dairy as well as:
- Eggs (especially the whites)
- Seeds (including cocoa, coffee and seed-based spices)
- Nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers, cayenne, red pepper, tomatillos, goji berries etc. and spices derived from peppers, including paprika)
- Potential Gluten Cross-Reactive Foods
- Fructose consumption in excess of 20g per day
- NSAIDS (like aspirin or ibuprofen)
- Non-nutritive sweeteners (yes, all of them, even stevia)
Emulsifiers, thickeners, and other food additives
Foods that should be added into the diet include:
- organ meat and offal (aim for 5 times per week, the more the better)–read more here.
- fish and shellfish (wild is best, but farmed is fine) (aim for at least 3 times per week, the more the better)–read more here and here.
- vegetables of all kinds, as much variety as possible and the whole rainbow, aim for 8-14 cups per day
Colorful vegetables and fruit (red, purple, blue, yellow, orange, white)
Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, kale, turnips, arugula, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, watercress, mustard greens, etc.)
Sea vegetables (excluding algae like chlorella and spirulina which are immune stimulators)
- quality meats (grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild as much as possible) (poultry in moderation due to high omega-6 content unless you are eating a ton of fish)
- quality fats (pasture-raised/grass-fed animal fats [rendered or as part of your meat], fatty fish, olive, avocado, coconut, palm [not palm kernel])
- fruit (keeping fructose intake between 10g and 20 g daily)
- probiotic foods (fermented vegetables or fruit, kombucha, water kefir, coconut milk kefir, coconut milk yogurt, supplements)–read about them here and here.
glycine-rich foods (anything with connective tissue, joints or skin, organ meat, and bone broth)
I cannot say enough about how much this diet has helped me so far! For the first time in the last 6 months I have my life back. I am not bleeding, my joint pain has finally gone away, and my energy level has improved. I have even started working out again. I still have a very long way to go in my healing journey, but I am off to a good start. As of right now, I am still in the full elimination phase of the diet. I do not plan to start reintroducing foods until the summer to give my body a chance to heal, both from the flare and the effects of the medication. It has definitely been an adjustment; I have to cook A LOT. There is pretty much nothing available commercially that I can just buy and eat so everything from meals to snacks has to be cooked by me. I cannot go out to eat right now so I pack food to take everywhere I go and I certainly miss the occasional indulgence of a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate. However, as I recently said to an inquiring friend, “I don’t really mind the cooking. Honestly, if standing on my head for the rest of my life would make me better I would do it, so food is not a big deal”.
I hope that as I continue to share my journey with you all it will help others see the powerful connection between food and health so that they too can find healing outside the limitations of doctor’s offices and pharmacies. In the words of Hippocrates, “Let food be thy medicine and let thy medicine be food.”