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How to do the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP)

aip step by step

Ok, folks. Here is where the lines of parenting blog/food blog/whole-life wellness blog really start getting blurred. You may know that I started out focused on slings and baby-led weaning, and over the years my focus has shifted to other things. Well, a big part of those other things is eating an Autoimmune Paleo diet (AIP). This post isn’t so much about parenting, except in the way that anything can be about parenting when you are making choices that affect your kids. But it’s been a key part of my life for the past year or so, and I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t when doing the AIP. I’d love to share that with my readers and anyone else who could benefit from a whole-life approach to wellness, so here’s a very non-parenting post for The Parent Vortex.

What is the Autoimmune Paleo Approach?

The Autoimmune Paleo Approach (also called the Autoimmune Protocol, or AIP) is a multifaceted strategy for managing autoimmune illness. This includes a very specific diet that focuses on eating the most nutrient-dense meals possible while excluding specific foods that trigger an immune response. Other aspects include stress reduction, increasing sleep quality, getting good social connection and healthy levels of exercise.

My daughter and I started doing the AIP even though we didn’t have diagnosable autoimmune diseases because we were experiencing ever-increasing food sensitivities, as well as other symptoms that I learned were autoimmune related, such as restless legs and joint pain, difficulty concentrating and poor memory. My intention was to heal our guts to the point where we would be able to reintroduce many of the foods that were causing sensitivities for us.

What Makes the AIP work?

The AIP works by healing the person as a whole. Each component of the AIP approach contributes to reducing inflammation and immune-mediated responses, and has research to back it up. If you want to understand the scientific nuts and bolts behind the AIP, the best resource for you is Dr. Sarah Ballantyne’s book The Paleo Approach. It is basically the textbook on how to do the AIP and why it works. Even if you don’t want to understand the science behind it to that degree (it is a very detailed book!), it’s important to know the high-level theory at least, because the AIP won’t be effective if you are missing key components, and it’s a heck of a lot of work to do the AIP and not have it be effective!

Here are the key components of the AIP approach, and the reason why each component is a key piece in the whole puzzle.

Food – The AIP removes all foods that trigger inflammation or immune responses, and replaces them with nutrient dense foods that facilitate gut healing. The elimination part is where we often focus our energy at first, and it is important to make sure you’re really 100% when doing eliminations because the inflammation and immune responses won’t fully calm down until you remove all food triggers. But adding in nutrient dense foods like bone broth and liver is also really, really important because your body needs the specific nutrients found in those foods to fuel the healing process. This AIP food pyramid is a good visual aid.

Eliminate: grains, legumes, nuts, seeds (including seed oils like canola oil), dairy, eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, white potatoes, peppers, eggplants), coffee and alcohol

Include: a wide variety of vegetables, fruit in moderation, seafood, meat, poultry (pastured, grassfed and free-range if you can manage it), bone broth, organ meats, fermented foods and coconut

Stress Reduction – Stress alone can trigger an inflammation response, so managing stress is an important part of the AIP. I have found in my own experience that emotional stress is particularly likely to trigger my autoimmune symptoms, especially the emotions of anger and despair, even when I’ve been 100% compliant with food. What can you do to manage emotions like these? Everybody has different strategies that work for them, but things like talking to a trusted friend, counsellor or empathy buddy can help manage emotional stress in a healthy way. Other options include things like meditation, yoga, heartmath, emotional freedom technique (EFT) and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). Eileen at Phoenix Helix likes colouring in fancy colouring books as a stress management strategy. You may also find that you need to make different choices around work or relationships in order to reduce your stress. A really key part of healing an autoimmune illness is learning to have warmth and positive regard for yourself, and learning to have compassion and understanding for that voice of harsh self-criticism that many of us have. When the body is attacking itself physically, there is often attacking and self-hate going on emotionally as well. Resolving stress and difficult emotions in a healthy way is a key step to healing both physical and emotional self-attacking.

Sleep – Our bodies need sleep in order to heal, so learning how to get a good night’s sleep is important for the healing process. When you first start the AIP, you may find that you need much more sleep than usual while your body starts doing lots of intense healing. Good sleep hygiene increases the chances of getting a solid sleep, including avoiding electronic screens in the hour or two before bed, having a winding-down ritual and removing any artificial lights from your bedroom.

Social Connection – Positive social connections are protective for our health in so many ways. If you struggle with this piece of the AIP, look for one small way that you can get involved with others doing something meaningful. I love singing with others but didn’t have an outlet, so I joined a local song circle. No performances, just happy singing and connection with other people. It feeds my soul every week. Your meaningful connection might be different – maybe dance, or volunteering at a soup kitchen, or helping your neighbour walk their dog? I have also found my local Non-Violent Communication (NVC) community to be a good source of positive social connection.

Exercise – Exercise on the AIP is all about being just like Goldilocks – you want it to be just right. Exercising too intensely can also trigger inflammation and an immune response, so it’s best to avoid really high intensity workouts in favour of less intense, whole body movement. Some AIP folks love CrossFit, others prefer walking, yoga, swimming or other low-impact forms of exercise. I’ve been loving the online yoga classes at YogaGlo lately – affordable, convenient and there are so many classes that I can find lots that are just the right fit for me.

What doesn’t work on the AIP?

The AIP works when you stick to the guidelines 100% until you notice an improvement in your symptoms, then start doing food reintroductions slowly and methodically. This way your body has a chance to calm down the immune response, reduce the inflammation, and get started on gut healing before you reintroduce any foods that could potentially cause a reaction. It won’t work to take an 80/20 approach to the AIP, or to only eliminate a few of the food groups and continue eating others. Likewise with the various components – if you’ve got the food dialled in 100% but you are under a tremendous amount of stress, never exercise and rarely get enough sleep, your body won’t have a chance to actually heal.

The aim is to have a body and mind that is in “rest and digest” mode instead of “fight or flight” mode most of the time. All of the components of the AIP work together to help you get to and stay in rest and digest as much as possible.

Holy crap, that sounds like a lot of work. How can I make it easier?

The practical side of the AIP is that it involves a LOT of cooking from scratch, and a LOT of focus on self-care. For many people, this is totally new. We live in a culture that glorifies busy and assumes that we can be independent and should be looking after other people’s needs instead of our own. But the reality of the AIP is that it takes a good bit of slowing down to cook well and take care of yourself every day.

There are ways to reduce the workload and time spent in the kitchen, such as batch cooking, which can be a lifesaver when it comes to busy weeknights. You will most likely work out your own ways to make food prep more efficient over time and as you get to know the foods that work best for you. But the reality is that no matter which way you look at it, you will be trading in convenience foods for whole foods prepared by hand, and that will simply take an investment of time each week. Try to think of it as an investment of self-love every time you carefully prepare something that is delicious and nourishing for your body and soul.

Overall the AIP has been a life-changing experience for me. Not only have I identified the specific foods that don’t agree with me and healed to the point where I have reintroduced some foods that used to cause reactions and now don’t, I’ve learned that it’s OK to prioritise my own health and wellbeing. It’s OK to be different, it’s OK to not eat out at restaurants or order pizza in, and it’s OK to choose only those things that really nourish me. It certainly wasn’t easy, especially in those first few weeks, and especially in a mixed-diet household, but it has definitely been worthwhile.

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  • Crystal - Prenatal Coach December 1, 2015, 2:19 pm

    Michelle! I want to give you a great big hug. I had no idea how much we have in common. Let’s get together for tea <3 I'll be in touch.

    While the AIP is new to me healing autoimmune conditions is not. I went through a long journey of deep healing in the past and now I need to do it again. I did my own protocol back then from my nutrition education which is close to the GAPS diet. 3 years of parenting and extremely high levels of stress has triggered some health issues that I know I can heal again. I'm exploring if GAPS or AIP is right for me at this time.

    Here was my pre-parenting journey: http://prenatalcoach.com/healed-gluten-intolerance-part-2/ I'm going to have a look around your blog!