Friday, August 21, 2015

The Autoimmune Protocol :: My Journey Towards Better Health & Weight Loss with the AIP Diet

Last August I was in bad shape... I had hit my highest non-pregnancy weight ever (just 5 pounds away from my highest full-term pregnancy weight), I had just had another miscarriage that June, my back, chest, stomach, and arms were covered in a painful rash (later determined to be an autoimmune skin disease called Lichen planus), and I was struggling with chronic fatigue, joint pain, mood swings, depression, and anxiety.

I was trying my best to eat nutritious foods, avoid dairy/grains/sugar, and exercise. I would start to feel better, lose a little bit of weight, and then something would happen to make it all come right back... I started to think it was pointless and that I would never be healthy again.

My doctor was trying to get me to start taking all sorts of prescriptions - bandaids for my symptoms, complete with their own long list of side effects - but I knew that wasn't the answer. I knew there was something else going on, but I just couldn't figure it out. After finally getting a correct diagnosis and being told "there is no cure", I started doing some of my own research and discovered the autoimmune protocol. I decided to try a 30-Day Autoimmune Reset Diet. I started the diet the next day, quitting everything (coffee, chocolate and Chipotle!) cold turkey, and was able to successfully implement and stick with the diet for the 30 days. I figured Lent was the perfect time to make the extra sacrifices. The results were incredible.

Day 30 ended up being Holy Thursday, so I spent Day 31 fasting for Good Friday. Most websites suggest extending the reset to a minimum of 60 days for people with severe autoimmune conditions. I was so encouraged and motivated by my initial results that I decided to stick with my new diet through Easter and beyond since my lichen planus wasn't completely gone.  I shared an update from Day 100 here. Since then I have continued on the autoimmune protocol and am slowly starting to reintroduce a few foods, some successfully and others not so successfully.

As of this month (August 12, 2015 to be exact) I have lost 50 (FIFTY!!!) pounds since last August, with 40 of those pounds dropping after beginning the autoimmune protocol on March 4, 2015, just over five months ago!  I now weigh what I weighed in college. I am just 10 pounds away from my lowest post-pregnancy weight (I weighed 128 for one day in 2002 - New Year's Eve - before finding out the next day that #3 was on the way) and just 14 pounds away from what I weighed when I got married! It is so nice to finally be within the "Ideal Body Weight" range for my height and body frame!

Here is a little peek at the various charts in my TargetWeight app this morning:


What is the autoimmune protocol?

The autoimmune protocol (AIP) is a version of the Paleo diet (no grains, legumes or dairy) where a person also removes eggs, nuts, seeds, nightshade vegetables, food chemicals (like thickeners and alternative sweeteners), guar gum, and all over-the-counter medications like NSAIDs.

The autoimmune protocol is an elimination process, removing certain categories of food for a period of time, allowing your body to heal and to help you figure out your personal ideal diet. All of the foods and substances that are eliminated on the autoimmune protocol are those that can irritate and damage the gut, resulting in leaky gut which leads to auto-immune diseases. They are also foods that are nutrient deficient and hormonal disruptors. By removing them from the diet, and focusing on anti-inflammatory food, the gut lining can begin to heal resulting in relief from – or even remission – your autoimmune symptoms.

Once your symptoms have gone away you then add the eliminated foods back into your diet, one at a time, as you figure out what's affecting you. In her book, The Paleo Approach, Dr. Sarah Ballantyne outlines the protocol for reintroductions.

Foods to be avoided on the AIP:  

  • grains
  • legumes
  • dairy products
  • eggs
  • nuts (including nut-based spices)
  • seeds (including cocoa, coffee, and seed-based spices and oils)
  • nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and the spices derived from them)
  • refined and artificial sweeteners 
  • alcohol
  • NSAIDs
  • emulsifiers, thickeners, and other food additives

Note: While fruit is allowed on the AIP, one should aim to keep fructose levels lower than 20 grams per day since excessive fructose can also be problematic while healing the gut. 

When I first read the list of what was not allowed on the Autoimmune Protocol Diet I didn't think there was any way that I'd be able to survive 30 days… let alone indefinitely!  Instead of dwelling on the long list of foods I needed to eliminate from my diet, I focused my attention on what I could eat.

What can you eat?

  • VEGETABLES (except for nightshades)
  • ROOTS  (including beet, carrot, onion, parsnip, turnip, shallot, sweet potato, and yam) 
  • FATS (including animal fat, avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, and palm oil) 
  • MEAT (preferably 100% grass-fed, free-range chicken, no nitrates, no antibiotics/hormones)
  • OFFAL (I stick with just bone broth. I haven't been able to bring myself to eat the rest yet...) 
  • SPICES (except for nightshade, nut or seed-based spices)
  • FERMENTS (sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, kombucha, water kefir) 
  • OCCASIONAL SWEETENERS (dates, dried fruit, honey, maple syrup, molasses) 
  • ADDITIONAL PANTRY ITEMS (mine include: apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, arrowroot powder, coconut flour, coconut flakes, coconut aminos, olives, salmon, tuna, ume plum vinegar)

The first few days weren't too bad, but by day seven I was really struggling. Eliminating the eggs and nightshades was my biggest challenge. In many of my past diets I would turn to foods like Zucchini or Spaghetti Squash and top it with red sauce (nightshades), my salads were always topped with peppers and tomatoes, and for breakfast I would often have eggs (scrambled, fried, poached on top of sweet potatoes, or turned into omelettes or quiche with the help of peppers - more nightshades...) I loved eggs and nightshades! I also had to completely change my idea of breakfast... On the autoimmune protocol breakfast isn't really that different from any other meal of the day - just more meat and veggies!

Note: Pacific Natural Foods now carries Bone Broth. I pick it up at Natural Grocers to keep in the cupboard for when I run out of homemade broth. 

Thankfully I have had amazing support from both my husband and my mom. When the flu hit our family my mom dropped off homemade bone broth. When I had extra busy days (between tutors, piano, and hockey lessons) with no time to cook (and sore teeth due to my braces at the time, which made carrot sticks, apples, and most other approved foods a bit difficult, at least raw), she would meet me in town with a thermos of homemade veggie soup (making sure it was nightshade free - no potatoes!).

My husband has been great about helping with the grocery shopping and grilling meats and fish, always making extra for my breakfast or lunch the next day, even when I tell him not to worry about it. He knows me better than I know myself! ;)

Introducing the ferments took a little bit of adjustment... I had never tried kombucha before so I picked up a bottle of Synergy at a local health food store. The first sip was quite a shock and then, after drinking the rest, I felt really funny...  I googled "Can kombucha make you drunk?"  Apparently I'm not the only one! I cut way back the next time - only having a few sips - and slowly added a little bit at a time to my diet. I love the stuff now! Trilogy and Gingerade (our closest Costco carries the Gingerade) are my favorites. I also enjoy Bubbie's Sauerkraut on my salads at lunchtime. I make sure to include some sort of fermented food and/or drink in my diet daily.

Once I hit the end of the first month, I had settled into a good routine and had developed new habits. I no longer have the cravings I had before I started the autoimmune protocol. It was getting much easier to stick with the diet. Plus I felt great!

How much can you eat? 

I really don't worry too much about portion sizes... I eat whatever I feel like eating of my allowed foods, focusing on a variety of nutritient-dense options.

When I first started the AIP, I felt that I was giving up so much already, I didn't want to feel hungry on top of the other sacrifices. I adjusted our over full schedule so that I could spend more time in the kitchen, especially those first couple months, preparing the food that I could eat and keeping the rest of my family well-fed at the same time.

I make sure that I eat some sort of meat or fish (just fish on Fridays) with each meal and also include plenty of healthy fats (olive oil on my salad, sautéing with coconut oil, lots of avocado) in my diet as well. These are the things that help keep me feeling satisfied.

  • Protein (probably around 4-8 oz)
  • Starchy Vegetables (one small sweet potato, carrots, etc)
  • Non-Starchy Vegetables (lots of these, piled high!) 
  • Heathy Fat (one tablespoon of coconut oil to sauté my veggies, or one tablespoon of olive oil on my salad, or 1/4-1/2 avocado)

My breakfast the other morning: Apple Sausage, Carrots and Asparagus sautéed in coconut oil with a little Garlic Salt
My husband likes to joke that I'm on a "strictly gourmet diet!" I can't argue... The food that I am eating is delicious! 
Another favorite is Chicken with julienned Zucchini sautéed in coconut oil with garlic and basil... Mmmmmm!
This Spiralizer is now on my wish list after seeing Charlotte's recent post

I also include some fruit each day as well. It is surprising how sweet it tastes after eliminating sugar for so long. The same goes for sweet potatoes, carrots, and a few other sweet vegetables as well. 

In addition to lots of water, I drink hot lemon water (first thing in the morning, I was much better about this when I first started. I haven't had it as much this summer), bone broth, roasted dandelion root tea, and kombucha. I also have a stash of AIP approved snacks on hand for when I really need a little "treat." 

What supplements do you take? 

  • Vitamin B6 (for hormone balance, take in the early afternoon as an energy boost)
  • Vitamic C (for stress management) 
  • Magnesium Complex (digestive aid and stress management, taken before bed)
  • Natural Calm (purchased recently to use instead of the Magnesium Complex)
  • Vitamin D (we live in the Pacific Northwest...)
  • Probiotics (in addition to the daily fermented foods)
  • Pro-Gest Cream (for hormone balance, anxiety, and night sweats - two weeks on, and then two weeks off at the beginning of a new cycle)

I've been considering adding a few other supplements (digestive enzymes, L-glutamine, DGL, etc) suggested by Dr. Sarah Ballantyne, but haven't yet. I stopped taking Zyrtec for my angio-edema, another auto-immune disease I developed about 12 years ago. (Since starting the autoimmune protocol I've had very little trouble with my angio-edema!)  I also love these Pure Magnesium Flakes for body soaks, especially when my rash was at it's worst.

My Lichen planus has also caused problems for my nails, including awful ridges and splitting. I just started using Purifying Tea Tree Nail Saver and it has already made a difference.

Do you have any favorite resources?

I checked this book out from the library when I first started the autoimmune protocol. It's such a great resource and I'd love to own a copy. I also checked out the author's cookbook as well: The Paleo Approach Cookbook: A Detailed Guide to Heal Your Body and Nourish Your Soul.

This is the only cookbook I have purchased so far and I love it! The food lists in the front were very helpful and I have some new favorite recipes inspired by this book. I don't use it as much any more, but it definitely helped me survive my first month.

You can actually print out these Autoimmune Protocol guides. I kept them in my purse for awhile when I started the diet so that I'd always have them with me at the grocery store.

Any tips for keeping the grocery budget affordable?

With a family of nine, including two teenage boys, our family goes through a lot of food and our grocery budget was already ridiculously high. My diet hasn't made too much of a difference, in fact we might even be spending a little less now. I no longer buy coffee drinks when I go to town, my husband and I rarely eat out any more, and I've cut way back on all pre-packaged foods and all the fun treats I would make in the past. By cutting back in those other areas, I've been able to keep the money spent on food each month pretty much the same as before, even with the additional special foods I'm purchasing for my diet.

Here are a few things I have done to save money:
  • Shop at Costco - I'm able to find some AIP foods here at good prizes. (Kombucha, Chicken, Bacon, Freeze-Dried Fruit, etc) 
  • Shop at Trader Joe's (and/or local Farmers Market) for produce (and a few other things)
  • Buy specialty/hard-to-find items from the Health Food Store (Natural Grocers) by the case for the extra 10% off case discounts (Beef Jerky, Plantain Chips, Sweet Potato Chips, Coconut Milk that doesn't contain guar gum, etc) 
  • Price check on Amazon - I found my favorite tea for about 50% less online compared to our local stores, when purchased by the case. 
  • Buy 1/2 Grass-fed Beef from a local farm each year 

There are a few things that I eat now that aren't 100% AIP approved including my favorite sausages from TJ's (they come in a pack of 4 for $3.99 and unfortunately contain a tiny bit of nutmeg and chardonnay) and some coconut milk yogurt that I'll eat with some fruit for either a snack or breakfast once or twice a week.

What about the rest of the family? Do you make separate meals for you or does everyone eat the same things?  

I am the only one in our family who is currently on the strict AIP diet. There is no way that I'd be able to afford to keep our growing children full on the limited list of foods that I am eating, and it just isn't necessary for them right now. They need the grains, nuts, seeds, dairy, eggs, and other healthy (for them) foods that I've had to eliminate for now.

My breakfast and lunch is usually different from what the rest of my family is eating (although I often make extras in case anyone else would like some) but I do try and make something for dinner that we can all eat, adding an extra side or two for everyone else. For example if I'm baking chicken for dinner I'll eat the chicken and roasted vegetables, and then also make some pasta or rice as well to serve on the side for the rest of my family.

Have you had to make any other lifestyle changes? 

Yes! The diet alone is not enough to improve my health and stimulate weight loss. Sleep and stress management have been just as important and essential to avoiding new lichen planus from appearing.

I also had to make changes in how I was exercising. I had been working through the Couch 2 5K app and as I neared the end the running became way too much stress for my body. I stopped losing weight and started getting hives after exercising as well as new rash break outs. As soon as I stopped running my weight loss resumed and I started feeling better again.

I now avoid excessive or overly intense exercise and focus on including some sort of low to moderate intensity exercise each day (walking, playing with the kids, going on hikes during our recent road trip, etc) while allowing for plenty of rest between "workouts." It's also important to limit sedentary behavior but, with seven children and much less time for blogging, that's easy to do! ;)

I also make sure to pray and get outside to soak up some sunshine as much as possible.

With the combination of the AIP diet, low(er) stress, and plenty of sleep (ideally 8-9 hours per night), I've been able to manage my autoimmune skin issues without using any of the prescribed steroids!

Is the autoimmune protocol too hard?

Following the autoimmune protocol is hard but it also gets easier over time. I think it is definitely worth trying for anyone who suffers from one of the many autoimmune diseases, or anyone who is dealing with inflammatory symptoms of any kind including headaches, joint pain, skin conditions, etc.

Sacrifice: Accept that the autoimmune protocol, like most diets, will require sacrifice. Remember the words of St. Therese: "Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look , there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love."

Offer it up:  For me it helps to choose a specific intention to offer up my suffering and sacrifices. Choose a specific intention and just "offer it up!" 

Be diligent and patient: It took many years for my body to develop my autoimmune health issues and gain all the excess weight. It's not going to all go away over night. It's going to take hard work, diligence and patience.

Don't give up: Have a plan for when things get tough... Sometimes just the smell of something is enough to satisfy the cravings, and I still enjoy baking some treats for my family on certain birthdays and feast days. If all else fails find a "treat" that you can enjoy that doesn't sabotage your goals. For me those treats have included Roasted Dandelion Root Tea with Coconut Creamer as a replacement for coffee, baked pears topped with cinnamon and coconut sugar, and a few other snacks that I will share soon.

Pray for perseverance: Don't under estimate the power of prayer. Pray often and be sure to pray specifically for perseverance.

"Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations!"