So, I am a little nervous about posting my first “health” article as I am not an expert, just someone with personal experience looking to help others.
The below is not designed to cure or heal autoimmune. Instead, it is a summary of everything I have been learning over the last few years and suggests tips on managing and preventing autoimmune.
(Also, keeping it real. Implementing lifestyle changes is not easy. The road is rocky. But a little effort every day will help you mentally and physically…the trick is to never stop trying.)
This article is not only for those who have an Autoimmune problem. This is as much about prevention as it is about managing a disorder. I know from my experience, health is taken for granted until it is lost. Which is why I am inspired to share my knowledge, so it never comes to that for you. Taking positive steps now can only benefit you mentally and physically.
In this article I break down:
- The immune system
- Tips for preventing and managing autoimmune
For actionable tips jump right to section three, but I suggest taking a couple extra minutes to read the full monty. It will equip you with enough understanding of your beautiful body and the powerful immune system.
Knowledge is power, people!!
I have been unable to find an agreed total number for people affected by Autoimmune diseases across the worldwide, so let’s just say it’s a lot. Take the amount you are thinking, and times it by 50! American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA) report a whopping 50 million Americans. That’s one in five! So safe to say, globally it’s a hell of a lot more.
I am one of those people, having developed Alopecia Areata in late 2016. This is one of over eighty known autoimmune conditions, each one affecting a different part of the body. It is also suggested, if you have one, the chances of you developing another within the next ten years are higher than average.
The very first thing to managing and preventing autoimmune is understanding our bodies and the immune system.
The immune system – a non-scientific description!
Your immune system is a beautifully complex structure of chemical mediators and cells that detect when things are out of balance in your body – like the entrance of a foreign invader (a cold virus for example) or an opening into the outside world (cuts and wounds). Without getting too scientific, you can boil it down two processes attack and patrol.
When alerted to an abnormality your immune system will enter attack mode, and assault the affliction in a few cool (and complex) ways.
Once the attack is complete, the immune system will begin ‘petrol-mode’, which is when the immune system begins to rest and routinely patrol the body for the next invasion.
With Autoimmune there is an error in these processes. It accidentally produces a signal to attack one of our tissues instead of an abnormality. It is believed this can and does happen to us all, but our super smart “patrol switch” kicks in and shuts things down. Unfortunately in autoimmune our system also fails to switch off the attack.
Why did it happen?
My first thought when diagnosed was genetics. However, I have discovered genes are one slice of the Autoimmune pie – and not necessarily the reason why.
Yes, if it runs in the family, the chances of you suffering can be higher, but it is not guaranteed (all the more reason to take prevention more seriously!) Let’s not forget genes aren’t a life sentence but simply a predisposition! (Check out the awesome Bruce Lipton on this subject).
The rest of the equation is equally made up of diet and lifestyle; which takes us nicely to the topic of inflammation!
Inflammation appears to be connected to almost every chronic disease – cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, Alzheimer’s, etc.
Inflammation is a natural and vital part of the bodies defence mechanism that helps protect and heal your body against attack. However, if you have consistent inflammation in your body, it leads to disease (including autoimmune). It is like hot coals continuously simmering. Stoking those coals are triggers found in your daily life like excess sugar, hidden food allergens, chronic stress, minimal regular movement and exercise, and lack of sleep.
Knowing this, it is no surprise that in western societies, where we consume the most fast food and work high-stress jobs sitting at a desk all day, we suffer the most with autoimmune diseases.
By focusing on diet and lifestyle, you can start to cool off the coals and tip the scale back in your favour.
Now let’s talk about the good stuff. How to take control.
Tips for preventing and managing autoimmune
If you are suffering
Getting a diagnosis can be the first incredibly frustrating hurdle to pass because there isn’t one clear-cut test to determine if you have an autoimmune disease. For me, Alopecia was quite easy to diagnose because of the distinct circular patches of hair missing. But for others who are suffering from silent symptoms, like fatigue and brain fog, it can be much more difficult.
Finding an Integrative Doctor would be my personal (and non-professional) advice here. I say this because there’s no autoimmune specialist. Different parts of the body are afflicted, so accordingly you see a specialist the deals with your troubled body part or your regular doctor. Most of these medical practitioners, do not have the in-depth knowledge of the immune system to treat the cause. Therefore it is likely they will address the inflammation with suppressants for quick and easy comfort and relief. The dilemma with this ‘treatment’ approach is you are not dealing with the reason why this happened.
Let’s imagine you are arranging a bouquet of roses and suddenly a thorn from the stem breaks off in your thumb. Instead of removing the thorn you leave it in and place a plaster (band-aid) over it and take a painkiller. Yes, it stops the bleeding and pain, but the problem is still there. Sounds crazy, right?
If you do not work towards healing your body (removing the thorn), you will continue to suffer and develop other conditions in the future.
For this reason, you will dramatically benefit from a lifestyle overhaul that will treat the inflammation for the long term. It’s not always easy, as there are no shortcuts in healing. It will take time and is a life-long dedication, but the payout to your over health will be immense.
Preventing & managing
Here are four areas of diet and lifestyle you can begin to address today.
- Nutrients: Your immune system takes the lions-share of all nutrients you eat. Therefore you require a nutrient focused diet. If there is zero nutrition do not eat or drink it! You have heard it a million times (and for a good reason!!) avoid foods that are known to be inflammatory (e.g. sugar). Instead go for the less seductive, but more beneficial, vegetable fibres and omega-3 fats. I undertook a 6-month AIP protocol, which helped me to really understand the power of food. After doing AIP, I found I wanted to maintain a healthy diet and had zero cravings for the junk. I know it’s not a natural diet to switch to, but it has helped thousands of autoimmune suffers. Check out these ladies, they are the experts on AIP and have some awesome recipes.
- Sleep: Sleep is hugely underrated in modern society. One study found that people who have problems with sleep are 50% more likely to develop an autoimmune disease. This is because while sleeping the part of the immune system that ‘turns things off’ works the hardest! Of course, life doesn’t always allow but aim for 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. The guru of sleep has to be Shawn Stevenson.
- Stress: Stress is unavoidable, so instead focus on increasing your resilience by incorporating meditative processes and activities into your daily life. I suggest exercise and getting enough sleep, establishing a positive network of friends and family around you, spending time in nature, meditation, having fun, and spending time on hobbies that slow the mind (reading, painting, sewing, puzzles). Basically, I am prescribing having fun and chilling out. AWESOME!
- Exercise: Again, it’s been said a million times. Move your body!!! A sedentary life is conducive to inflammation in the body, so you have to make an effort to move your body every single day. I don’t mean pounding the treadmill for an hour at 8 pm, this sort of exercise will actually increase your body’s stress level – thereby doing your sensitive immune system damage. Preferably, you should incorporate movement throughout the day by walking and stretching often. Building muscle is also beneficial for the immune system, so consider focusing on weight training instead of strenuous high-intensity cardio. I love the app “Stong” – it allows you to create a strength training programme and gives guidance on proper form.
What works for some doesn’t for others. We are all unique creatures with our own micro-systems. Do not give up if it doesn’t work – just switch it up! I found keeping detailed journals about each thing I tried, and the outcome helped me to slowly develop new habits that not only worked but also fit into my life. Managing your health is not a quick fix or a short journey, it is a lifelong struggle that needs to be as pleasurable as it is beneficial.