RESEARCH UPDATE: NEW STUDY ON THE AUTOIMMUNE PROTOCOL AND RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS

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If the stories compiled on our site and from the worldwide community are anything to show, the Autoimmune Protocol has helped a great many people with autoimmune disease live healthier, fuller lives. Many of us discovered this way of eating and jumped in as early adopters, before the research had time to catch up with us. I, for one thing, am happy I did, as I would not be healthy and happy today had I not made that leap! A lot of people get hung up on the fact that for the most part, the medical community does not acknowledge or support this intervention for managing autoimmune disease. Let’s be real though — times are changing (more on that in a minute!).

Research is one of the missing links to this acceptance, because it starts the conversation about how and why these interventions might be working, and informs doctors on what to recommend to their patients. I am eternally grateful for the work of people like Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, who presented a refined version of the Autoimmune Protocol in her book The Paleo Approach, and Terry Wahls, M.D., who in addition to her bookThe Wahls Protocol has raised funding and conducted clinical trials using dietary and lifestyle interventions to manage multiple sclerosis. These contributions have begun to ground the Autoimmune Protocol in the scientific landscape, which is essential if we are to get anywhere in getting the medical system to make these important shifts in philosophy.

A new study on the Autoimmune Protocol and rheumatoid arthritis

Julianne Taylor, as a part of her Post Grad Dip Sci in Human Nutrition, conducted a qualitative study research project for Massey University in Auckland, New Zealand. I’ve been following Julianne and her writing since the beginning of my journey, as she was one of the first people I found online writing about her personal experience using ancestral principles and the elimination diet in order to manage autoimmune disease (her blog was one that helped me decide to personally take on the protocol!). In the study, she interviewed those who had experienced success with rheumatoid arthritis in order to find out more information about management with dietary interventions. For those who are interested in this research, I’m presenting a summary here.

Aims of the study:

  1. To find out what motivated people to change their diet in the first place.
  2. To discover which challenges they encountered changing and maintaining the diet.
  3. To learn how they managed those challenges.
  4. To find out which foods they consumed and which presented symptoms on reintroduction.

Julianne found 10 participants from ages 28-60, with a positive RA diagnosis who had been following the Autoimmune Protocol or similar elimination diet for 6 months to 5 years and had reduced their disease symptoms or clinical markers. She interviewed every participant on a variety of topics and presented a summary of her findings.

Some of the findings I found interesting (although not surprising!):

  • Some of the study participants were encouraged to try the Autoimmune Protocol from alternative healthcare professionals (the system is changing, folks!).
  • Many participants found their conventional doctors to be unsupportive of their nutritional choices, and chose to work with a combination of both natural and conventional practitioners.
  • Those that participated in the study were convinced to try it because of a blend of science as well as anecdotal evidence.
  • One participant found relief on a strict Whole 30 Paleo-style diet and did not take out additional foods, while the rest of the participants did.
  • Both mental and physical preparation were key at making the dietary transition work for those who participated (what do I always say — set yourself up for success!).
  • Everyone who participated in the study shared that there was one important person who supported them in their transition, either emotionally or physically. Many helpers assisted by shopping for and cooking food (this is huge!).
  • 80% of the participants switched overnight, while 20% made gradual changes. Many chose dates to start that were clear from family celebrations or events that would create difficulties.
  • The two biggest challenges for participants were eating away from home and lack of support from friends and family.
  • Adherence to the the diet was very high, over 95% for all but one participant who was at 85% compliance, and avoidance of pain was the primary motivating factor.
  • The dietary changes were difficult to implement, but became easier as time progressed.
  • The main dietary challenges for participants were the time it took to prepare meals, lack of convenience foods, high cost of food, eating out, travel, and lack of understanding.
  • Every participant experienced health improvements besides a reduction in their rheumatoid arthritis symptoms — there was weight gain or loss, if the person needed it.

I found these reintroduction findings particularly interesting:

  • Most participants used a unique reintroduction protocol — some focused on the one in The Paleo Approach, Reintroducing Foods on the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol, relied on advice from their healthcare providers, or blended that with their intuition to customize an approach.
  • Some participants had been on a standard Paleo diet before trying the elimination diet to successfully pinpoint additional sensitivities.
  • The most common sensitivities found in the group as a whole were wheat, dairy, eggs, and corn.
  • Other sensitivities found in some participants but not others, were rice, nightshade vegetables, rancid and heated seed oils, and soy.
  • Every participant had foods they reacted to in a way that was different from a rheumatoid arthritis flare.

While this study was not randomized and controlled and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, it offers a fantastic starting place for other researchers developing interest, seeking funding, and conducting more in-depth studies on why these dietary and lifestyle interventions are working for people. We can only hope that as time progresses, there will be more research and discovery that will enable doctors to fine-tune dietary interventions to best manage autoimmune disease.

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