A Paleo Approach To Immune Health
Like most doctors, I received very little nutrition training in medical school even though it is one of the greatest ways that we influence our health. As a Functional Medicine doctor I spend considerable time with patients recommending the benefits of quality, clean food.
Nutrition was an important piece in my personal healing journey and one that I focus on with every single patient in my practice. Food is that important. Food really is medicine when eating optimally.
When I started experimenting with a Paleo diet for myself and my patients, it was clear that this style of eating – free of processed foods and full of nutrition – had many benefits to health outcomes.
Not only did it help to balance blood sugar, decrease inflammation and facilitate gut healing, but it also led to greater immunity. Patients reported far fewer colds and quicker recovery when they changed their diet.
The immune benefits of a Paleo diet are more important than ever. Since COVID-19 and Covid-19 variants are still circulating, many people are making better lifestyle choices to encourage a healthy and resilient immune status.
To dive deeper into my Paleo approach, keep reading to learn more about:
- What is the paleo diet and its history
- How a Paleo diet helps to prevent chronic disease and improve immunity
- My version of the Paleo diet – The Every Life Well Paleo Protocol
- How to personalize your Paleo diet for immune health and total body wellness
Paleo Diet History And Benefits
The Paleo diet takes a walk back in human history, to a time before agriculture, when people subsisted on what they could hunt or gather. This primarily meant meat from animals and birds, fish and seafood and edible plant foods, including greens, tubers and berries. There weren’t grocery stores, convenience items or highly palatable food – only what was available in the immediate environment.
The modern Paleo diet grew out of the evolutionary biology-based exploration of how our ancestors ate, which greatly influenced their health. While there certainly were dangers ten thousand years ago from accidents, attacks or infectious disease, there wasn’t chronic lifestyle disease like we have today.
Our ancestors weren’t overweight and didn’t have heart disease.
Researcher, Loren Cordain, PhD. is credited with beginning the modern Paleo movement with his 1999 paper about the nutritional shortcomings of grains and 2002 book The Paleo Diet.
Since that time, we’ve begun to see some research in the scientific literature looking at how a Paleo diet affects health. The research, however, is not robust, simply because it’s hard to secure funding for this type of study versus other, more profitable, research topics.
One study compared a Paleo diet to a Mediterranean diet in a small sample of post-menopausal women. Although both groups showed improved health markers and sustained weight loss, the women on the Paleo diet had greater improvements after 6 months of diet change.
In diabetes patients, the Paleo diet performs better for glucose and lipid control when compared to a diet that follows the American Diabetes Association recommendations. And a similar study found benefits to the Paleo diet for those with elevated cholesterol when compared to American Heart Association recommendations.
More recent studies from a Functional Medicine colleague, Terry Wahls, shows a modified Paleo diet, reduces pain and inflammation in people with Multiple Sclerosis. Dr. Wahls emphasizes eliminating grains and dairy, while consuming nine cups of produce per day.
In my practice, I’ve seen similar dietary approaches work wonders for autoimmunity.
In a retrospective study looking at outcomes in women who followed a Paleo diet during pregnancy, when compared to those on a “regular diet,” a Paleo diet appeared to promote better blood sugar regulation and iron status.
With all of these metabolic benefits associated with following an ancestral diet template, it makes sense that there would also be immune benefits.
How The Paleo Diet Supports Immune Health
It’s no mystery that modern eating habits, full of low-quality processed food, drive obesity and chronic disease.
Known as diseases of civilization – metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, for example – don’t really exist in hunter-gatherer or indigenous populations that continue to eat a traditional diet. When people move out of their traditional food cultures and into Western ones, they begin to develop the same diseases.
While the link between diet and disease is referring to chronic, non-communicable diseases, it also plays a role in infectious disease. The health of the individual influences the health of the immune system.
It is clear that those with chronic lifestyle diseases (pre existing conditions) including obesity, diabetes and heart disease, are at a higher risk of developing severe infections and dying from COVID-19.
In an early COVID-19 study of 5700 patients in New York City who were hospitalized for COVID-19, 88 percent had at least two chronic health conditions. This is the trend that we are continuing to see.
Because of the chronic disease – infectious disease connection, it only makes sense to get to the root of the issue by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Diet, specifically the Paleo diet, is a great place to start.
The Shippy Paleo Diet
The best way to experience a Paleo diet is to give it a try yourself.
What to eat
Quality food is key. You want to focus on whole foods that are grown or raised in a way that is most in line with nature. This might mean prioritizing more for your food budget each week, which is really an investment in your future health.
Here is what to eat (and what not to eat) according to my Every Life Well Paleo Protocol.
Build meals around:
- Grass-fed or regenerative meat
- Wild game – bison, elk, deer
- Pasture-raised poultry and eggs
- Wild, low-mercury fish
- Organic vegetables
- Starchy vegetables – winters squashes, sweet potatoes, plantains
- Organic fruit
- Nuts and seeds
- Natural fats – coconut oil, avocado oil, olive oil
- Natural sweeteners in moderation (honey, maple syrup)
By increasing these foods and focusing on quality, you’ll naturally displace the more processed and unnatural foods that weren’t a part of our ancestor’s daily choices.
The foods to avoid include:
- Gluten-containing grains and flours (wheat, spelt, rye, barley)
- All grains, including corn and gluten-free grains and flours
- All animal dairy, including ghee
- Beans and peanuts
- Refined sugar
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners
- Food additives
- Refined oils, including vegetable and bean oils (canola, corn, soy, safflower, etc.)
To truly see the benefits of the Paleo diet, I recommend committing to 30 days. I’ve compiled quite a library of Paleo recipes to help you get started.
After the initial commitment, there is room to personalize your Paleo diet.
Personalizing The Paleo Approach
Although I believe that the Paleo diet is a great foundation for a modern-day anti-inflammatory, low toxin and immune supportive way of eating, I don’t believe in one-size-fits all approaches. We are all unique and have different needs from our diet. Here are some ways that you might experiment with to personalize your Paleo diet.
1. Adjust your carbs. While Paleo isn’t inherently a low carbohydrate diet, it does tend to be more moderate in carbohydrates than a Standard American, high-carb diet. Some with metabolic disease, including diabetes, will benefit from reducing the higher carb starchy veggies and fruits and focusing more on lower-carb plant foods.
This might look like a low-carb or ketogenic diet depending on individual needs. Remember that balanced blood sugar supports the immune system; so finding your carb “sweet spot” is key.
2. Eliminate food sensitivities. While Paleo eliminates many of the common allergens – gluten, dairy, corn and soy – many will have other foods that they are allergic or sensitive to. Consider eliminating eggs, nuts and nightshades for a period of time to see if symptoms improve. This version of the Paleo diet is often referred to as the Autoimmune Paleo diet, or AIP.
3. Play with fasting. Once the Paleo diet is in place, some people will find benefit from simple intermittent fasting practices, such as fasting overnight for 12-16 hours and then eating food in a tighter window of time during the day. Some people are good candidates for fasting, while others might find it more challenging.
4. Use food as medicine. Depending on your body’s needs and health goals, you might want to add in specific foods for their therapeutic benefits. Here are some examples:
- Fermented foods – sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha
- Prebiotic foods – artichokes, garlic, chicory
- Anti-inflammatory foods – turmeric, rosemary, green tea
- Detoxification-supporting foods – dandelion, broccoli sprouts
5. Expand your diet. Some people might be able to include occasional gluten-free grains, or legumes. Since what works for me may be different than what works for you, once you see the benefits of Paleo for yourself, are there ways to gently expand your diet while maintaining the benefits?
These are just some of the ways that you can personalize a Paleo diet to fit your unique needs and lifestyle. I’m happy to help guide you in this area, so please don’t hesitate to reach out!
We eat food, often three or more times per day, every day. Day in and day out, the food we eat influences everything happening in the body from our hormones to our antioxidants.
Food has the potential to increase inflammation and dampen immunity, or to be our greatest medicine. And since we have to eat, it only makes sense to eat in a way that supports our highest expression of health.
A Paleo diet is the perfect springboard to a sustainable and enjoyable way of eating.
Download my Essential Immune Support Protocol here.
Watch my video “Why the Paleo Diet is Healthy For Your Heart”