To medicate or not to medicate….. that is NOT the question. At least for me. Often people seem to think that we have to choose between changing our diet or taking medications. Below, I explain why I feel like this isn’t a choice we need to make.
Medication can be a necessary part of treating autoimmune disease. Just because you are following the AIP doesn’t mean that you should quit seeing your doctor or quit taking your meds. Imagine that you broke your leg… you might do all that you can to improve your bone health by eating well and supplementing, but if you take the cast off before your bone heals you will probably suffer some pretty serious consequences. In some cases our bodies need the medication to control our symptoms while we work on healing ourselves in other ways.
Most of us automatically put on a seat belt whenever we get in a car. It is common sense, right? In the case of a crash, seat belts can prevent injuries and even save our lives! When we put on our seatbelt we do it to prevent possible, future injuries and the fact that it isn’t 100% fail proof doesn’t make us any less likely to buckle up. You could think of the AIP as your seat belt. But what if I saw you putting on your seatbelt and got upset, saying “Seatbelts don’t always work and people get hurt in car crashes anyway!” Or “I support ambulance drivers so I won’t wear a seatbelt!” Would this make any sense to you? Would it make you stop wearing a seatbelt? Should taking safety precautions in your car make ambulance drivers feel like you are criticizing their abilities? Would you refuse to go to the ER because you were injured while wearing a seatbelt? If you think like me… the answers to these questions are a resounding NO! We have to do our best even if sometimes things beyond our control cause our preventative measures to fail. Preventing accidents and dealing with their consequences are not conflicting activities, but a natural sequence.
Unfortunately there are still many doctors who don’t believe that dietary changes make any difference in autoimmune conditions (luckily not so many ambulance drivers that don’t support seatbelts). Most of them never even learned about nutrition in school and were taught how to treat diseases not prevent them. One of my favorite GI’s doesn’t think that my dietary changes are making any difference, but as long as I am eating a healthy diet that provides adequate nutrition, he isn’t so worried about what I eat. Sometimes our doctors are not going to be on board with our AIP seatbelt and will credit our results to “spontaneous remission.” Honestly, it doesn’t really matter what your doctor thinks of your diet unless they are concerned about your safety in which case they should probably refer you to a qualified nutritionist. For most doctors, as long as you tell them what you do eat instead of what you don’t eat they will be just fine with it. Who is going to complain about a diet full of protein, complex carbohydrates, abundant fruit and veggies and healthy fats? You can read more about how to deal with doctors here.
One of the things I often hear in the AIP community is, “I am sick, but my diet isn’t working, so I am going to give up and just take my medication instead.” For me, there is a fundamental flaw in this statement. It is like saying “I got hurt in a car accident, so seatbelts obviously don’t work. I am going to just put a cast on my broken leg instead of wearing a seatbelt.” If anything, experiencing an accident should make us more likely to put on a seatbelt than less! An autoimmune disease flare makes us remember exactly why we are using our AIP seatbelt in the first place, even if we need to resort to medications that we prefer not to take to control the situation. Why should treating our symptoms and solving their cause be conflicting interests? The autoimmune protocol isn’t a replacement for your doctor, nor is your doctor a replacement for the autoimmune protocol. They should both work together to improve your health, both by preventing further damage and managing your current symptoms.
I believe that preventative and conventional medicine are equally important and necessary (in fact conventional medicine probably saved my life). While their roles may be totally different in our recovery, one does not make the other unnecessary or unimportant. . When I first started to follow a whole foods diet and later the autoimmune protocol, it was a means to an end. I wanted a solution… a miracle cure that would make my disease disappear, give me back my “normal” life and allow me to stop taking all of my medications. When this didn’t happen I felt a lot of things: anger, sadness, disappointment and I wanted to blame the diet. It didn’t work. I wanted to quit… and go back to eating “normal” food. As I studied more and began to learn more about the immune system and how autoimmunity works, I discovered that my initial approach (as well as my reaction to my less than instantaneous recovery) was totally flawed. Not only would going back to my previous lifestyle and eating habits be detrimental to my health, it would likely be a life sentence of illness. The right cocktail of prescription meds might be able to keep me from losing my intestine, but it wouldn’t stop me from losing my health in many other ways or developing another autoimmune disease. Once you have one autoimmune disease the likelihood of developing another autoimmune condition or other health problems increases exponentially. Life with autoimmunity is kind of like being a professional skateboarder. You need all of the knee and elbow pads you can muster and sometimes an ambulance standing by “just in case.”
The autoimmune protocol isn’t a cure for autoimmune disease. It isn’t a replacement for your physician. It is a tool that we have to help heal our bodies and give them the strength and nutrients that we need to recover from years of inflammation and medication. It is our number one defence against further illness and deterioration of our already weakened bodies. There are many elements (beyond diet) that contribute to autoimmune disease including genetics, environmental triggers, stress and other things that are often beyond our control. Sometimes, even while doing the best we can to eat, sleep and live well, our bodies will have an autoimmune reaction, or “flare” and at these times medication may be not only necessary, but life saving! Does this mean that we should stop using our diet to support our immune function? Not any more than getting in a car wreck should make us stop wearing seatbelts.
If you feel like the autoimmune protocol “isn’t working” I invite you to ask yourself the following questions:
Have any of your symptoms improved at all while following the autoimmune protocol?
If your answer was yes, then it is working. With an “incurable disease” any progress us a success! Even if the improvements are slight, it means that you are controlling your inflammation and preventing further damage. For most of us it took a long time to get sick… and most likely will take a long time to get better.
Has your health improved in any way while following the autoimmune protocol?
Sometimes you might not notice changes to your autoimmune conditions but rather changes to your health in general. If you are feeling less tired, less irritable, have less PMS, are sleeping better, have lost (or gained) weight, or even just have clear skin and stronger hair and nails… it is working! These “little” changes are big signs that your health is improving!
Have you developed any other autoimmune conditions while on the autoimmune protocol?
The autoimmune protocol isn’t just for healing from the conditions that we have, but it also will help deactivate our immune systems and prevent further health problems. Unfortunately some damage from autoimmune conditions isn’t reversible and some medications may always be necessary, but with the autoimmune protocol you are much less likely to develop other health conditions (autoimmune or otherwise).
Have you fully committed to the autoimmune protocol – not just the food but also the lifestyle changes?
It took me a while to fully commit to the autoimmune protocol. I thought that eggs were OK and that chocolate wasn’t a big deal. I made excuses for my stressful lifestyle and the fact that I rarely relaxed or slept more than 6-7 hours a night… sleep that was often disturbed by frequent bathroom runs. It was only after I decided to “go all in” with the autoimmune protocol that I began to see how powerful it could be in my healing process. I still have some Crohn’s disease symptoms, but my energy and health have improved exponentially.
If your answer was no to any of the above questions, this probably means that your disease is either very advanced or aggressive. It is possible that it would help you to make further dietary modifications and make sure that you are eating plenty of seafood, organ meat and veggies as well as controlling your portions of fruit and other sweeteners, like maple syrup and honey. It might be a good idea to troubleshoot with a functional medical practitioner, nutritional therapist or someone who is familiar with The Paleo Approach and test for food sensitivities or SIBO. Solving chronic health problems can be frustrating and complicated, but don’t be discouraged, you are already doing the best you can to heal yourself! Don’t give up… you are worth it.
If you are feeling like giving up, make sure that you really understand why your are following the autoimmune protocol and exactly how it works. For me this took reading The Paleo Approach a few times, but it made the reasoning behind everything I was struggling with much more clear. It helped me to understand what was going on physiologically so that I felt empowered to help myself, make better choices and have the confidence to stick with them. But It is hard to stay motivated for the months or even years it takes to recover, especially when we are surrounded by stories of people who started eating paleo and two weeks later were “healed” of all ills. Want to know a secret? I am still working every day to stay motivated and not give up. I am much healthier than I was but that doesn’t mean I am 100%. My hair and skin are much healthier, I have gained weight, so I don’t look like I just came out of a concentration camp, I have a lot more energy (though still not like I used to have) and usually don’t p**p my pants. The laundry list of prescription and biological medications I take has gotten a lot shorter BUT I also still go to the doctor and take some of my medicine. If my doctor recommends a medication that I don’t like, or I want to discontinue a current medication I talk to him about the possible benefits and consequences so that I can make my own educated decision.
To be completely honest, I have been on and off of the “no seatbelts” team during my health journey. At first I just wanted a pill to make me normal again… when that pill didn’t work and the pills started causing me to need other pills I started to get frustrated. As I became more educated about my condition I began to get fed-up with my doctors and wanted to just take care of everything myself. I am still learning to understand and work with the benefits & shortcomings of both teams.
Every day is another challenge and another step towards recovery (even though some days it feels like I am going backwards). The knowledge and support from fellow autoimmune warriors (you can find their websites here) that I have gained while following the autoimmune protocol are invaluable protection in my prevention of further autoimmune “accidents”… and to top it off I now know more about gut-health, the immune system and all of my medication options than most of my doctors!
When I feel like giving up I open up my facebook or instagram, where I have tons of supportive friends who remind me exactly why I am doing this. Someday I hope that we will be able to learn how to drive better so that we won’t need ambulances, but for now I am still a hazard on the highway and need all the help I can to become healthy.
There must be some truth behind this proverb, right?
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!”