A year ago, hearing the word “Paleo” brought to mind the transformation collages, fitspiration slogans, gym selfies and green smoothie recipes that were flooding my Facebook feed. As someone who was more concerned with controlling the symptoms of several chronic illnesses than acquiring six-pack abs, I felt like these people were from a different planet.
Paleo just wasn't something I could relate to.
Over the past ten years, I've been diagnosed with a couple of autoimmune diseases and a handful of other conditions, including adrenal insufficiency, Graves' Disease and Celiac Disease. But no matter how many doctors I went to and no matter how many times I heard promises that I would soon be feeling better than ever, my health continued to decline. Meanwhile, doctors continued to toss new diagnostic labels and prescription medicines at me.
My lowest point was when I was hospitalized last year for a suspected adrenal crisis. After a week of vomiting, my heart was racing so fast that they were concerned I would have a heart attack. The doctors ordered more tests and offered more pills, but none of them could agree on what had actually happened or what I needed to do to get well.
I was losing what little faith I had in the healthcare system.
When I returned home from the hospital, I was so weak that it was a battle to even get out of bed, much less down the stairs. My mother brought me grilled ham sandwiches and chicken noodle soup, which I struggled to eat without vomiting everything back up. At night, she would help me sort my growing number of prescription pills, since I wasn't strong enough to open the bottles on my own.
Feeling desperate, I poured through my old medical records, read countless medical books and searched the internet for some kind of answers. Eventually, I came across a few blogs about healing diets and became intrigued.
Inspired by people like Dr. Terry Wahls, Lauren Geertsen, and Danielle Walker, who claimed they were able to transform their health and manage serious health conditions through diet, I began researching all the different healing diets out there. And that's how I stumbled upon a completely different type of Paleo community than the one that was taking over my social media.
The Autoimmune Paleo Protocol is basically a more restrictive version of the traditional Paleo Diet that is designed to manage autoimmune disease by healing the gut. The AIP, as it's often referred to, is commonly used as an elimination diet, so the person can fine-tune the protocol based on their own personal reactions to common problem foods.
When deciding which diet to try, I was partially swayed by the research of Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, more commonly known as the Paleo Mom. As a former scientist and medical researcher, the Paleo Mom's blog is probably the most comprehensive online resource available on the AIP.
At first, reading about all the foods I had to eliminate was depressing. Fresh tomatoes, chocolate chips, peanut butter smoothies, potato chips -– all my favorite snack foods were off-limits. In fact, almost all pre-packaged foods were out.
The rules vary depending on which version of the protocol you're following, but here's a list of some of the foods that are generally off-limits:
The Paleo Mom blog has a great series called the WHYs of the AIP that explains the reasoning for eliminating each type of food. But the diet isn't just about eliminating foods. It's also about adding in foods that are good for gut health, including bone broth, organ meat and fish. Meals center around meats, healthy fats and vegetables.
The first couple weeks were absolute HELL. No matter how much I ate, I was constantly hungry and craving foods I couldn't eat. My symptoms weren't improving and there were a few days that I felt like I had the flu.
To complicate things further, all my meals had to be made from scratch. Normally, I love to cook, but the constant pain, nausea and exhaustion made it difficult to cook meals. To make things easier, I cooked meals in large batches and froze the extras. I also threw meals together at night in the crock pot, so I'd have something ready to get in the morning, which was often when my symptoms were at their worst.
At the end of two months, I began to see some improvements. I finally began to have moments where I was entirely pain-free. My nausea didn't completely go away, but I was able to quit taking my prescription nausea medicine and still eat daily without any vomiting. My anxiety improved, my skin stopped breaking out, and I no longer felt constantly congested.
I originally planned to start adding back other foods around the 30- or 60-day mark. But any reintroductions I've tried have just brought on a return of my symptoms, so I've put them off for the time being.
One of the hardest parts is when I'm around people who are eating the foods I used to love. I've really only slipped up once so far. After being surrounded by candy, cakes, meatballs and pizza burgers at a Halloween party, I had a pity party for myself the next day and broke down and ate a bunch of Reese's Pieces. I try to keep in mind how much pain those little candies cause me anytime I'm tempted to go off course again.
Now it's been five months, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that I haven't completely eliminated all of my symptoms or that I haven't been able to successfully reintroduce any other foods yet. It's still hard for me to do any sort of physical activity (including walking downstairs and blow-drying my hair) without getting shaky and nauseated. My muscles still ache and my gut is still in some sort of pain every day, but I am having more and more good moments here and there, especially in the evenings.
I never thought I would be able to relate to the Paleo crowd, but even though the AIP has not been a magical quick-fix for me, I do believe the AIP has been an integral part of my healing process.
Have you ever had to make a crazy diet change for the sake of your health?