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For many years I suspected that I had some form of thyroid problem based on my own research and symptoms like dry skin, occasional fatigue, trouble losing weight after having a baby, and hair thinning. Even with all those symptoms, I was never able to get answers from conventional tests which showed that my T3 and T4 thyroid hormones were in the normal range.
Thankfully, I found an amazing doctor who specializes in hormones and endocrine problems and with additional blood testing and a thyroid ultrasound, he was able to finally figure out what I was struggling with: Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (an autoimmune condition where the body creates antibodies to the thyroid).
Why Autoimmune Problems Begin
Many different disorders and diseases that we experience are autoimmune in nature. In fact, there are more than 100 autoimmune disorders! While Hashimoto’s is common, so are Celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), rheumatoid arthritis, and so many more.
Autoimmune disease happens when the immune system mistakenly targets your own body cells as the enemy, resulting in damage. Not all autoimmune diseases present the same symptoms, but they are all caused in the same way.
The immune system is an intricate defense network designed to destroy bacteria and viruses before they can harm the way that our cells work. When the immune system gets its wires crossed and targets proteins of its own body—instead of foreign, attacking proteins—autoimmune disease is the result.
Most autoimmune disorders don’t cause immediate symptoms. Over time, as the damage is slowly done, symptoms may build up. You can be genetically prone to certain autoimmune problems, and usually genetics can cause anywhere from 20 to 30 percent of your odds of getting an autoimmune disease.
The other risk factors come from lifestyle, your diet, the environment you live in, hormones, infections, and stress. You can’t always control these, just like you can’t control your genetics, but you can definitely influence your lifestyle, environment, and diet.
How an Autoimmune Diet Works
Diet is especially helpful for both preventing and addressing autoimmune disease. You can eat to help reverse leaky gut, a condition where the barrier function of the intestines doesn’t act as it should. This can let particles into your bloodstream, which can put your immune system on high alert.
The autoimmune protocol is a dietary system that is designed to remove foods that worsen leaky gut, disrupt gut bacterial balance, cause inflammation, and mess with your hormones. It’s a modified paleo diet to support optimal gut health and help your body start healing. It’s nutrient-dense so that you can rebuild nutrient stores, giving your body the building blocks it needs to get your immune system back in order.
Research from 2017 proved that this type of diet can help improve symptoms and inflammation in patients with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Even though the study was small, many functional medicine practitioners swear by this diet with their autoimmune patients.
Why Some Diets May Not Work for Autoimmunity
Once you have an autoimmune reaction, you may need to remove many food triggers to cut down on inflammation. You may not have to eliminate them forever, but even without being allergic to foods, some can get in the way of the healing process.
The GAPS diet was designed on the theory that some foods might need to be eliminated and then gradually reintroduced over time. The AIP, or autoimmune protocol diet, was designed with the same thought in mind, specifically for autoimmune disease.
While autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, they can be put into remission by making changes that reduce the number of antibodies the immune system is producing against your own body.
Not all diets will work to support autoimmunity. While many eliminate foods that might be triggers, diet plans like keto, gluten-free, and even traditional paleo do not focus specifically on inflammation and gut health. The AIP diet was designed to help those with autoimmune problems.
Lots of healthy foods are temporarily eliminated on an AIP diet. This does not mean that they’re not healthy, it just means they’re working against you for now. These foods can include nightshades (like tomatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers), grains, eggs, seeds, and nuts.
My Experience With the Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP Diet)
I switched to an autoimmune protocol diet after being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s in hopes of giving my immune system a little time to recover. I was hopeful that it would be beneficial, but I was AMAZED at how quickly it helped.
Within the first week, I saw my bloating go away and I had more energy. My thyroid nodule also felt noticeably smaller. My skin even improved. Talk about progress!
For two months, I followed the protocol strictly. I lost some of my stubborn weight and felt so much better. It also helped me identify foods that I was not responding to very well, but that I hadn’t noticed before were problematic. Eggs were one thing I realized I couldn’t eat, which was confirmed by a blood test later.
After a while longer, I was able to reintroduce most foods without a problem and I felt continually better. I did, however, have a few flares (like from not sleeping and stressing about finishing my book). It just goes to show how tied to stress and lifestyle our autoimmune diseases really are!
Sleep and stress are both huge factors in overall health and are especially important for those with any kind of health condition. The AIP diet is a great tool for working toward recovering from autoimmunity, but you need the lifestyle to support the diet.
Autoimmune Diet Resources & How to Start
The general idea of the autoimmune diet is that you are removing any potentially inflammatory foods, but the specifics are a bit more difficult. Some sources consider foods like fruit and sweet potatoes OK, while others do not. For reference, some sources that I find most helpful are:
- The Paleo Mom and her book The Paleo Approach (awesome if you really want to understand the research and the science)
- The Autoimmune Cookbook by Mickey Trescott and her website Autoimmune Wellness
Below you will find autoimmune friendly recipes. You can also download the complete food list I used by clicking here (PDF). When you know the foods and recipes to work from, it’s easy to set your own meal plan, even if you’re just getting started!
What to Eat
It can seem overwhelming, but this way of eating is actually relatively simple if you follow a template. My typical day on the autoimmune diet was:
- Breakfast: A scramble of meat and cooked vegetables, a cup of homemade bone broth, some fermented vegetables, and supplements.
- Lunch: A huge salad with leftover protein (meat, offal, or fish) and a small piece of fruit, a cup of bone broth, fermented water kefir or kombucha and olives.
- Dinner: A stir-fry with some type of protein (meat, offal, seafood) with a lot of vegetables and allowed spices, evening supplements, and at least 1 cup of healthy starch like cooked winter squash, pumpkin, etc. I also made a lot of stuffed squashes and soups.
I rely heavily on big salads, stir-frys, and casseroles while on the autoimmune diet. When I first started, it seemed like I couldn’t eat anything and I was depriving myself of everything, but it is important to remember that many times the body is deficient in certain nutrients because of an autoimmune disease.
During the course of the 30-day reset, I focused on extensively nourishing my body with as many high quality proteins, vegetables, and healthy fats as I could consume. I may have been tired of my food choices at times, but I certainly never went hungry.
I also focused on consuming a TON of vegetables during this time, after talking to Dr. Terry Wahls and reading her book, The Wahls Protocol. Dr. Wahls emphasizes the importance of consuming at least 9 cups of vegetables a day, including 3 cups of leafy greens, 3 cups of brightly colored veggies or fruit, and 3 cups of sulfur-containing produce such as onion, garlic, cauliflower, or cabbage.
Other Things to Support Your AIP Meal Plan
Diet is hugely important for all aspects of health, and for me, it became even more important after being diagnosed with autoimmune disease. It is by no means the only factor though. Personally, I found that these other things were equally important to recovery for me:
- Sleep. It is my nemesis! I love to stay up late and skimp on sleep so I can get more done. My body does not love this. I’ve found that when I sleep at least 8-8.5 hours per night, I see my health markers improve (blood tests, fasting blood sugar, etc). Here are some tips for improving sleep (even as a mom!).
- Stress reduction. Also a tough one for me, but stress can have as much of an impact as diet on gut health and hormone levels. I found that even with a good diet, I started to notice symptoms creeping back in while under the stress of finishing my book. Use these ways to control stress and calm the body.
- Supplements. I hesitated to include this part because if diet, stress, and sleep aren’t under control, this won’t help at all! I found certain supplements helped tremendously once I had optimized other factors. I personally take WP-Thyroid thyroid medication (under the care of my doctor), Betaine HCL with protein meals, 5-MTHF and Methyl-B12, Probiotics, Fermented Cod Liver Oil, Cortisol support, Omega-3s, Vitamin D (and sunshine daily in the morning), Magnesium, L-glutamine, Gelatin, and Vitamin C. I would highly recommend seeing a good functional medicine doctor and finding out what you personally need before taking any supplements.
- Gentle Movement. You don’t have to exercise vigorously, and it’s actually probably difficult when you’re just getting started, but some gentle exercise a few times a week can help with joint stiffness, digestion, and overall mood. A slow-paced walk, some yoga, or even a gentle swim can go a long way in helping your body bounce back.
- Gratitude. You can’t get healthy without healthy thoughts. (Ask me how I know.) Try keeping a gratitude journal to retrain your brain, ease stress, and make peace with your body. It does wonders!
Autoimmune Diet Encouragement
This diet is difficult. So is pregnancy. Sometimes the best things in life require some work and denial of self. The elimination phase is temporary and it gives you a window into your own body and what you need to eat for optimal health.
Don’t let it cause you extra stress. Don’t let this keep you up at night. Try to focus on nourishing and loving your body and providing it with the building blocks it needs to function optimally. If you can, encourage a friend or family member to be on the journey with you for support.
The initial phase is just 30 days. Below I’ve included some resources that will make planning and going through those days far easier than it was for me! I’ve included my favorite autoimmune diet recipes (with some modifications), a foods list, and the best food tips I used to succeed on this elimination diet. The success I experienced as a result made all of it more than worth it.
Getting Started with Autoimmune Diet Recipes
There are some core principles that are beneficial to everyone when it comes to health (like avoiding processed sugars, oils, and grains), but the rest is truly a matter of personalization. That is why the 30-Day Reset is so beneficial. It gives your body a temporary break from potentially inflammatory foods and then lets you reintroduce them later to determine what works best for you.
These are the recipes I used when going through my own 30-Day Reset. If you have your own recipes and want to check to see if they are autoimmune diet friendly, you can download this PDF food list guide.
Autoimmune Diet Recipes
You may not be able to eat all the foods you’re used to, but you’re still in for a delicious meal plan. Avocado, coconut milk, ghee, and grass-fed meat make this a diet rich in healthy fats, and you’ll also get plenty of other nutrient-dense foods like leafy green vegetables, sweet potatoes, squashes, berries, and more.
- Homemade Bone Broth
- Naturally fermented sauerkraut (use salt method and omit whey)
- Dairy Free Water Kefir
Main Meal Recipes:
- Beef and Cabbage Stir Fry Recipe (omit any seed-based spices or dairy toppings)
- Liver and Onions with Bacon (omit pepper and use coconut oil or bacon fat in place of butter)
- Stuffed Winter Squash Boats for Kids (omit pepper, use coconut oil in place of butter, omit Parmesan, eggs, pecans, and sour cream)
- Stuffed Zucchini (omit pepper, eggs, bell pepper, and dairy toppings)
- Beef and Zucchini Stir Fry (use coconut oil in place of butter, omit pepper/red pepper flakes, and dairy)
- Beef and Broccoli Stir Fry (use coconut oil or animal fat in place of butter, omit arrowroot and sesame seeds)
- Simple Chuck Roast recipe (omit pepper)
- Ground Beef Jerky (omit pepper and optional spices)
- Bacon Apple Chicken(omit BBQ sauce and add extra approved spices if desired)
- Greek Meatballs (Omit almond flour, eggs, pepper, and sauce. Serve atop cucumber slices and salad instead)
- Bacon Chicken Bites (omit mustard and pepper)
- Chicken Apple Stir Fry (use coconut oil or animal fat in place of butter, omit pepper)
- Chicken Squash Stir Fry (use coconut oil and omit pepper and optional spices)
- Parsnip Shrimp Lo Mein (omit pepper and green beans)
- Moroccan Stir Fry (omit cumin and pepper)
- Chicken Carbonara (omit Parmesan and cream and use coconut oil or animal fat in place of butter)
- Slow Cooker Roasted Chicken (use coconut oil or bacon grease in place of butter)
- Stuffed Sweet Potatoes (omit pepper and toppings)
- Crispy Kale Chips
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts (omit pepper)
- Sausage Stuffed Apples (omit pepper)
- Apple Pork Chops (omit pepper, use coconut oil in place of butter)
- Bacon Lime Sweet Potato Salad (omit pepper and red pepper flakes)
- Maple Tarragon Carrots (reduce honey in half and omit pepper)
- Roasted Cabbage Slices (omit pepper and any seed based spices)
- Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus (omit pepper)
- Mashed Cauliflower (omit dairy products and pepper)
- Sweet Potato Fries (omit pepper)
- Chard Wrapped Salmon (use coconut oil or olive oil in place of butter, omit pepper)
- Cucumber Onion Salad (omit pepper and stevia)
- Carrot Ginger Soup (omit curry and pepper)
Sticking to a diet can be hard, and having AIP-friendly snacks on hand really helps! These are some that keep me going:
- Chia Seed Pudding Recipe (+ 5 Delicious Variations)
- Tangerine Gummies
- Cucumber Melon Mint Smoothie
- Brainpower Smoothie
Tips for Success on an AIP Diet
Cooking 100 percent of your food from scratch from a limited list of foods can be pretty overwhelming. I use this meal planning app to help me, and I also make sure I have a stash of pre-cooked approved foods in the freezer during the 30-day diet.
Most of the smoothies from Daily Harvest are autoimmune-friendly, and so are many meals from the Good Kitchen. I use both of these for emergency snacks and meals to keep me from getting off track. My health is worth the extra expense and like I said, conveniences like these keep me from spending money eating out or eating off-plan foods.
This article was medically reviewed by Madiha Saeed, MD, a board certified family physician and Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Have you ever tried the autoimmune diet? Do you have any autoimmune diet-friendly recipes? Please share them below!
Do it with me! Are you in? Let me know below what your struggle is and the results you see!