By Rebecca McKinsey
Digestive issues accompany many autoimmune diseases— and some research suggests that a particular diet can help.
The autoimmune protocol diet, sometimes called the autoimmune paleo or AIP diet, posits that healing the gut can extend to other improved symptoms, like reduced pain.
“Autoimmunity is associated with damage to the gut,” says Susan Blum, MD, MPH, a leading functional doctor and the founder and director of the Blum Center for Health in New York. “[The AIP diet] is thought to be a gut-healing diet.”
The immune system and gut damage
Autoimmune-related damage to the gut manifests through “leaky gut,” or increased permeability of the intestinal lining, causing substances to leak into the bloodstream. Gastrointestinal damage can also cause increased sensitivity to certain ingredients and foods, triggering worsening symptoms and more damage, thus creating a vicious cycle.
The AIP diet removes problematic ingredients for a period of time (or indefinitely, if necessary), giving the gut time to heal.
“For those who wish to try this diet, it can open their eyes to how certain foods affect their body, as elimination allows for their body to heal itself,” says Lydia Nader, MS, RD, LDN, a sports dietitian with the Health Performance Institute in Illinois.
Here’s how it works
First, remove the targeted foods from your diet—completely—for an absolute minimum of three weeks, but preferably three months and sometimes longer, Blum says.
Next, reintroduce each food group back into your diet, one at a time, and monitor symptoms. If multiple foods cause irritation or symptoms upon being reintroduced, the exclusion diet might need to extend for a longer period of time.
Digestive problems like indigestion, bloating, gas, diarrhea, or constipation are the most obvious warning signs. But they are not the only ones. People may notice increased joint pain, new headaches, a swollen finger, or stiffness in one hand—or a reaction as major as waking up unable to walk.
“Whatever your signs are of your inflammation, that’s what you’ll be looking for,” Blum says.
She adds that it’s important to note this diet is temporary—if people successfully give their gut a rest and allow it to heal by removing problematic foods for a portion of time, they should be able to add most of them back into their diet eventually or in moderation.
Beyond the diet
During this process, she says, people should seek additional ways to help heal their gut with probiotics, supplements, or other treatments working in collaboration with a doctor.
“We believe that the gut just needs extra support for healing,” Blum says. “All autoimmune people have to heal their gut—it’s a fundamental part of their treatment plan. This is a food plan that’s going to help you.” •
What to eat (and avoid) on the autoimmune protocol diet
Don’t eat: nightshade vegetables, such as eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers; grains and gluten; corn; dairy; eggs; legumes, such as beans, chickpeas, and peanuts; seeds; nuts; alcohol; artificial sugars; and food additives.
Do eat: nutrient-rich foods like meat and fish, non-nightshade vegetables, some fruit, fresh herbs, or coconut milk. Nader notes that foods like turmeric, dark leafy greens, and bone broth support digestive health, and she encourages people to work with a dietitian to ensure they are still eating a full, well-rounded diet.
You can learn more about the AIP diet through Blum’s book, The Immune System Recovery Plan.