WHAT IS AUTOIMMUNE DISEASE AND THE AIP DIET
BY DR. TARA DUNNE, BS, MA, ND
Autoimmune disease - what is it and how can we treat it? I am convinced we have only begun to scratch the surface scientifically of all that is autoimmunity. Autoimmune disease is the condition where the body’s immune system decides it is time to start attacking itself. Instead of attacking unwanted invaders like viruses or bacteria, the immune system starts attacking healthy cells and healthy tissues. Sounds bizarre, doesn’t it? Like something out of a creepy sci-fi movie. But it’s not sci-fi, and it’s happening every day and happening all around us. I can almost bet if you look around your environment wherever you are right now you could probably catch a glimpse of someone suffering from some form of autoimmune condition, even if you’re the only person in the room…
Autoimmunity is when the body stops recognizing its own tissues or its own cells as its own, or as “self”. Something shifts or something alters, and the body sets up an immune attack against its own self. In a healthy system, the immune system helps protect our bodies from foreign invaders – bacteria, viruses, parasites, things we are allergic to, etc. But in an unhealthy system, this same immune system becomes a predator and our own bodies its prey.
So where does autoimmunity and its associated diseases start? There are a variety of speculations as to where the diseases stem from. Our environment – including exposure to pollution, crappy food, and increasingly high levels of stress – can usually prove to be a starting point. To pinpoint the exact causative factor when so many exist in our environments is tricky to do. But an excellent place to find the affected cells of the immune system remains constant. Your gut walls house 70-80% of our immune cells, so you can bet this is largely where the great battles begin. You’ve probably heard of a “leaky gut” (or “intestinal hyperpermeability”). This is where the cellular gap junctions in the gut lining are not staying bound together tightly enough and their “gaps” widen, causing things that shouldn’t leak from the gut into the bloodstream to do so. The wrong things in the wrong places usually make the immune system go nuts. What causes the widening of the gaps? Things we are allergic or sensitive too, especially in or on the foods we eat. So you can imagine here how having wide gap junctions in our guts, the very place where 70-80% of our immune cells abide, can make us very unwell. For example, gluten causes junction gapping in every single person. But in people with gluten sensitivity, the gaps are larger, causing greater signs and symptoms.
Symptoms of autoimmune conditions vary widely. Chronic fatigue, chronic pain, weight gain, brain fog, anxiety, stiffness, bloating, stomach pain – the list can go on and on. Some specific conditions linked to autoimmunity include Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Psoriasis, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, Graves disease Rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus (SLE), Inflammatory Bowel disease (IBD), Type 1 Diabetes, vasculitis, and many others. The chances you know someone suffering from an autoimmune condition are extremely high.
How then can we overcome and begin to heal autoimmunity? With so many sources and so many variations of each condition, how do we even know where to start? Well we can take our treatment guidelines back to what we talked about earlier – the gut! Healing the immune system MUST start in the gut and therefore MUST start with addressing the excess inflammation in our guts.
Insert the Autoimmunity Protocol Diet (aka the AIP diet). A diet specifically designed to help disengage the immune system from self destruction without turning it off completely. It is essentially a Paleo diet, but with some stricter rules in place to really move towards healing. Because it focuses on the foods we eat, it inevitably can target the exact tissues we want to heal, inflamed leaky tissues of the gut.
Here is a list of foods allowed / not allowed on the AIP Diet:
- All Vegetables (except nightshades)
- Fresh fruit
- Healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, avocados, cultured ghee, pasture-raised / grass-fed animal fat
- Bone Broth, Collagen, Gelatin
- Grass-fed / pasture-raised meats, wild seafood
- Coconut based items, including coconut oil, creamed coconut, coconut butter, coconut manna, coconut aminos, canned coconut milk, shredded coconut
- Green Tea, Herbal Teas
- Some starches such as arrowroot, tapioca
- Some sweeteners such as maple syrup, honey
- Fresh and non-seed based dried herbs (basil, oregano, mint, rosemary, tarragon, thyme, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon)
- Vinegars such as Apple Cider Vinegar, balsamic, coconut vinegar, red wine
- Fermented / probiotic-rich foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, coconut kefir and coconut yogurt
FOODS NOT ALLOWED:
- Nuts (including nut butters and nut-based oils)
- Seeds (including chia, flax, sunflower, sesame, pumpkin and spices that have seeds like cumin and coriander)
- Culinary herbs that come from seed-based spices (mustard, caraway, cardamom, coriander, cumin, dill seed, fennel, fenugreek, nutmeg)
- Beans/Legumes (this includes soy)
- Grains and pseudo-grains (like buckwheat and quinoa, etc.)
- Vegetable oils (best fats to use are olive oil, palm oil, cultured grass fed ghee, lard and coconut oils)
- Processed Foods
- Sweetener substitutes like stevia and xylitol
- Dried fruits
- Dairy Products
- Gums (like guar gum - commonly found in coconut milk, also make sure to avoid cans with bpa in lining, look for cans that say, “bpa free”)
- Nightshade vegetables (potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, seasoning spices like paprika, chili, mustard seeds)
The food list above is packed with foods that either increase inflammation in the gut (those foods on the “not allowed list”) or help to heal that gut inflammation (those foods on the “allowed” list). Immunity largely stems from the gut, so treating diseases of the immune system should start there too. The AIP Diet may look challenging to follow, but sometimes it is necessary temporarily to really help reset the immune system. The recommended time frame for embarking on and strictly adhering to the AIP Diet is 6-8 weeks. After that point you can slowly begin to reintroduce “not allowed” foods one at a time and see if your autoimmune signs and symptoms return or not. In a lot of cases, you can slowly start to add back some of the not allowed foods and find your autoimmunity signs or symptoms still stay away. In this case, you’re working towards learning what foods you individually should be “allowed” or “not allowed”. Our health journeys are all unique. Allow yourself plenty of time to heal and reintroduce foods.
To view all of the AIP allowed foods in the Pure Feast shop, you can see their collection of AIP foods here.
It is always important to make sure you work with a practitioner when embarking on any treatment protocol to be certain you are not overshadowing a different disease entirely or have something that clinical labs could help to differentiate and heal.
Dr. Tara Dunne is a licensed naturopathic doctor who received her degree from the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. She also holds a master’s degree in Health and Wellness and a bachelor’s degree in Biology. She is passionate about natural wellness and helping people achieve optimal health.
Her special medical interests include atypical neurodevelopment, pediatrics and biochemistry. Tara spent several years training under some of the world leaders in these specific topics, and she now uses that training coupled with natural therapies to help people overcome illness and achieve optimal health. She is dedicated to making sure the best possible care, outcomes and information is available to everyone. In a world of health information overload, she's committed to helping people navigate their own personal health journeys. Her other interests include caring for her family, triathlon training and fitness, volunteering for people living with special needs, major league baseball, and cooking.