Sarah Ballantyne on The Paleo Approach and the Autoimmune Protocol

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Thoughts from our recent podcast interview with Sarah Ballantyne, The Paleo Mom, where she explains why "eating to promote intestinal health is the same as eating to support immune health." This broadcast can be listened to in full on the Newshour podcast page here or on iTunes here.

Many diets focus on a specific scientific finding or health fad, but the paleo diet takes a somewhat different approach, focusing on nutritional sources human ancestors would have evolved to eat. This time on Financial Sense, we interview popular scientist and blogger Sarah Ballantyne, author of The Paleo Approach: Reverse Auto-Immune Disease and Heal Your Body, to discuss her own approach to paleo and autoimmune function.

Ballantyne has a Ph.D. in medical biophysics, and she originally pursued a career in academia involving medical research. However, her health suffered as she faced multiple issues, and she ended up taking a break from her work when she had her first child.

“I was too sick to be a woman in science, and balance all the things that women in science do,” she said. “I had two children, I was trying to launch this great research career off the ground, and I just couldn’t keep up.”

sarah ballantyne before after
Sarah Ballantyne before and after (source)

She was coping with a variety of illnesses and went on a low-carbohydrate diet to lose over 100 pounds, she said. This helped resolve the pre-diabetes and blood pressure issues she was facing, but she noticed other symptoms develop, including bad migraines, joint aches, skin issues, anxiety and depression.

“I had this moment when my second daughter was one and a half, I was sitting in her room watching her play … and I said, ‘Oh, I guess being thin is different than being healthy … and I need to figure out how to get healthy,’” Ballantyne said.

So, she started digging into the science behind the paleo diet, and it resonated with her intellectually, so she decided to try it. Within two weeks, she was able to discontinue all six prescription medications she was taking, she said. She felt better, too, and felt relief of a number of symptoms, including her migraines and skin issues.

She decided to use her science background and dig into the research behind nutrition to try to create an optimal diet to have a therapeutic effect on disease. This required a broad understand across many fields, Ballantyne noted.

What she learned is, there’s a gap in public understanding of diet and health, and what science has revealed about nutrition in the last several years.

“It’s amazing how we have this great social awareness of cancer and heart disease, and nearly no social awareness of this collection of (autoimmune) diseases,” she said. “There’s around 140 different diseases that make up the autoimmune disease umbrella, and there’s almost no social awareness of this collection that affects double to quadruple the number of people.”

The immune system can be understood in a number of ways, Ballantyne said, and many describe it as having two parts: the innate system, which responds rapidly and indiscriminately to foreign invaders, and the adaptive system, which responds to specific threats with antibodies.

But there’s another way to divide the immune system, as well, Ballantyne added. This involves looking at the immune system as having one part that is involved in attacking invaders, and another part that is focused on regulating the immune response itself.

“There’s a part of the immune system whose whole job … is to turn off the system when the job is done,” Ballantyne said. “And that regulatory arm of the immune system is phenomenally important when it comes to auto-immune disease.”

What happens is, the immune system is activated, and the regulatory part of the system is unable to shut off the response, she noted. This is especially important to keep in mind when we look at gut health and autoimmune issues, because the tissues around the digestive tract house around 80 percent of the immune system, Ballantyne noted.

What Ballantyne found through her research was that a condition called leaky gut could be influencing the immune response. Basically, certain foods and overall poor diet can create the conditions for compounds to pass through the digestive track that would otherwise be kept out, she explained. This can aggravate existing problems and ultimately signals to the immune system that it needs to be on.

“Inflammation is part of every chronic disease, and (is present in) every disease in which a link to gut health has been investigated,” she added. “If that barrier is working properly, the immune system has more of a chance to regulate itself.”

As a result, it turns out that eating to promote intestinal health is the same as eating to support immune health, she said.

“The diet that I outline in the Paleo Approach is called … the autoimmune protocol,” she said. “It’s a more specific version of the standard paleo approach that is really designed to maximize healing for someone going through chronic problems.”

Ballantyne emphasized that this isn’t an all-meat diet, and that vegetables should make up about three quarters of a given plate of food, and only a quarter of the plate should be filled with high-quality protein, such as grass-fed meat or fish.

Excluded from the diet are all grains, eggs, dairy, alcohol, legumes such as peanuts and beans, and members of the nightshade family including tomatoes and peppers, because these nightshade family appear to produce chemicals that researchers have looked at to provoke an immune response.  

The idea is to reduce inflammation, regulate the immune response and restore health, Ballantyne explained. But this doesn’t mean the autoimmune protocol is set in stone.

“It would be completely ridiculous to say this is a one-size-fits-all approach, and that everybody who has autoimmune disease can’t eat eggs for the rest of their lives,” she said.

The best approach is to adopt a strictly paleo diet, and add items back into the diet to see how you feel, Ballantyne suggested.

“We get to experiment and find this starting place that helps us heal as quickly as possible,” she said. “We get to find what really the optimal diet is for us as individuals.”

Listen to this full broadcast by clicking here. For a complete archive of our broadcasts and podcast interviews on finance, economics, and the market, visit our Newshour page here or iTunes page here. Subscribe to our weekly premium podcast by clicking here.

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