My Journey to Health: From Low-Carb to Paleo to the Autoimmune Protocol
Written by: Sarah Ballantyne
I used a standard low-carb diet to successfully lose 100 pounds. But, I had to lose those 100 pounds twice. Even though low-carb helped me to lose weight, it did not help me to get healthy.
My name is Sarah Ballantyne. I was a medical researcher before becoming a full-time stay-at-home mom and the blogger behind www.thepaleomom.com. I spend much of my free time researching the many nuances of the paleo diet and lifestyle. This accumulating knowledge has helped me form a better understanding of why I wasn’t healthy following a low-carb diet. It has also helped me to see the links between the different health issues that I suffered in my early twenties to early thirties.
I was an overweight teenager. By the time I discovered how effective a low-carb diet can be for weight loss, I was 22 years old and 265 pounds. Eating a low-carb diet combined with excessive exercise and iron willpower allowed me to lose 100 pounds over the course of a year. I maintained my weight loss by training for marathons, practicing karate, and working out in the gym twice per week. And as I continued to fight for a smaller waistline and to survive the rigors of graduate school, I watched my health deteriorate. At my peak physical fitness, I suffered migraines, frequent colds, anxiety, mild depression, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, seasonal allergies, mild acne, scalp psoriasis and eczema. I had no idea that these health conditions might be related to my diet and high stress levels (in part caused by graduate school and in part by overtraining) or even that they could be interlinked.
A health crisis in the summer of 2002 robbed me of my active lifestyle and my ability to keep my weight down. I had adult-onset asthma with inflammation so severe that I was coughing up blood. I was put on extremely high doses of oral and inhaled steroids. I was apartment-bound because I would get completely out of breath just walking from the living room to the kitchen. I became severely depressed. Writing my thesis and preparing for my dissertation caused me even more stress. I was now able to add severe asthma, severe allergies, acid reflux, and a new skin condition called lichen planus to my list of health complaints. I gained back all 100 pounds (plus a few more for good measure).
I stopped weighing myself at 260 pounds. I can only guess at how heavy I was at my biggest based on the fact that I gained a full clothing size (or maybe two?) after that. This photo was taken of me at my biggest in the summer of 2004.
My blood pressure was elevated, my blood triglycerides and fasting insulin were borderline high. I ached constantly. I was always tired and drank copious amounts of coffee to keep me going while I worked 12-18-hour days as a postdoctoral fellow in a high-profile research laboratory. My eyesight deteriorated, and I found myself needing glasses and getting a stronger prescription every year. I started suffering from mild arthritis, carpel tunnel syndrome, and stenosing tenosynovitis from repetitive motions in the biology lab. I started to get rashes from sun exposure after eating processed foods. I developed varicose veins. I found my normally optimistic and cheerful demeanor replaced by a cynical and jaded person I hardly recognized. I was miserable, uncomfortable all of the time, and sick.
It was years before I had sufficient motivation to lose weight again. My first pregnancy was complicated by gestational diabetes and preeclampsia. My daughter was colicky and a very poor sleeper. But, when I discovered that I was prediabetic, I found that iron willpower again and used a low-carb diet (but without the excessive exercise) to get my weight back down to 165 pounds. Some of my health conditions improved simply by losing weight. My blood sugars were good. My blood pressure was back in the normal range. My cardiovascular risk factors were normal again. But even though I was once again lighter, I wasn’t healthy. I was still taking 6 different prescription medications every day.
Frustration with lichen planus is what propelled me to search for answers beyond what my doctors prescribed. Learning that eczema is linked to gluten sensitivities, I started to research diet changes that might help. This was when I found paleo.
I noticed a dramatic improvement to my overall health when I started paleo. I lost some weight. My symptoms of IBS and acid reflux disappeared. I stopped getting migraines. My mood and my ability to cope with life were better. My energy increased. I slept better. My asthma and allergies diminished. My immune system seemed stronger and I no longer got every single cold my children brought into the house. I was able to stop taking all of my prescription medications, some of which I had been taking for 12 years. But my lichen planus GOT WORSE.
I started searching for answers again. By now, I was a firm believer in the fact that dietary changes should be able to solve this problem. But I was at a loss for what I was doing wrong. I tightened up my diet in every way I could. I switched to grass-fed meat and pastured butter. I increased my vegetable intake. I stopped eating paleo baking. I increased my Vitamin D3 supplement. I reduced my starch intake to help treat a suspected case of Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth. I went to bed earlier. I continued to feel better and better except for the spreading lichen planus. And then I learned a very valuable piece of information, something that no doctor I had seen in 5 different cities had bothered to mention: lichen planus is an autoimmune condition.
When I first started eating paleo, I ate 4-8 eggs every day. Nuts became my go-to convenience food. Almond butter and sliced apple was my favorite snack. Bell peppers and tomatoes featured heavily in my meals. I wasn’t buying very much grass-fed meat in the beginning, and instead supplementing with high doses of fish oil. My lichen planus likely got worse because even though I had removed the worst food offenders from my diet, I was continuing to eat foods restricted in the Autoimmune Protocol due to their ability to perpetuate a leaky gut and drive antibody formation in sensitive individuals. I had to admit that I am one of these sensitive individual. I had to get over my autoimmune denial.
After 5 months following the Autoimmune Protocol, my lichen planus has mostly healed. It took over three committed months before I really started to see a difference, but when my lichen planus lesions started to heal, they improved quickly. Any remnants of asthma and allergies are gone. My eyesight has actually improved. My energy is even better. I have started to slowly lose weight again. I now weigh 148 pounds, practice yoga regularly, and can easily keep up with my two young daughters. I may not be exactly where I want to be yet, but I am finally healthy.
I used to joke that I would be dead at least 100 times if it weren’t for the miracles of modern medicine. But, as I reflect back on the health conditions I suffered, I now see the links between them. I clearly see the linear progression of one pathology. I see that my gut was getting progressively leakier, that my body was getting more and more inflamed, that my hormones were increasingly poorly regulated, and that auto-antibodies were being formed in higher and higher quantities. Everything seems connected. And the Paleo Diet Autoimmune Protocol is my solution.
Following the Autoimmune Protocol is tough going. I find it very hard to comply 100% of the time. I have a very hard time avoiding seed-based spices and paprika. If I am developing a recipe for my blog, I feel obligated to taste it even if it contains eggs and almond flour. There are days where a square of dark chocolate is not a desire, but a need. However, this level of compliance seems to be working. I wonder if I may have to reign it in next winter when I can no longer benefit from so much sun exposure. Or maybe I will be healthy enough that I can start trying to add some foods back into my diet. I am not optimistic that I will ever be able to eat eggs, nuts, seeds and nightshades again. But, even if I can’t, I still get to eat tons of wonderful, delicious foods. My health is worth skipping the bolognaise sauce over spaghetti squash.
What have I learned from this experience? Sometimes, out-of-the-box paleo is not enough. Undiagnosed food sensitivities, gut dysbiosis, or autoimmune disease may mean that further tweaking is required. And it might not be obvious to you or your doctor that you have any of these complicating factors. If you are frustrated that your paleo diet isn’t addressing all of your health concerns, trying out the Autoimmune Protocol is a good place to start. It worked for me.
You can read more by Sarah Ballantyne, including her personal experiences following the Paleo Diet Autoimmune Protocol and transitioning her husband and two daughters to a Paleo Diet, her scientific explanations, and her recipes, on her blog www.thepaleomom.com.