If you’re thinking about going Paleo, this article will give you more info on why it works, how to do so, and how to make starting easier 🙂
The Many Triggers of Chronic Disease
Through my research and working with thousands of people having Chronic Disease, I have found that food sensitivities, nutrient depletions, intestinal permeability, an impaired stress response, an impaired ability to get rid of toxins, and infections can trigger Chronic Disease and Autoimmunity.
What do all of these triggers have in common?
All of these factors send a message to our body that the world we are living in is not a safe place and that our body should go into some type of survival mode, either conserving energy, or avoiding a dangerous food or toxin, or hiding out to prevent the spread of infection. Let me explain.
When we eat food we are sensitive to, our body gets the signal that we can’t digest and absorb key nutrients. Our body thinks we are starving or nutritionally depleted. When we eat processed foods, our body once again gets this signal. These messages to our immune system trigger that it is time to slow down our metabolism in order to conserve limited nutritional resources. And since resources appear to be scarce, it’s not a good time to be fertile, so time to shut down the libido as well! Our body is trying to survive given the world around us.
It could explain how cavemen adapted to times when food and resources were scarce. Their physiology adapted in response to the “alert” messages they were receiving from their bodies. They went into a conservation mode, and that helped them survive.
What is the best way to conserve resources? Slow metabolism, of course! That way, a person can survive with eating fewer calories. How do you slow down metabolism? One great way is to slow down thyroid function. How do we achieve slowing down thyroid function?
Why not send some inflammatory cells into the thyroid to attack it so that it doesn’t produce as much hormone? Same goes for other organs of the body.
In a way, hypothyroidism puts us in a quasi-hibernation mode when faced with nutrient-poor and reactive foods, toxins, and the like, so that we are more likely to retreat to the safety of our caves, survive on fewer calories, and conserve energy by sleeping a lot.
Chronic Disease generally makes us want to sleep and withdraw, be less fertile, and carry more weight… All of these factors are completely useless to us in modern days, however, in the olden times, these factors could increase our chances of survival when faced with significant stressors, like a famine…
So it’s reasonable to believe that our bodies developed a protective response mechanism to help us survive these difficult times. This is known as adaptive physiology.
In cave times, our ancestors didn’t have access to the agricultural advances and tools that turn grains into breads, pancakes, and flour!
They would likely hunt and gather “low hanging fruit” foods that could be eaten in their natural states or cooked in a fire.
Only in cases of famine, disease, or nutrient deficiency would our ancestors likely turn to eating items that are poorly digested by humans without significant processing, such as grains…
We still see evidence of dietary preferences changing in our modern world based on various factors. For example, the medical condition “pica,” where a person craves and eats things that have no nutritional value such as dirt, chalk, and even feces, has been connected with nutritional deficiencies — especially deficiencies in iron.
If you’ve ever observed dogs, you’ll likely know that most dogs generally avoid eating grass — they prefer using grass as a potty unless they have an upset tummy, in which case they will often eat grass to make themselves vomit.
Perhaps in some cases of Chronic Disease, our bodies still haven’t adjusted to recognizing the highly processed grains and grasses that are passed off as food today, as actual food.
Our bodies are intricate feedback systems that are constantly taking and sending messages to help us survive…
Whenever we eat grains, this can send a message to our body that we are in a state of famine and that we need to conserve resources to survive, AKA, slow down the thyroid and the metabolism!
So, if you have thyroid disease, thank your body for having this genius design that has helped your ancestors and you survive but, also, think about what may be making your body think that you are going through a time of famine, war, toxic crisis, or illness.
One of the easiest ways you can start sending safety signals to your own body is through the right diet. By eating foods that are nourishing and easy to digest, your body can register that food is abundant and that you do not need to conserve resources. In some cases, changing to the right diet can switch on your metabolism and completely switch off the autoimmune attack on the body!
But what is the right diet for people with Chronic Disease and Autoimmunity?
Unfortunately, there is no single “perfect” diet that will work well for everyone as everyone’s “safety signals” are impacted by their unique genetics and a variety of other factors.
The best diet for any given person will depend on what food sensitivities they have, as well as if they’re having issues with blood sugar, undergoing chronic stress, or dealing with infections or toxin exposures. Additionally, how your body interprets those safety signals will depend on your gut health and your ability to digest and absorb key nutrients. It is very individualized.
While there isn’t a single perfect diet, there are elements of a perfect diet that do work well for most people, and those include:
- removing triggering/reactive foods
- eating healing foods
- replenishing nutrients
The cavemen actually seem to have gotten much of this right. Their diet was very focused on nutrient dense foods and they didn’t consume triggering foods (well, to be frank, they didn’t have pesticides, antibiotic and hormone-laden foods, and GMOs; nor did they have gluten, refined grains, or other processed foods!).
How Cavemen Survived on a Paleo Diet
The historical theory behind the health benefits of a Paleo diet is that the digestive systems of humans have not had sufficient time to adapt to today’s farming practices or to the ingredients and chemicals in modern processed foods.
In other words, our genetics have pre-programmed us for optimal health if we eat our ancestors’ food choices. So the foods allowed on a Paleo diet are based on what historians think our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer cavemen ancestors ate.
The theory blames the rise in chronic diseases, obesity, and allergies on the agricultural revolution which added grains and processed foods — and toxins — into our diet.
It is estimated that contemporary Western populations get as much as 70% of our daily energy intake provided by foods that were never or rarely consumed by our hunter-gatherer Paleolithic kin. These non-Paleo foods include grains, refined sugars, dairy, and highly processed fats (1).
A Paleo diet eliminates all grains and all processed foods.
After eliminating grains and processed foods, a Paleo diet replaces these with nutrient-dense foods thought to have been eaten during the Paleolithic Era: nuts and seeds, vegetables, fruit, and eggs. Meat, a caveman staple, is also allowed as is fish and other meat products (organ meats).
Depending on the particular Paleo plan you are following, dairy may also be allowed, but I do not recommend it as dairy is a highly reactive food for most people. Babies in the Paleolithic era likely were the only ones consuming dairy and that was from nursing.
Other food items of controversy on a Paleo diet include eggs and sweet potatoes. Note that many people have food sensitivities to eggs, although I include them in my own diet.
Benefits of a Paleo Diet
Our cavemen ancestors may have simply eaten the available foods around them (certainly they weren’t choosing healthy foods over unhealthy foods at their local grocery store!), but their diet was incredibly healthy, seasonally fresh, and likely sent lots of “safety signals” most of the time. Their bodies likely sent “alarm” signals only during particularly difficult seasons such as harsh winters and drought years.
The Paleo diet not only removes reactive foods but focuses on many healing foods with significant nutritional benefits providing:
- Nutrient density and beneficial calories: The high intake of vegetables and other nutrient dense foods in a Paleo diet provides much greater amounts of antioxidants, plant phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals. Grains and processed foods, on the other hand, are full of “empty calories” and low in nutrient density. Grains also contain chemicals called phytates that block the absorption of important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, zinc, and iron (more on zinc later).
- Controlled blood sugar levels and glucose tolerance: Low carb and low glycemic foods are more slowly digested and nutrients are more easily absorbed than other foods. Lower GI foods won’t spike blood sugar levels. Research has shown that a Paleo diet can increase insulin sensitivity, improve blood pressure and glucose tolerance, and improve lipid profiles. (2)
- More disease-fighting omega-3 fats: A Paleo diet provides more omega-3s and fewer omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and trans fats. Healthy fats are good and have no negative effect on heart disease, cancer, cholesterol levels, type 2 diabetes, etc. The cavemen did not have processed oils or trans fats, etc.
- Less inflammation (net alkaline load): Vegetables and fruits are alkaline-producing foods while whole grains are acid producing. Research has shown that a net acid load may promote bone and muscle loss and increase the risk for other health issues.
- Lots of dietary fiber: Vegetables contain much more fiber than refined – or even whole – grains. (As an aside, this can also make a Paleo diet difficult for someone having Hashimoto’s to digest.)
- Iodine restriction? The Paleo diet, avoiding processed iodized salt and dairy, can result in lower iodine levels. For some, this may be highly beneficial; for others, not getting enough iodine may be a concern. In the case of iodine deficiency, a multivitamin with 150 mcg- 250 mcg of iodine may be a helpful supplement to utilize with the Paleo diet. (3)
Standard American Diet vs Paleo Diet
The Standard American Diet (SAD) would have left the cavemen constantly sending alert signals to their bodies and they would have likely seen much greater disease than they did.
Whether you agree with the historical explanation on the effectiveness of a Paleo diet or not, (that we are genetically wired to be at our healthiest with a Paleo diet), there is really something very telling about how the Paleo diet differs from the standard american diet, and I wanted to include an interesting passage from the Institute of Functional Medicine’s Annual Conference in 2014, which focused on food and nutrition’s effects on health.
“The standard American diet (SAD) could not have been better designed to kill us; it promotes chronic disease and suppresses immune function. The SAD is 55% processed foods; 30% animal products; 11% vegetables, fruit, nuts and beans; and 4% whole grains. One-half of the 11% of vegetables consumed are ketchup and French fries. The amount of colorful vegetation consumed by Americans is less than 5% of the total diet.
Processed foods provide macronutrients with virtually no micronutrients, antioxidants, or phytochemicals. Processed grains push up insulin, but a piece of conventionally produced chicken is not nutritionally much better than a piece of white bread when you consider conventionally raised chickens’ lack of micronutrients (antioxidants and phytochemicals). In addition, products from conventionally raised animals have negative hormonal effects: The SAD’s animal products push up IGF-1, the hormone most closely linked with colon, breast, and prostate cancers, and rapid tissue aging.”
While one might disagree with the various percentages mentioned here, the conference summary is quite interesting. Much of it focuses on the merits of the Paleo diet versus Mediterranean diet versus vegetarian diet. What you’ll find is that you can argue positives and even a few possible negatives on any of these, but they are all shown to be healthier than the SAD diet which many of us eat daily (4).
The other important point here, again, is that one may be better or worse for you, or pieces of one may work better with a piece of another. You really do have to become your own best detective, always looking at your body’s clues to what is making you feel better…and what is making you feel worse.
So how do I or your doctor truly know what diet to recommend to you? Well, ideally, we would meet individually with each of you and base our advice on your individual test results, your food sensitivity testing results, and a detailed medical history that looked at your genetic profile and identified your unique issues with any parasites, infections, and toxins, etc.
But given I can’t do all of that with each of you, the next best thing that I can do is to make a recommendation to you based on existing research, working with clients, and looking at my survey of thousands of people having Chronic Disease. All of this tells me that there are significant positive results when someone removes gluten, dairy, and grains from their diet.
A Paleo diet has helped many people having Chronic Disease feel better by improving symptoms such as fatigue, joint pain, brain fog, bloating and gas. This diet has also helped people lower, or completely eradicate, their antibodies.
People do sometimes ask me about the inclusion of meat on the Paleo diet, and certainly, meat can be inflammatory, so let’s talk a bit about that.
Animal Protein Is Important for People with C
Many former vegans have reported improved symptoms of Chronic Disease following their transition to a Paleo diet. Based on this, I believe animal proteins may play an important role in building back the health of people with Chronic Disease.
Certainly, the meat needs to be “clean and lean” animal protein, not conventionally raised animals which have high levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids as well as antibiotics and hormones.
Additionally, while animal proteins are important for healing, eating too much of them produces an acidic environment in the body, which can hinder healing. Thus, the diet should be balanced with plenty of nutrient-rich vegetables. I suggest a ratio of about 80% vegetables and 20% animal protein. Focus on eating plenty of good fats, and reduce your intake of carbohydrates. Look for grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught, and free-range options.
But while eating the right type – and percentage – of meat is good, grains and processed foods are just bad for you. High calorie and low nutrient density, they are difficult to digest and contain chemicals that affect nutrient absorption.
Why Grains Can Set Off Our Safety Signals
If you still aren’t convinced that grains and processed foods (key components of the SAD diet) trigger “alert signals” and cause intestinal permeability and other health issues, here are a few more reasons why grains are bad for us.
Blood sugar: Wheat, and even gluten free products made with grains like rice, corn, and potatoes, can wreak havoc on our blood sugar. Amylopectin A, a complex carbohydrate in grains, is highly digestible. This raises blood sugar higher than table sugar, according to Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly.
Poor zinc absorption: As mentioned earlier, grains contain phytates which can interfere with the absorption of zinc from foods. One in four individuals in the general population may be zinc deficient, and most people with hypothyroidism are, in fact, zinc deficient.
Zinc deficiency has been associated with increased intestinal permeability, increased susceptibility to infections, and reduced detoxification of bacterial toxins.
Zinc is also not stored by the body so a daily intake must be consumed through foods or supplements.
Certainly removing grains and processed foods is the best way to determine if that will make you feel better, but you can also get tested.
How to Get started on a Paleo diet
Diets can be tough as the very nature of most diets is that they “take away” something you like or may even crave. You may have to stop eating your favorite food, and you have to commit to eliminating that banned food completely, as most diets won’t work if you regularly cheat. This is especially true relating to food sensitivities.
You can actually be addicted to some foods, with your body’s hormones working against your own determination! You may have a period of withdrawal when you first remove a food from your diet. For example, research suggests that gliadorphins (found in gluten) bind to our “feel good” endorphin receptors much like addictive drugs. So I often recommend that people transition from their current diet more slowly — taking baby steps and eliminating one food at a time — rather than jumping right over to the stricter Paleo menu.
Tweaking the Paleo Diet to Make It better for Chronic Disease Patients
I’ve actually tweaked the standard Paleo diet guidelines a bit based on my clients’ successes.
In addition to removing grains, legumes, and processed foods, as recommended in the traditional Paleo diet, I’ve also removed all dairy (even butter and ghee). I’ve also removed seaweeds due to their iodine content and immune-modulating potential. I’ve taken hot peppers off the “ok to eat” list as well as they can lead to leaky gut issues.
And although pea protein is controversial in the traditional Paleo diet, I include it as it’s a hypoallergenic protein that is tolerated well by most people having Chronic Disease.
Although the Paleo diet has helped many people feel better and even recover completely, the Autoimmune Paleo diet (AIP) can be even more successful for some.
The AIP diet is more restrictive, though, and I consider it an advanced intervention and would definitely not move directly to this diet if I were eating more of a standard Western diet to start with. You can read an overview of the AIP diet, including the foods it allows and restricts here.
What about Non-Food Triggers? (Other Root Causes)
Along with grains, processed foods, and other food sensitivities, you may also need to look at infections, environmental toxins, and even how you are managing stress…but getting off reactive foods almost always helps in the healing process.
Once you find your food triggers, you will still need to help your digestive system heal by adding supportive foods and nutrients. You may also need to focus on removing toxicity in your environment and supporting your body’s detoxification pathways.
Moving Forward Like a Caveman (or Woman!)
For me, as a clinician, the goal of any dietary intervention is to help your body reset, nourish itself, and reduce inflammation caused by reactive foods. It is about finding foods that make you feel better and identifying those that make you feel worse (and then avoiding the ones that make you feel worse!).
Sounds simple, but I know that it is not easy to give up favorite foods — even if they are making you sick.
Dietary protocols, such as a Paleo diet, are meant to be used as starting points, or templates, where you implement the basic plan and eventually change it up based on your needs. Some people will want to add in dairy as it may not be a trigger food for them. Others may not be able to tolerate other reactive foods (like my issue with tomatoes!).
But should you start with the Paleo diet, or should you start somewhere else?
I’ve seen that too many times people can get into a situation known as paralysis by analysis — they’re not sure if they should go gluten free, Paleo, or Autoimmune Paleo…
The truth is, all three protocols are likely going to make you feel significantly better. The sooner you start, the better, and I recommend choosing one that you are likely to stick to!
If you are on a traditional Western diet right now, your options are to use a step-up or step-down approach.
In the step-up approach, you start with the least restrictive diet and remove more foods as needed.
In the step-down approach, you start with the most restrictive diet and add back foods you tolerate.
To keep things practical, most of my clients, even those who have done the research and are sold on trying a Paleo diet, find it easier to remove gluten before anything else and transition to the more advanced protocols.
And cutting out gluten may be enough for you to feel better or even reverse your Chronic Disease.
After removing gluten, I usually recommend the removal of dairy and soy as a next step. Dairy is a highly reactive food for many people. It was a significant trigger for my acid reflux.
After those dietary changes, you can move on to a Paleo diet.
How to Make Eating Paleo Easy
There are all times we want to sit back after a long day and not worry about cooking (or cleaning!!). Luckily, there are companies out there to make it much easier to stay Paleo compliant while letting you take a day off from cooking! Here are some of my favorite resources that I turn to:
- Butcher Box – High-quality meats delivered right to your door!
- Vital Choice – Wild seafood and organic fare — harvested the right way.
- US Wellness Meats – Healthy meat options from properly fed animals.
- Paleo On The Go – Delicious ready-to-serve meals — all you have to do is heat them!
- Paleo Valley Grass Fed Beef Sticks – Protein containing snacks that are perfect for when you need something quick and easy (and for travel)!
There are also tools to make cooking Paleo easier (and more fun!) for you. I’m always on the lookout for ways to cut down the amount of time or work involved in cooking. Here are a few options that allow me to cook — and have a busy life, too!
- Vitamix – Ideal to make nut butters, nut milks, purees, soups, and smoothies.
- Spiralizer – Perfect to make noodles out of zucchini!
- Slow cooker – Essential to make bone broth and stews while you go to work (or nap) 🙂
Hitting a Plateau
If processed foods and grains were the sole root cause for your condition, you will likely see a complete remission of Chronic Disease after you eliminate these triggers from your diet, and in some cases, function may even return to normal within 3-6 months.
If you don’t see these improvements, you will need to put your detective hat back on and dig deeper for other contributing root causes… foodwise and beyond…
To go deeper in healing with food…
Your options are to adopt the more advanced Autoimmune Paleo (AIP) diet (this is my comprehensive overview for you on how to do so!)
Or you may want to explore targeted food sensitivity testing or an elimination diet….
Elimination Diet – The Gold Standard for Food Sensitivity Testing
Without specific sensitivity testing, it is often really difficult for someone to know that a particular food is causing them problems. I didn’t know for some time that dairy and bread were causing me such significant issues.
I always recommend an elimination diet where you avoid the food in question for 3 weeks, see how you feel, and then try it again to see if you react to it.
Lab Tests for Food Sensitivity
There is a multitude of food sensitivity tests out there for many foods beyond the biggest hitters (gluten, dairy, etc.). Food sensitivities are very individualized. For me, I wasn’t just reactive to the usual suspects of gluten and dairy, but I had a reaction to pineapples and peaches! They both triggered my acid reflux.
If you can swing the expense, I recommend people get tested for food sensitivities. I’ve found that in addition to gluten sensitivity, individuals with Chronic Disease may often be reactive to multiple other proteins including grains like rice, quinoa, and corn.
(1) Kowalski LM, Bujko J. Evaluation of biological and clinical potential of Paleolithic diet. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2012:63(1):9-15.
(2) Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, et al. Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2009 Aug;63(8):947-55. doi: 10.1038/ejcn.2009.4.
(3) A Paleolithic-type diet results in iodine deficiency: a 2 year randomized trial in postmenopausal obese women. Manousou and Associates, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2017.
(4) Pizzorno L. Highlights From the Institute for Functional Medicine’s 2014 Annual Conference: Functional Perspectives on Food and Nutrition: The Ultimate Upstream Medicine. Integr Med (Encinitas).2014 Oct;13(5):38–50.