“Paleo is not a panacea, but a blunt instrument”
– paraphrase of Mat LaLonde
I forget where I heard this quote from Mat (probably on Robb’s podcast), but it really struck true to me. In my own journey with Paleo, and through teaching others to adopt this lifestyle, I’ve grown to see its triumphs, and its limitations.
The Shotgun Approach
If you are transitioning from a standard diet, defined as one with reliance on processed, fake food, any whole-food based diet is going to be a big improvement. Food has the remarkable ability to replace medicine when combined with the body’s innate ability to heal itself. But if you’re trying to undo years of metabolic, hormone, and organ damage, simply removing toxins may not be enough. Let’s take a look at some of the areas where you may need more of an intervention than diet alone.
It’s not uncommon for folks to experience an improvement in digestion when first switching to a low-toxin diet. However, that improvement doesn’t always stay, and digestion seemingly worsens. The gut comprises nearly 70% of our immune system, and needs to be taken care of appropriately. When things aren’t working right, we’re in a much more compromised state than we truly realize.
Here are some obvious common symptoms:
- Frequent bowel movements
- Excessive gas
- Foul gas
- Incomplete elimination
- Water retention
- Long/Short transit time (16-24 hours is ideal)
- Burping after eating
- Heartburn/Acid Reflux/GERD
- Weight gain/difficulty losing weight
- Unexplained weight loss
- Odd stool coloring
Quite the list, eh? So after looking at your symptoms, you may be able to glean a self-diagnosis of a specific condition (though working with a practitioner who uses testing is often easier, though more expensive). Some possible conditions to consider:
- Low HCL production
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Cortisol Dysregulation/Adrenal Fatigue
- Leaky gut
- Gut dysbiosis
- Insufficient beneficial bacteria populations
- Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO)
- Neurotransmitter conversion inhibition
- Metabolic pathway impairment
- FODMAP Intolerance
- Fructose Malabsorption
- Organ damage (liver especially)
- Crohn’s disease
- And the list goes on and on…
Well great, so I’ve given you a bunch of stuff to worry about now, right? Well, before you go off trying to figure out how to label your symptoms, it’s important to realize that many of these conditions share root causes, and by mitigating those causes, you can avoid a lot of headache in the trial-and-error phase of getting yourself better.
- Chronic toxin exposure (food or environmental)
- Poor sleep
- Micronutrient deficiency
- Insufficient intestinal bacteria
- Intestinal pathogen
- Unmanaged autoimmune condition
- Repeated use of NSAIDS or antibiotics
- Too little vegetable matter/starch (before you try to use the Inuits in an argument, please read this)
Well the first solution is to obviously adopt a low-toxin, real food diet. And do it for at least 30 days. The Whole30 is a good way to go. If your symptoms are even more severe than that, you may want to look into the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and/or the GAPS protocol. They are a bit more spartan, but they do work miracles for people with severe digestive issues and autoimmune conditions, as they get the body back onto a path to heal itself properly.
After food is in order, the next thing to tackle is sleep. If you’re sleeping poorly, you’re going to feel terrible, and you sure as heck won’t digest properly. 65 degree room, pitch black, comfortable bed/pillows, establish good “bedtime hygiene”.
Next up is micronutrient deficiencies. This can be the toughest one to tackle, and often requires the most testing, but it will also glean the most systemic improvements in health. Here’s a list from Paul Jaminet about some of the most important vitamins and minerals to digestive health:
- Vitamin D3 sufficient to raise serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D above 40 ng/ml.
- Vitamin K2, at least 100 mcg/day.
- Magnesium citrate, 200 mg/day.
- Melatonin, as needed for deep restful sleep.
- Selenium, 200 mcg/day.
- Iodine, 1 mg/day or more, taking care to assure that auto-antibodies are absent before trying high doses.
- Thyroid hormone sufficient to bring TSH below 1.0 and body temperature to 98 F.
- Vitamin C, 1 g/day.
- Glutathione, 500 mg/day, preferably in the reduced form, taken between meals on an empty stomach with a full glass of water (since it is destroyed by stomach acid).
- N-acetylcysteine, 500 mg/day.
- Iron, zinc, and copper sufficient to relieve deficiencies.
If you’re already deficient in any of these items, then a paleo diet is only going to keep you from getting worse, it won’t necessarily help you replace what’s missing. You may find that you need to take a multivitamin and/or fermented cod liver oil/butter oil blend from Green Pasture. I’ll repeat my warning again though: Please work with your doctor or other health practitioner before making any changes based on what you read here.
So these steps will do a lot to get your gut on the path to healing, but in order to give it the building materials it needs, I recommend drinking bone broth daily. It’s really straight-forward to make, takes no time in a slow-cooker, and even less time in a pressure-cooker.
You also need to give your beneficial gut flora a happy home with plenty of soluble and insoluble fiber so it has something to use to repopulate your gut. If you know that you have depleted gut bacteria (say after following a course of antibiotics), you can use a prebiotic to lay the foundation and a priobiotic to up the population. I’ve found this to be one of the trickiest experiments to carry out, as every prebiotic contains different strains, and the wrong kinds or too much can hurt your stomach. It’s best to work with a practitioner. After you’ve repopulated your gut, you can keep it going by eating fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchee, or kombucha, kefir (if you tolerate dairy), and carrots and pickles if you can’t do FODMAPS.
If you’re still having trouble digesting, you may need some support in the form of digestive enzymes or betaine HCL. Recognize that these are temporary solutions, but they can allow some of the burden to be taken off of your gut during the digestion process so that it can spend time healing.
And lastly, deal with your stress. Be mindful of when you’re stressed, and be active in managing it. Step away from your desk, go for a walk, practice meditative breathing exercises, do yoga, etc. Come to realize that you cannot control anything in this world, that it’s best to just enjoy the present, and that nothing is ever as bad as it seems. Unless it’s The Jersey Shore, that is as bad as it seems.
Stay tuned for the next part, where I’ll get in to some fun hormone stuff, and maybe share what’s been going on in my own journey.
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