Autoimmune conditions and a leaky gut go hand in hand. In fact, in every autoimmune condition that has been tested, a leaky gut is present and is a contributing factor to the illness (not all autoimmune conditions have been tested, but many in the paleo community assume that leaky gut is a factor in all autoimmune conditions). For individuals with suspected or diagnosed autoimmune disease, additional dietary guidelines exist to help address the disease. In many cases, autoimmune conditions can be put into full remission by following these guidelines. There is some variability to these guidelines depending on who you ask, so I have reviewed them and compiled a comprehensive list of not only dietary restrictions but also food recommendations using information from The Paleo Solution, The Paleo Answer, and various podcast and YouTube interviews with Robb Wolf, Prof. Mat Lalonde and Dr. Terry Wahls (author of Food As Medicine and Minding My Mitochondria ). These are all great sources for more information.
It is vitally important to adhere to a strict paleo diet with no cheating. While other people may be able to enjoy the occasional bowl of rice, if you suffer from an autoimmune condition you are not one of these people. Grains, legumes and dairy of any kind (even grass-fed ghee!) should never be consumed. This will be true for the rest of your life. In addition, if you have an autoimmune condition, you should completely avoid:
Seeds (including cocoa)
Nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, sweet and hot peppers and spices derived from peppers)
NSAIDS (like aspirin or ibuprofen)
The reason is that each of these causes gut irritation and/or increased gut permeability (and in the super sensitive gut of those with autoimmune conditions, they just aren’t tolerated). There is also some evidence that hormonal birth control can contribute to hunger and digestive hormone disregulation, leading to inflammation. However, you may wish to address the other elements in this post before going off birth control, depending on your personal circumstances.
Dr. Terry Wahls lays out a very convincing argument for increased vegetable intake. Her focus is on eating vegetables from four main groups: green veggies (for the vitamin B, A, C and K content and the mineral content), colorful veggies (for the flavonoids and polyphenols; at least 3 colors per day but this includes brightly colored fruit like berries), sulfur-rich veggies (cruciferous veggies, veggies from the onion family, mushrooms and asparagus), and iodine-rich foods (seaweed). Dr. Wahls recommends eating 3 cups per day of each of green veggies, colorful veggies and sulfur-rich veggies as well as at least once serving per week of seaweed. Note: If you have Grave’s Disease or Hashimotos Thyroiditis, you must also avoid goitrogenic foods, which include cruciferous veggies, radishes, spinach, peaches, and strawberries. This does make it a bit trickier to also get your sulfur-rich veggies, but it’s doable. I also recommend an extra serving of seaweed each week to support thyroid function.
Meat quality is very important as this profoundly impacts the types of fat that you consume. It is extremely important to be mindful of your omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid intake ratio, aiming for between 1:1 and 1:3, as this is essential for regulating inflammation in your body. The best way to do this is to ensure that all of your meat, poultry and fish comes from grass-fed, pastured or wild sources. Grass-fed meat also contains Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), known to reduce inflammation, promote healing and even fight cancer. The nutrient profile of pastured/wild meat and fish is superior as well. My post on the importance of grass-fed meat contains some suggestions for incorporating it into your diet in a budget-conscious way. It is also more important to eat organic produce as much as possible. Whole9Life has a wonderful chart on when fruits and vegetables are in season including which fruits and vegetables are important to buy organic and which aren’t, if budget is an important concern.
Autoimmune conditions are also typically associated with disruption of normal gut microflora, often including Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. For individuals with suspected or confirmed SIBO, avoidance of starches and sugars other than monosaccharides (like glucose and fructose) is very important (read my post Fruits and Starchy Vegetables with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth for a list of which starchy vegetables are okay and which to avoid). It also becomes important to help repopulate the gut microflora by eating raw fermented foods (like sauerkraut, coconut milk kefir, or kombucha) or taking a dairy-free probiotic supplement.
Healing the gut becomes very important. I highly recommend consuming bone broth, organ meat, and coconut oil on a fairly routine basis as well as making sure that you are getting adequate vitamin D, whether you are taking a supplement or spending lots of time outside. Stress management is very important and I highly recommend doing at least one of the following: go for daily walks, take up yoga or tai chi, take a class on meditation, or make time for an activity/hobby that you absolutely love. And I cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting lots of good quality sleep. Aim for 8-10 hours of sleep in a cool, pitch-black room, preferably waking up without the use of an alarm. It may help both stress hormone regulation and improve sleep quality to drastically reduce your caffeine intake. Aim for no caffeine if you can. I personally limit my caffeine consumption to one single shot of espresso in the morning (made into an americano with extra virgin coconut oil whipped into it) and a second shot of decaf espresso (similarly prepared) a couple of hours later.
I know from experience that this is a very challenging task. I also know from experience that 90% is not good enough (and the more serious your condition, the more important compliance is). I know from experience that this increases your food budget (although perhaps this can be negated by decreasing your medical expenses). I try and focus on the delicious foods that I do get to eat. I try and focus on the fact that I have a strategy for improving my health that is far more powerful than any prescription medication (Note that in many cases you will still need to be on prescription medications although you may be able to reduce your dose. Please work with your doctor on this one!). And, compliance gets easier once you start to see improvement.