Why is the paleo diet so popular and is it right for me?
The paleo diet is a food program that attempts to replicate how we ate in the palaeolithic (caveman) times. The theory is that for 99.5% of human’s existence on the earth the only food sources we had available were nuts, seeds, regional and seasonal vegetables and fruit, meat and fish. The theory continues that our genes haven’t yet adapted to more “modern foods” such as grains, sugar and other forms of refined carbohydrates and hence since human’s have been eating this kind of diet we are all becoming more and more unhealthy with an increasing incidence in degenerative conditions, diabetes and obesity.
Food has become very confusing. There’s diets ranging from gluten free, lactose free, FODMAPs, sugar free, low GI, vegan, auto-immune diets etc. Having dealt with thousands of patients who need to eat in a very restricted way to reduce gastrointestinal symptoms I have been able to observe some similarities between cases and the circumstances of western living.
Our fast paced life style frequently puts our nervous system into over drive. This stimulates our stress triggered sympathetic nervous system responsible for dealing with the “fight or flight” survival responses. In this state blood is shunted to areas in our body responsible for our immediate survival such as our brain and skeletal muscles in order to think, fight or run away from our way our current stress. In order to maximise this it must reduce blood from other less vital functions such as our intestine responsible for digestion and where 75% of our immune system is housed, the liver, kidneys, and the skin. Stress also causes an inflammatory response that gets out immune system prepared for healing wounds or fighting infections. All of these body responses lead to a very inefficient system when trying to digest our food.
Proteins in our food are large molecules and are the hardest food type to digest. They require the greatest amount of enzymes to break down. When these proteins aren’t broken down into their smaller less irritating forms called amino acids they can cause an irritation to the immune system present in the lining of our gut. This is why big proteins such as gluten in certain grains and casein in dairy when not digested properly frequently cause digestive symptoms.
When food hasn’t been digested well for a long time and our immune system is tired from reacting to poorly digested food and chronic stress there is a change in the ratio of different organisms such as bacteria and yeasts in the gut. What I have found with my patients is that with chronic stress there is an increase in the numbers of pathogenic bacteria such as strep and klebsiella. These organisms like to eat certain foods and often respond badly to high GI and FODMAP foods such as grains and sugars.
The other issues are that this fast paced lifestyle increases our stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. This increases our body’s blood glucose levels in order to provide an immediate energy source for “fight and flight” energy. With our bodies wanting to use sugar for energy if we eat foods such as carbohydrates that turn into sugar quite quickly then we are in danger of raising our sugar levels too high too often and increasing our risk of developing diabetes.
The Paleo diet provides a low carbohydrate approach for people with a compromised digestive system and potential imbalance of gut organisms that helps keep blood sugar levels in a healthier range and provides less sugars as a food source for unhealthy bacteria.
In summary I find that although people feel greatly improved on the paleo program they do so because it takes a digestive stress off an already compromised intestinal environment. Hence the problem isn’t the food it is the stress that needs to be addressed and better managed. I urge people suffering with these symptoms to look at the deeper issues such as our frenetic paced lifestyle that is more truly responsible for the digestive disturbances we are seeing in increasing numbers in our western society today. With better stress management I find that people’s tolerance to carbohydrates such as grains improves and with time their diet can become more flexible.