This article is part of an ongoing series comparing prescription medication with a Paleo diet as a means of treating common diseases and health problem. Click here to read the other articles in the series.
Autoimmunity—when the body essentially attacks itself— is one of the top ten causes of death in women and the elderly, and now affects one in ten people worldwide.
Over a hundred distinct autoimmune diseases have been identified, affecting nearly every organ system and tissue in the body, and at least forty other diseases are suspected of having an autoimmune basis or component. For example, it’s now believed that about 10 percent of people that have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes actually have an autoimmune form of the disease called “latent autoimmune diabetes in adults” (LADA), and some diseases like endometriosis that weren’t traditionally treated as autoimmune in origin are now viewed that way by some researchers and physicians.
There’s no sign of this trend slowing down; on the contrary, the prevalence of autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, and multiple sclerosis is increasing at an alarming pace. From 2001–2009 alone, the incidence of type 1 diabetes increased by 23 percent!
Autoimmune disease is skyrocketing, but conventional treatment has little to offer. Find out what to do instead.
But while autoimmune disease has become commonplace in the industrialized world, it’s rare or nonexistent in contemporary hunter-gatherers living a traditional lifestyle. This fact, along with the dramatic rise in autoimmune disease over the past half century, suggests that environmental factors—rather than genetics—are to blame.
These factors include the modern, western diet, chronic stress, changes in gut microbiota, environmental toxins, sleep deprivation, vitamin D deficiency, reduced sun exposure, and perhaps several other currently unidentified aspects of the modern lifestyle.
These factors don’t just trigger autoimmune disease in the first place, they also perpetuate and exacerbate it. So while autoimmune disease may not be completely curable (i.e. it disappears without a trace), removing the triggers can often lead to a significant reduction in symptoms or even complete remission (which, for all intents and purposes, is a cure).
With this in mind, let’s compare conventional treatment with a Paleo diet and lifestyle for the prevention and treatment of autoimmune disease.
Conventional Treatment of Autoimmune Disease
Oral (and sometimes topical) steroids and other immunosuppressive drugs are the treatments of choice for autoimmune disease. Steroids suppress the immune system, which is often overactive in autoimmune disease.
It’s there for a reason, and anything that indiscriminately reduces its function (as steroids do) is bound to have serious adverse effects.
Unsurprisingly, steroids are associated with a long, and sometimes scary, list of adverse effects, including:
- Weight gain
- Mood changes, including aggression
- Thinning skin
- Muscle weakness
- Cushing’s syndrome (stretch marks across the body, acne, fatty deposits in the face)
- Osteoporosis (even at a young age)
- High blood pressure
- Glaucoma and cataracts
- Increased risk of infection
There’s no doubt that steroids “work” in many cases, insofar as they can reduce the symptoms associated with overactive immune function that are present in many autoimmune diseases. But the serious side effect profile of these medications begs the following questions:
- Is there an effective alternative to steroids that isn’t associated with serious and potentially life-threatening side effects?
- Is there a treatment for autoimmune disease that addresses the underlying causes or triggers, rather than just suppressing symptoms?
Fortunately, the answer to both questions is “yes”.
In my work with patients, I use a three-pronged approach to treating autoimmune disease with a nutrient-dense, Paleo diet. (For more detailed information on these strategies, see the bonus chapter on autoimmune disease in my book, The Paleo Cure—just published in paperback.) This includes:
- Removing foods that may trigger or exacerbate an immune response. The best starting place for most patients is an autoimmune version of the Paleo diet, which follows the typical Paleo guidelines but also removes eggs and nightshade plants.
- Increasing intake of nutrients that promote optimal immune function. These include glutathione, selenium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin A, and EPA and DHA, which are all well-represented in a Paleo-type diet.
- Increasing intake of foods that support a healthy gut microbiota. These include fermentable fibers that feed the beneficial bacteria, and fermented foods that contain the beneficial bacteria themselves. (For more on the connection between the gut microbiota and autoimmune disease, see this article.)
Of course, lifestyle modification is also crucial for people with autoimmune disease. This includes exercise (the right kinds, and the right amount), sun exposure, stress management, sleep, and pleasure and social connection.
I’ve seen miraculous results using these methods in my practice, even with patients with very serious autoimmune conditions. And I’ve received hundreds of success stories from my readers and listeners over the years, like this one from Rosie Marin:
One day my aunt noticed I had a lump on my neck and said I might have a thyroid problem like her and my mom. In 2007 I was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and immediately put on meds. Endo [Editor’s note: “endo” is short for endocrinologist] said I would be on meds for life and will gain weight since meds would slow down my metabolism. Apparently I had every symptom with the exception of bulging eyes. My Endo provided little information. I took meds daily, symptoms decreased, gained weight but was still lazy. My blood tests would go up & down. I figured this would just be my life, part of getting older and genetics.
In 2010 my boyfriend finally went to doctor for all these skin issues he was having. Found out he had a gluten allergy but not celiac. He started researching diets and came upon Paleo. His rashes went away and started losing weight faster than when he was doing P90x every day. One day he convinced me to give Paleo a two week try, just to see of I could do it. Being Mexican/Filipino I complained that I couldn’t give up rice, tortillas AND bread. I figured I’d give up by day 3 but I didn’t. I had to start cooking real food.
As the weeks turned into months and now three years, I’m off my thyroid meds and antidepressant. I’ve maintained a healthy weight, kept the 20 lb weight loss off, no eczema, no stomach problems, no migraines, more energy, no joint pains, no allergies.
My Endo does not support Paleo and refuses to acknowledge my diet changes has anything to do with my improved health. I still go through him to schedule blood tests every few months. It’s my way of letting him know how AWESOME I’m doing without him 🙂 The calls or emails from his nurse make me proud “everything looks normal.”
This story is particularly remarkable, because the treatment options for Graves’ disease are all extremely invasive, including toxic drugs, surgical removal of the thyroid gland, or radioactive ablation (i.e. “nuking”) the thyroid gland.
So what will it be for you? Pills, or Paleo?
If your answer is Paleo, make sure to check out my book (just published in paperback with a new name: The Paleo Cure) for a detailed explanation of how to use Paleo to prevent and reverse disease and feel better than you have in years. And don’t miss the bonus chapter on addressing autoimmune disease with diet, lifestyle, and supplements.
As always, check with your doctor before starting or stopping any new treatment plan—including what I’ve suggested in this article. This is not intended to be medical advice, and is not a substitute for being under the care of a physician.