Late last year I developed some troubling symptoms: severe fatigue, shortness of breath after light exercise, dizziness and a range of digestive symptoms. I also fell ill with several colds in the space of only a few months, which proved difficult to shake. Knowing a thing or two about the human body, I had an inkling that my blood iron levels might be low, so off I went for a blood test. As suspected, the results showed iron deficiency, along with iodine deficiency and also some low levels of autoimmune antibodies (which we will touch on shortly). Although these results explained my symptoms, the cause of the issues were not so clear.
In the Western world, iron deficiency is quite common among women. Most cases of iron deficiency originate from excessive blood loss, but can also be caused by poor iron absorption and sometimes low intake of iron. For me, it was not a case of excessive blood loss and my diet, by conventional standards, was fairly well balanced, so I assumed my iron and nutrient intake was adequate.
My GP is an Integrative GP, who combines evidence based complimentary medicine with conventional medicine. He reasoned that the deficiencies I was experiencing (the iron and iodine), were more likely a result of poor absorption than inadequate intake. His clinical reasoning brought him to the working diagnosis of Leaky Gut Syndrome. This disorder is not well recognised or accepted in the conventional medical model, but research and evidence is mounting.
Leaky Gut Syndrome is a cluster of symptoms brought on by a gastrointestinal lining that is too permeable, so undigested proteins, toxins, microbes and various other constituents in our food that wouldn’t normally make it through the gut wall into our blood stream, do actually find their way through. These compounds can wreak havoc once in the blood stream, causing inflammation, autoimmune response, allergies, intolerances, digestive complaints and also nutrient deficiencies. The Gastrointestinal lining becomes damaged through inflammation and therefore unable to absorb nutrients like iron and iodine effectively. In addition, proteins, toxins and pathogens that normally would not find their way into the blood stream, stimulate the immune system to react, which can lead to the development of auto-antibodies (immune proteins which will attack the body itself). Over time, this process if allowed to continue, can evolve into an autoimmune disease. In my case, the low levels of circulating auto-antibodies were not high enough to make an autoimmune diagnosis, but they were present and more than likely contributing to my symptoms.
My GP suggested I try a paleo-modified autoimmune diet. This specific diet is the brainchild of a nutritional scientist, mother and sufferer of auto-immune disease, Sarah Ballantyne. She and many others have had great success with this diet.
Sarah has delved into thousands of scientific studies (1200 of which are referenced in her book) evaluating the roles of nutrients, hormones and bacteria in the gut and the development or prevention of autoimmune disease. She has refined these recommendations to reflect her understanding of how the foods we eat interact with the gut barrier and influence the immune system.
Autoimmune disease is caused by the immune system losing its ability to differentiate proteins belonging to the body with proteins belonging to a foreign invader (e.g. a bacteria, virus or parasite). The result is damage to the body’s tissue and organs, which is caused by the immune system attacking itself and this is what causes the symptoms of disease. What separates one disease from another comes down to which type of protein or cells are attached. For example, in hyperthyroidism the thyroid is attacked, in Rheumatoid arthritis the joints are attacked and in the skin condition, Psoriasis, the skin cells are attacked.
Genetic predisposition makes up about one third of the risk of developing autoimmunity. The other two thirds come from environmental factors, including diet, lifestyle, infections, exposure to toxins, hormones and body weight. While we cannot control our genetics, we do have control over diet and lifestyle factors. By removing foods that contribute to a dysfunctional gut and eating only nutrient dense foods that support optimal gut health, we can allow the gastrointestinal system to heal and the immune system to effectively self regulate.
The paleo-modified diet is appropriate for everyone diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder or suspected autoimmune disease. It is also suitable for those with chronic digestive symptoms, IBS, chronic fatigue and anyone diagnosed with nutritional deficiencies. However, it is recommended that you commence this diet under the supervision of an appropriately qualified health professional. One of the most important contributors to autoimmune disease is nutrient deficiency.
The first dietary recommendation for those with autoimmune disease is to adhere to a strict paleo diet. This means no grains, no legumes, no dairy, no refined sugars, no modern vegetable oils and of course no processed foods, artificial chemicals or preservatives. Initially, the following foods should also be excluded: nuts, eggs, seeds, nightshades, alcohol and excess fructose. Some of these foods may be reintroduced one at a time after 3 months if symptoms have gone into remission. For more detailed information on the Autoimmune Paleo Modified Diet head to www.thepaleomom.com.
So now I’m 3 months in to trialing this diet and I feel fantastic. My energy levels are great and the dizziness, shortness of breath and exercise intolerance have completely resolved. My digestion has greatly improved and is still improving. In addition, the psoriasis (an autoimmune condition), which has plagued me for years, has now gone into remission. Adhering to this diet was challenging in the beginning but I have slowly adjusted and now look forward to my meals of meat and veg, even for breakfast! Every now and then I eat something that I probably shouldn’t, but I have learnt to enjoy the treat and move on! Because my gastrointestinal system is working better now, I can tolerate small amounts of certain foods that are excluded in the paleo modified diet.
So if you are suffer from any autoimmune conditions, digestive complaints, or if you are just feeling tired and lethargic, perhaps this diet is worth investigating. Check out Sarah Ballantyne’s website, it is a great place to start investigating.
Lee Christison is a Remedial Massage Therapist and Yoga Instructor at Melbourne Osteopathy Sports Injury Centre.