The autoimmune protocol (AIP) and my personal experience with it
As its name suggests, the autoimmune protocol is associated with autoimmune disease and before I get into the protocol itself, it’s perhaps worth briefly exploring what an autoimmune disease is.
Autoimmune disease happens when our immune system (which is supposed to protect us from microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria and parasites) turns against us and attacks us by mistake. It can attack different cells and tissues in the body, such as the thyroid gland causing Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, tissues of the joints causing Rheumatoid Arthritis, or the lining of the small intestine causing Coeliac disease. There are over 100 autoimmune diseases that have been identified so far, and in addition to the above some of the more commonly known conditions include:
- Addison’s disease
- Grave’s disease
- Type 1 diabetes
- Crohn’s disease
- Multiple sclerosis
The classic sign of the autoimmunity is inflammation. This can impact an individual in many different ways depending on which part of the body is affected. So if you think you might suffer from an autoimmune condition, you should definitely get a diagnosis from a medical professional.
What I’m interested in is how lifestyle and dietary choices help regulate the immune system, resulting in damped or extinguished inflammation in the body. This is critical if you want to allow the body to heal so that you can manage, or even in some cases, reverse an autoimmune disease.
What is the autoimmune protocol (AIP)?
The autoimmune protocol (AIP) is an elimination diet that has been specifically designed to help those who suffer from autoimmune diseases or other chronic conditions, including Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). When following the protocol, you eliminate foods that contain compounds that can have a detrimental impact and which can undermine your health. And because everyone is unique, different foods will have different impacts on each individual.
AIP places an emphasis on non-inflammatory nutrient-dense foods, which with time will:
- correct any nutrient deficiencies and imbalances
- improve gut health and microflora
- regulate hormones and your immune system
It’s worth mentioning that a recent study shows that the AIP diet is helpful for inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which includes ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. 73% of the study participants achieved clinical remission of symptoms in just 6 weeks, which is a pretty remarkable achievement (1).
What foods can I eat as part of the AIP?
Most people’s first reaction is to worry about what they can’t have on the diet, but I prefer to focus on the foods you can eat. And here’s a quick list.
- Vegetables, except the nightshade family such as potatoes, peppers, aubergine, chilli or tomatoes
- Meat and poultry (pasture raised) including organ meats such as liver
- Fish and seafood
- Coconut products such as coconut milk, yoghurt, cream
- Fermented foods such as sauerkraut
- Bone broth
- Certain herbs and spices (non-seed ones so no black pepper for example)
- Fruit (in moderation)
- Green tea
- Herbal teas (non-seed ones)
- Honey and maple (1tsp a day)
What foods are excluded from the start?
And now the part we all struggle with at first, what shouldn’t you be eating from day 1.
- Beans and legumes
- Nuts & seeds
- Dried fruit
- Certain herbs and spices (from seeds such as mustard, cumin, fennel etc)
How long should the protocol last?
It’s recommended to stay on the AIP for at least 30 days, but ideally 60-90 days. Some people stay on it for months or until their symptoms have completely cleared up.
Reintroducing foods on the protocol
You don’t have to give up all these foods forever, but you may want to if you notice one of them triggers a reaction. Many of the excluded foods can be reintroduced when you finish the protocol. But, you should only reintroduce one food at a time. Then after 3 or 4 days, if there you have no reaction, you can reintroduce another. This is because it may take up to 72 hours for a food intolerance reaction to show up.
What it can mean is that reintroducing all your favourite foods can take some time but it’s a great way to identify which foods cause you the most trouble.
To sum up
The AIP diet is a very clean, simple, nutritious diet, which requires cooking from scratch with fresh foods. Planning meals for the whole week and batch-cooking is a very good idea to make it work, but you will need to be disciplined as even the slightest slip up can put you back to day 1.
Even though it may be difficult to remove the foods you’ve been eating your whole life, this approach has helped many people to regain health and the quality of life that comes with it.
My personal experience
As a Hashimoto’s sufferer, I wanted to give the AIP a go and see what it’s all about. I decided to do it for only 30 days but I spent a couple of weeks beforehand stocking up on coconut milk and yoghurt, reading about the diet, collecting recipes, etc.
I didn’t want to be caught short and jeopardize the diet by having food that wasn’t on the “allowed” list and I don’t think I could’ve done it without that preparation. I also think it’s important to have the support of your family and friends as they can encourage you, and more importantly, tell you off when they see you reaching for the cookie jar. And if you’re cooking for more than just yourself than having your partner also on the diet will help as you won’t be cooking 2 different meals.
During the diet, I found I had to cook a bit more than usual and I had to be a bit more inventive with the foods available. It meant that I tried minced meat hash and a meatball soup for breakfast – I’m not a stranger to savoury breakfast, but having a meatball soup at 7 am was even a stretch for me. I understand it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. Saying that, my belly felt great after that meatball soup and I stayed full for longer.
One great benefit is that I definitely expanded the range of vegetables that I eat. There’s so many to explore and try out if you’re willing to go to shops you’d not normally visit. Even different supermarkets have different vegetables in them (Morrison’s, not my usual shop, had a great selection).
However, it was the lack of protein sources such as eggs, nuts and seeds that I found particularly tricky. Also, having meat 2-3 times a day, even with an increased amount of vegetables, was a hard nut to swallow.
But how did I feel?
My digestion did improve and I wasn’t getting as bloated as before, but apart from that, I didn’t notice any major changes. Maybe 30 days wasn’t enough, or maybe I’m not in such a bad state after all.
I didn’t really see a difference until I began reintroducing foods. With nightshades, I noticed that I develop a hip pain after eating them again. Also, I’ve discovered my belly doesn’t feel as good on a granola-and-yoghurt-based breakfast, as it does on a savoury type breakfast.
I also found the reintroduction part very tricky. As my pre-AIP diet was quite broad to being with, it would’ve taken me 2-3 months, if not more, to reintroduce all the foods one by one every 4 days. So after a couple of weeks, I decided to eat normally, and take the slightly easier option of doing a food intolerance test instead to try to pinpoint foods that I may react to.
The AIP is an elimination diet, which is the gold standard when it comes to food intolerances, but in my opinion, whether it’s for you comes down to your:
- motivation and determination as it’s not a quick solution and it that needs careful planning.
- level of health beforehand – if you’re in pain or have suffered for a long time, this can give you the motivation and determination to try it and continue with it.
- love foods on the excluded list.
Moreover, there are other types of diet that are less restrictive but can also be helpful, such as Paleo, GAPS or SCD. As there isn’t one diet that suits all, the AIP diet isn’t an answer for every autoimmune sufferer. Some will do fine on the Paleo-type diet, but others may have to move to the AIP. It all depends on the individual circumstances and the symptoms you suffer from.
The key thing to remember is that any diet you choose to follow should consist of fresh, organic unprocessed foods, which you’ll use to make your meals from. This way you’ll make sure you:
- consume the nutrients that you may be lacking.
- remove the problematic foods you may be reacting to.
- include healing foods such as bone broth and fermented foods.