In September of 2018 I awakened with swollen, red and painful hands. I could not make a fist. I could not grip a steering wheel without extreme pain. I left dropped items on the floor because it was too painful to pick them up. All of my joints were painful and stiff. My legs were swollen. My wife had to help dress me so I could go to work. The simplest hand techniques to perform nerve blocks were painful. Just putting on sterile gloves caused severe pain. This happened just a few days after a week of camping. I felt weak all over and had trouble sleeping, unable to find a comfortable position.
(My camping vacation included digressions from my typical paleo/ancestral diet. I drank wine, ate some gluten containing foods and some dairy. I ate some wheat and sugar containing deserts.)
As a physician I ordered a variety of blood tests for tick born illness (such as Lyme’s Disease), rheumatoid arthritis, and other disorders that could cause my symptoms. All tests were negative except for an inflammatory marker (hsCRP) which was very high.
I queried physician friends about something I may have overlooked. No suggestions were forthcoming above and beyond what I had already done.
I prescribed myself a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug NSAID. That provided modest relief but I was still suffering severe symptoms.
After 6 stubborn weeks I consulted a rheumatologist and he diagnosed me as having “sero-negative” rheumatoid arthritis. Given the choice of several pharmaceutical interventions I chose the least toxic and started a drug called hydroxychloroquine. I was told it would take about 3 months to produce results, and in the meantime should continue the NSAID.
I immediately started to follow the Autoimmune Protocol AIP
Within one week of the AIP the redness in the joints of my hands was gone.
Within 2 weeks the pain in my joints was significantly reduced.
Within 3 weeks the swelling in my hands/fingers was completely gone and I stopped the NSAID. I no longer had pain in my hands and fingers while doing every day tasks.
Within 4 weeks I was able to resume my daily yoga and Pilates routine.
Within six weeks I felt in complete remission.
My rheumatologist agreed that I appeared to be in remission at follow up visit (no signs of inflammation, synovitis, etc., on examination with resolution of presenting symptoms) but he was and remains skeptical about the auto-immune protocol.
My clinical response was clearly way ahead of the expected time sequence for hydroxychloroquine. I concluded that the AIP was a major factor in my recovery.
All X-rays and MRI scans of my joints (which have suffered from osteoarthritis) were negative for the typical findings associated with rheumatoid arthritis.
The autoimmune protocol is a combination of lifestyle modifications involving diet, sleep, exercise, and stress reduction. It goes beyond the paleo diet. The paleo (ancestral) diet eliminates processed/refined foods, grains, legumes, dairy, added sugar, and refined vegetable oils. It stresses the consumption of a variety of organic vegetables and organic fruit, grass-fed meats, organ meats, free range poultry and eggs, wild seafood. The auto-immune protocol adds further restrictions: no nuts, eggs, nightshades, seeds, spices from seeds, and absolutely no alcohol.
There are many reasons for the added restrictions under the AIP. The added dietary restrictions are important for what they avoid but also important for the resulting increase in other beneficial foods that are allowed. The foods are omitted because they can cause or contribute to: gut irritation, dysbiosis, act as carrier molecules across the gut barrier, increase gut permeability, and/or cause inflammation. In theory, by eliminating those foods (hopefully on a temporary basis) and substituting nutrient dense less potentially harmful foods, we reduce some of the contributing factors to autoimmunity and inflammation.
For a detailed discussion of the AIP I suggest you visit Sarah Ballantyne’s website and read her book: The Paleo Approach, Reverse Autoimmune disease and Heal Your Body.
Avoiding potentially harmful foods and beverages while increasing healthy nutrient dense foods represents the major focus of many individuals following the AIP. But equally important are the other lifestyle components. These include obtaining adequate restorative sleep, reducing/managing stress (Stress Reduction and Health), getting reasonable amounts of playful exercise (this should be fun and occur in a green space as much as possible), sunshine, eliminating exposure to environmental toxins, drinking filtered water, and frequent contact with supportive family and friends. Without addressing all of these areas one is not likely to succeed in achieving remission from an auto-immune disease.
In addition to Sarah’s Ballantyne’s book and website, if you have an auto-immune disease I recommend Dr. Terry Wahl’s website and book. Dr. Wahl’s, a medical school faculty physician, teacher and researcher, was wheelchair bound with Multiple Sclerosis and facing death having failed all available medical treatments as well as some experimental drug protocols. She read about functional medicine, paleo nutrition and evolutionary biology in order to create her own treatment plan. One year latter she was in remission and riding her bike 20 miles. She subsequently raised money to do clinical research using her version of the AIP and has published a successful clinical trial.
There have been few controlled clinical trials of the AIP for auto-immune disease, largely because it does not involve drug research (no profits to be made) and because the NIH does not like to fund studies that alter multiple parameters at one time. Unfortunately, NIH funding has followed a drug and surgery model of medical treatment and does not look favorably on lifestyle interventions (one exception being the Mediterranean diet). I hope that bias changes in the future. In the meantime, physicians and scientists like Terry Wahls MD and Dale Bredesen MD, PhD (neurologist/researcher/author, The End of Alzheimer’s) remain pioneers in functional medicine and lifestyle interventions, being left to start their own foundations and raise money to fund medical research.
Both of these physicians have conducted clinical trials of lifestyle interventions (see below) that have produced revolutionary results, largely ignored by major medical societies and medical organizations. Progress occurs slowly, today’s iconoclasts are often tomorrows Nobel laureates.
Sometimes, despite significant clinical improvement with the AIP, some medication remains necessary with an auto-immune disease. If the auto-immune disease has been present for a long time, permanent damage may be present. That does not represent failure. If one can reduce drug doses, eliminate one or more drugs from a complicated medical regimen, and improve symptoms beyond what drugs alone achieve, I would call that success. Anecdotal reports from many patients (including my own) with auto-immune disease, suggest that it is not a cure-all, and those that show significant clinical improvement demonstrate various time responses ranging from weeks to several months in order to see results. But there are no down-sides to the AIP, no bad side-effects, no dangerous drugs, and only potential for clinical improvement. That seems like a no-brainer to me.
After eight weeks of strict dietary adherence, having achieved remission and appearing to be stable, I slowly added back small amounts of eggs, nuts and some nightshades (one at a time, observing for negative responses). I have been successful with that approach. I have not suffered any symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis since my initial remission. I remain on a paleo/ancestral diet and remain very cautions with regards to sleep habits, exercise, stress reduction, and social support. I try to laugh frequently and continue to engage in meaningful work. All of these components are essential to the AIP and to healthy living in general.
The following are links to published studies on the auto-immune protocol as well as links to a similar lifestyle intervention for Alzheimer’s disease. Another link is an editorial on inflammatory bowel disease and diet. Although the AIP has not been studied with inflammatory bowel disease, a similar dietary approach (Specific Carbohydrate Diet) has been studied. Nevertheless many patients have reported great success with the AIP in a variety of auto-immune conditions.
Eat clean, sleep well, exercise out-doors, get sunshine, love and laugh.
Bob Hansen MD