My Journey to Health: From Low-Carb to Paleo to the Autoimmune Protocol

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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.

TPM Before Photo1

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.

TPM After Photo1

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.

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  1. Kelly @ Primally Inspired
    January 21, 2013 at 5:58 am

    Hi Sarah, I follow your blog and enjoyed reading your story to optimum health. Thank you for sharing that Paleo alone is not always the only answer – some of us have to go a few steps further. I enjoyed wonderful results on the paleo diet alone, but grew frustrated when my husband did not. Just like you, we noticed positive changes for him, but the main condition we were trying to heal with food was still there and worse than ever. We are now following the autoimmune protocol for my husband after realizing eggs and nightshades were a problem for him, too – and I used to cook 4 eggs every single morning for him for years (I shudder now to think about what I was doing to his health). Just like you, it took a good 5 to 6 months of following it, but his health problems are gone.
    Thank you for sharing your story!!

  2. Michele
    January 21, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Hi Sarah!
    Thank you for your post; I love your blog so much! I have PCOS and Hashimoto’s Disease and switching to Paleo (3 months ago now) has definitely helped in some regards but not in others. My acne is still here and I have been growing frustrated that despite all of my dietary changes and increase in intake of good fats (grass fed beef, EVOO, coconut oil) and veggies (collard greens, swiss chard, etc.) that my acne has stayed as well. I have been on the Autoimmune Protocol for almost a month now but have not seen the improvement that I would have hoped. It makes me upset but hearing your story and that you had to stick with AIP for a good 3 months before you saw any results gives me hope that I too will eventually get the results I want. I love your AIP recipes and your blog has been a blessing to me.
    Sincerely,
    Michele

    • R. A. Too!
      March 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm

      Hi Michele,
      I saw that you were upset about acne. I’ve been there! I don’t know if this will work for you but I stumbled upon a remedy for my cystic adult acne. A b12 vitamin! A few years back I was supplementing my vegan diet out of necessity and poof after a few days I noticed I was not gaining new pimples (seemed like something new was erupting everyday). Some how it calmed my skin tremendously and miracle of miracles it even took care of the marks; which were unfortunately at one point dark purple and even a lil blue at times and I am fair skinned. The angry welts under my skin went away too! I honestly didn’t wash my face for a week (Sorry) because I really wanted to isolate the vitamins to see if it was the cause. I had lived with acne since puberty and ever since clearisil changed their formula for one of their products NOTHING helped. I feel like I tried every over the counter product available (and Proactiv)and subscribed to all the never touch your face, wash your face 2x a day but no more so you don’t overly dry it and kick your skin into overproduction of oil. I compulsively changed my pillow case, disinfected my cell phone etc. Also, I know of a chiropractor who gave his daughter choline which I think is a B vitamin and it got her acne under control. I just take a cheapo Nature Valley B12 vitamin at 2000mcgs and it works fine. I used to take it everyday, but now maybe 3x a week. When I tried 500 mcgs It did not work for me! God bless!

      • Ishwar
        February 1, 2014 at 12:53 am

        Jessy It kills me to buy tahini beucase it’s $7 a jar here! I did try making my own once in a food processor and it was a disaster! I don’t think the blades spun fast enough. We recently got a Vita Mix and I saw a recipe in the book that came with it, so it’s on my list to try. The high power blender is key!

  3. Pamela
    January 21, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Yeah, Sarah!
    I am a fan of yours and follow your blog. I too have autoimmune issues with Hashimoto’s and Celiac, so sites like yours are so helpful when the going gets tough.

    It’s hard to be different. We have to all support each other.

    So happy to see you here on Robb’s site! I appreciate all the work he and others do to help us – my story is shown here Nov 5th: http://robbwolf.com/2012/11/05/before/ The Paleo lifestyle saved my life and inspired me to spread the word via my own blog at PamelasPaleoLife.com.

    Keep up the good work! :D

    • Christopher
      January 21, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      You guys are why we do this stuff :)

  4. Lainey
    January 22, 2013 at 12:43 am

    Outstanding

  5. bjjcaveman
    January 23, 2013 at 9:09 am

    Excellent post! Thanks for sharing. I haven’t really heard of the autoimmune protocol… so will now definitely have to look into it.

  6. zack
    January 24, 2013 at 11:39 am

    This is exactly what I am doing to deal with the lingering psoriasis. I find that avoiding the nighshades in spice form is the hardest part and as a result I haven’t been able to be 100% compliant yet (3 weeks in). I DO plan on making that final switch after the Superbowl which I am planning on making chili as it’s sort of a tradition.

    Thanks for your inspiration!

  7. Karen
    January 25, 2013 at 7:48 am

    Thanks for sharing your story. You look really good. It is encouraging that you achieved such good results following the autoimmune protocol. I have been eating Paleo for coming up to a year now. I have got rid of my asthma, allergies and excema. But still have a lot of problems with my nose and also bloating. I know that tomatoes are very bad for me, my stomach is so bloated and painful after eating them; and so maybe cutting out nightshades will help overall.

  8. SROGERS
    January 30, 2013 at 6:15 am

    Glad to see you on here, Sarah! 6 months ago, your blog was the only one I could find with AIP recipes. Your article “How Long Is This Going to Take?! Finding Patience with the AIP” was helpful and encouraging. Thank you!

  9. Jake Johnson
    February 9, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Awesome story, Sarah.

    Your determination to get better and become the healthiest person possible despite your tough situation is inspiring, and it’s a story that I hope gets around and motivates people in similar situations.

    I hope all is going well.

    Jake

  10. Kim
    February 12, 2013 at 12:17 pm

    Thank you Sarah, your story is such an inspiration. The picture of you at your heaviest reminds me of how I looked about a year ago. I too have had gestational diabetes and now am type 2 with hypothyroid. I had had health problems for many years since childhood that were only diagnosed in my 40s. Since being diagnosed with a thyroid problem I have done much research and became convinced that most of our ill health and malaise was due mainly to the food that we are eating. As a diabetic I was eating the ‘advised standard’ diet with Low GI carbs and found that I was starting to get odd diabetic complaints. Pains in the legs, numb hands, Aches, coughs, spiking sugars and bad moods along with weight gain and fatty liver pain and Oral thrush. Thankfully during my liver research I found an online link to the Paleo Diet and have not looked back. I have dropped 2 dress sizes in 12 months and still losing. I have never felt so clear minded and bodily healthier. I still have to take my meds but they work better with the Paleo way of eating. Liver pain has gone as are most if not all of my odd symptoms. Thank you Robb Wolf for your great work and Sarah for sharing your story.

  11. Dara
    March 26, 2013 at 7:49 am

    Sarah,

    Thank you so much for the inspiration- and everyone who has shared their story. You give me hope, which I’m in desperate need of at the moment.

    I am just recovering from what I hope is my last bout of “autoimmune denial.” I SO want to live “like a normal person” and not be deprived of food I love. But hey, it was eating and living in what is considered “normal” that landed me with 2 thyroid autoimmune conditions (Hashimoto’s and Graves), pre-diabetes, 30 extra lbs, and crippling fatigue, joint pain and cognitive dysfunction from Lyme Disease. I know Paleo works because when I followed the standard version of it for 2 months last year (until being derailed by the holidays – no excuse, I know), all my joint pain disappeared, my energy returned, the Hashimotos antibodies plummeted and my brain started functioning again. Now I’m back where I started. Sigh.

    So – Autoimmune Protocol – here I come. I’ll check out your blog for AIP recipes. Since I hate to cook, anything that makes food prep easier is a Godsend.

    And one more thing. I want to express my deep appreciation and gratitude to Robb Wolf and your fabulous team for providing grounded information, an upbeat community, inspiration, straight-talk and lots of humor. The healing journey can lead to some very dark places at times, and your collective presence always lights the path so I can take the next step. I couldn’t do this without you.

    Namaste.

  12. Duane M
    May 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Im on the low fodmap diet, It seems to be helping a little bit. But I wonder if I need to get into this autoimmun protcol. None the less your story is very inspiring, sarah. I can relate on a few subjects.

  13. Siv Sturesson
    August 2, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Keep it up! We all believe in you!

  14. Glurl.de
    August 19, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    Good way of describing, and nice article to get information on the topic of my presentation
    focus, which i am going to convey in school.

  15. Ben
    January 7, 2014 at 5:11 am

    Question, do you think the auto immune protocol could help high blood pressure? My new paleo friendly doctor wants me to try it, (my tsh is low and I have had lichen planis in the past) other than that no obvious auto immune symptoms except for high blood pressure. I’m quite close to going on an ace inhibitor but would rather treat with diet.

  16. Lori
    January 12, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    It’s been a long journey. I’ve been gluten dairy and soy free for four years. For the last six days I quit drinking coffee cut out sugar and processed food. I’ve been following a paleo diet. I also started AIP too due to hashimotos. I have no sex drive and feel very weird and forgetful. Also more constipation. I read when you have hashimotos your body needs more carbs to process T3 to T4. So today I ate gluten free bread and had rice and feel a lot better. I don’t know if I should try to go back on AIP or is it I tried to stop everything at once was too much for my body. Or should I allow rice in my diet. I am just frustrated and not sure what to do.

  17. Lowell
    June 5, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Hi Sarah,

    What a truly amazing story! As a fellow scientist, I take the opinion of the consensus of your docs. It’s all based on evidence of condition or perhaps sometimes the doctors insight to spot a positive correlation of symptoms leading to tests and diagnosis. As a fellow sufferer, I realize that “some” docs can spot people who are very analytic and tell that person that they listen to their bodies a little too much (e.g.- transient aches, numbness, etc.) With all this said, docs are simply not educated in nutrition in the general sense. I need not digress into pharma’s role here.
    Eat right…all the good things follow.

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