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Is The Paleo Diet a Good Choice for People with Autoimmune Disease?

By Sabina Rebis —

Mixed messages about nutrition are everywhere and often contradictory:

‘Eat meat – protein keeps you full.’ ‘Don’t eat meat – it’s full of hormones.’

‘Milk can help you lose weight.’ ‘Milk disturbs your GI system.”

‘Don’t peel your fruit – the skin has the most fiber.’ ‘Peel your fruit – the skin is filled with pesticides.’

One of the largest diet trends today is The Paleo Diet. It’s based on the idea of eating pure, ‘whole’ foods,  like the ones our caveman ancestors hunted and gathered in the Stone Age era, including meats, fish, fruits, veggies, nuts, and seeds. Forget the milk bottles Fred Flinstone placed outside his front door when the credits roll at the end of each cartoon (excuse the reference to ancient TV history). Our ancestors actually avoided milk products, not necessarily for health reasons, but because no one thought to domesticate a cow back then.

to eat or not to eat

On first glance, the founders of The Paleo Diet may be on to something. There is truth to the benefits of ‘back to the basics’ and  ‘whole foods’ eating.

No Milk- The avoidance of milk products alleviates symptoms in those with a lactase deficiency (meaning they lack the enzyme to break down lactose, or milk sugar, and suffer from overwhelming gastrointestinal symptoms when milk is ingested). There are also studies that suggest  that avoiding milk may minimize inflammation in those with autoimmune disease. Milk products contain proteins that  mimic those in the human body. If the immune system is confused and cannot detect the difference between the foreign milk protein or other animal protein and the natural one present in the body, an autoimmune response is activated.

No Processed Foods-Foods with additives or proteins that have been modified and processed by manufacturers may gradually change the gut flora, or the population of bacteria normally present in the intestine that helps us digest foods, making digestion less efficient and creating toxins or by-products in the process that may stimulate an inflammatory response in the body in those with a genetic predisposition to such a response. In addition, that bag of fat-free pretzels may be more ominous than it looks. Foods that are very high in sodium may also play a role in stimulating the inflammatory response. Researchers have showed that increasing sodium chloride in a petri dish can lead to a dramatic induction of Th17 cells, T cells that produce cytokines and add fuel to the inflammatory response.

No Wheat-Gluten,of course, should be avoided in those with celiac disease. When gluten is ingested it is linked by enzymes and broken down; the products of gluten breakdown or gluten-enzyme complexes are recognized by antigen precipitating cells with receptors for T-cells. These T-cells become activated and lead to antibody creation and inflammation that wrecks havoc on the villi, or projections of the small intestine.

Overall, it’s true that decreasing or eliminating the ingestion of certain foods can minimize the symptoms of inflammation in autoimmune diseases, especially in those with gastrointestinal manifestations, one should still take precautions. Completely eliminating certain foods packed with essential vitamins and minerals may have dire consequences and lead to malnutrition, ultimately decreasing overall health. Therefore, when embarking on any elimination type of diet, it’s important to keep an alphabet of vitamins handy, including Vitamins B12 and D, as well as other minerals and micro-elements, such as calcium. As always for us in the autoimmune community, it is important to check with your physician prior to making any major changes in your diet.


Sabina Rebis, M.D.-Autoimmune Ally






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