The prospect of cutting out so many foods doesn’t exactly make the AIP the most exciting or inviting diet to try. The difficulties of any diet can be discouraging but the list of ‘don’t eats’ seems so ridiculously long on this protocol that anyone who has never adhered to any such restrictions might feel a little terrified at the idea of not eating grains. You truly believe that you’re going to starve.
For me, getting started wasn’t too difficult but it wasn’t plain sailing either. To begin with I totally dismissed the idea that I wasn’t even allowed to eat homemade bio yoghurt, which is necessary to the similar(ish) Specific Carbohydrate Diet that I had experimented with for a month beforehand. After some serious reading I soon accepted how real the science behind the AIP is and how religiously you must follow it.
For the past four years I have been following a wheat-free diet to alleviate what I thought were symptoms of IBS or possible gluten intolerance. I had a few cheats along the way with very occasional traces of wheat found in foods such as sausages but in general this restriction massively helped with the chronic diarrhea I suffered. However, let’s be clear; wheat-free or gluten-free is not enough to fix an autoimmune disease. My undiagnosed Crohn’s disease soon caught up with me and forced me to face a harsh reality: eat clean or face surgery. So, from the perspective of already being accustomed to a wheat free diet and taking into account the absolute necessity of changing my diet, going AIP wasn’t that difficult… for the most part.
The biggest struggle I faced was not eating sugar. If overindulging in sugar were a criminal act I’d be facing a life sentence, locked up in solitary confinement and imagining that cockroaches were medjool dates. I’m the girl that would happily eat a whole Easter egg in one sitting and then consider buying another. In February. Well, if a candida die-off can be considered the penalty, I certainly paid it. Which brings me to my first point regarding the five things you can expect to experience when beginning the Autoimmune Protocol:
1. Candida Die-off
This is also known as the Herxheimer reaction – a bad bacteria “die off”. Candida Albicans is a type of fungus or yeast that forms part of the gut flora. When out of control it can weaken the intestinal wall (contributing to that leaky gut I told you about) and release toxins into the bloodstream that eventually provoke your body to attack. But how does candida get out of control? It thrives on a diet rich in carbohydrates and sugar. When you cut out high-carb foods and sugar you essentially starve these bacteria and cause them to die. As they die they release their endotoxins into the body faster than the body can cope with them – this can cause many side effects such as nausea, headache, fatigue, dizziness, sweating, fever, night sweats, chills, bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhea, increased joint or muscle pain, elevated heart rate, rashes and skin breakouts. Taking or eating probiotics to outnumber the bad bacteria with good bacteria and also popping anti-yeast supplements such a grapefruit seed extract can exacerbate this die-off. I did all three of these and pretty much bombed out those pathogens but it left me with some serious night sweats, fatigue, headaches, diarrhea, etc. and lasted for about 2 weeks until my body adjusted. It is better advised to change your diet first and then think about introducing probiotics later to ease your body in.
2. Fatigue or Low Carb Flu
Your body has learned to burn sugars and grains (carbohydrates) as fuel for energy. It’s exactly this type of diet that causes insulin spikes, glucose levels to drop and sends out hunger cravings just 90 minutes after eating. You body now has to unlearn this pattern to become a fat-burner. As your metabolism shifts and learns to use fat for fuel you may at first experience fatigue, lethargy, headaches, intense food cravings (usually for sugar but sometimes for fats), mood swings, depression, anxiety, malaise, and even stomach and digestive upset. I didn’t feel this too badly because I think I over compensated by eating A LOT and Dr Sarah Ballantyne emphasizes that it’s important to stay hydrated, eat quality fats, exercise and sleep well to help with this. Whatever you do, don’t give up. This will pass within 2-4 weeks. Once your body has readjusted you’ll soon have more energy than you did before! One thing to note here: the AIP is not a no-carb or a low-carb diet; it’s just not a high carb diet. You will still get carbs in the form of fruit and vegetables so don’t go totally eliminating all fruit sugar, just keep it to a minimum. Have a read of this article on Sugar Burners vs Fat Burners: http://primaleye.uk/sugar-burner-vs-fat-burner-2/
3. Weight Loss or Gain
I lost a stone in weight (6.35kg). I was a little worried about this as I was already slim to begin with but I can confidently say that my weight has stabilized and I am perfectly healthy. The weight loss can occur at the beginning of the diet because you’ve suddenly cut out carbs that your body is so used to burning. I noticed each week I was losing more weight but this eventually plateaued and I have remained at the same weight for the past few months. Some people have even reported weight gain (particularly those suffering with malnutrition or diarrhea prior to the diet) because finally their bodies are retaining much-needed nutrients. I imagine this happens much later into the diet when the gut has healed enough to stop causing such severe gastrointestinal reactions. The key point to remember is that being a healthy weight will better enable your body to heal and manage inflammation. Hormones and lifestyle also play a huge role in weight loss or gain so I recommend reading pages 275-277 of The Paleo Approach.
You will, without a shadow of a doubt, make mistakes. The AIP is a lot of information to take in and you can’t expect yourself to remember every single do and don’t at the beginning, especially when eating out. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Try to let go, learn from the experience and make the right choice next time. You’ll soon get into the swing of it. I remember I ate tomatoes with my salad because I forgot they’re a nightshade. Easy mistake, they’re Paleo after all. It’s important not to become ‘orthorexic’ and live in fear of what’s on your plate but you still want to be careful. Don’t be afraid to ask friends and family what ingredients they’re using or ask the waiter whether something is gluten free or contains dairy if you suspect it might. Better to be safe than sorry, but don’t be tormented by it.
5. Be Patient
All good things come to those who wait. Don’t expect an overnight cure. You’ll still find just as much hair at the bottom of the shower tomorrow (if you suffer with AA) and there’s no guarantee your gastrointestinal discomfort will disappear after your next meal if you’re suffering with Crohn’s. Do stick to the diet for AT LEAST 30 days. The length of time it takes to heal varies from person to person depending on the level of damage in the body. To allow for healing of the gut to take place and therefore repair throughout the immune system and entire body (your hair if you have AA), a minimum of 30 days can be enough to show some improvements but 3-4 months is a much more realistic time scale to allow for the body to truly start rebuilding itself. Anywhere along that timeline will be where a person has rebuilt their body enough to see improvement in autoimmune symptoms.
Remember, the AIP is more than just a diet. Exercise, sleep, relaxation and other therapies are all necessary and conducive to healing. I’ll write about my experience with those another day but for now I urge you to read Dr Sarah Ballantyne’s book The Paleo Approach and blog www.thepaleomom.com to get the most out of this protocol.
If you have any questions or suggestions for future blog posts, please do let me know.
p.s. video below!
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