Change your diet. Start exercising. (But not too much.) Swap the toxins in your home for less-toxic alternatives. Start taking supplements. Reduce the amount of stress you're under at work. Get lots of sleep at night. Be kind to yourself.
There are a LOT of recommendations that come alongside a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease. So much so that, whether you're newly diagnosed, in management mode or anywhere else along the healing journey, you might be wondering what's actually the best way to spend your time, money and energy in order to feel better.
Should you change your diet?
Or focus first on meditation?
Is it most important to reduce stress at work?
Do you need to start taking supplements?
In an effort to simplify how to feel better with autoimmune disease, I'm breaking down the goal of self-care as a whole and sharing the 2 things you actually need to be doing!
So, whenever we take on any self-care practice (like a diet, exercise program or meditation), we're actually trying to do two things: (1) Reduce the amount of chronic stress in our lives and (2) Increase the amount of time spent in the parasympathetic nervous system. (I guess I could get even more simplified and say that we're trying to balance the amount of time we spend in the nervous systems as a whole.)
So, we're trying to reduce the stress in our lives while increasing the amount of time we spend taking care of our bodies. Even more, we want that time taking care of ourselves to help counteract the effects of any previous stress.
(This is because stress has been linked to many chronic symptoms and immune conditions. Plus, "counteracting" previous stress on the body has been shown helpful as treatment in stress-related disease.)
Dr. Lissa Rankin, author of the book Mind Over Medicine, explains this in another way. She says, “The body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight disease, kill bacteria, get rid of toxins and foreign bodies, repair broken proteins, slow aging, and generally keep the body healthy. But…. those natural self-repair mechanisms don’t function when the nervous system is in the midst of a ‘fight-or-flight’ stress response. Only when the nervous system is in a counterbalancing relaxed state – in what Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard named ‘the relaxation response’ – can the body effectively heal itself.”
In very generalized terms, this idea that we need to spend time out of a chronic stress state and time in a relaxed state is what natural treatment and self care aims to address. It's why we might be recommended to make dietary changes, lifestyle modifications, practice regular Yoga, create a daily meditation routine, etc. These are all just tools for moving the body from a stressed state to a relaxed state in an effort to feel better.
What I love most about this concept is that it levels the playing field when it comes to which healing tool is "best". It reminds us that the reason we're recommended to change our diet is, at the very core, the same reason we're recommended to take up meditation. It's the same reason we're recommended to find an exercise practice that feels good or why we're recommended to reduce the toxins in our home or get more sleep at night.
Sure, certain tools may be more effective than others for different individuals, but the goal is still ultimately the same. Food changes, lifestyle medications, meditation... we simply want to get the body out of chronic stress by reducing the amount of stressors -- or triggers or toxins or irritants -- coming in.
While this might make things a bit more clear, it's probably not something entirely surprising. If you have an autoimmune disease, for example, you've probably been told a time or two to reduce the stress in your life. And it's easier said than done, for sure. But the reason this is such a big part of the health conversation nowadays is because the amount of stress our body is under is the TOTAL sum of stress in our lives. (P. 159 The Paleo Approach.)
Which means we need to add the amount of stress placed on the body from physical activity plus the amount of stress placed on the body from autoimmune disease plus the amount of stress placed on the body from daily life like errands, house chores, and to-dos plus stress placed on the body at work plus any stress placed on the body from life transitions or difficult seasons plus any stressed placed on the body from food choices... etc.
Basically, it can add up to a lot of stress, right?
This becomes increasingly concerning as we begin to find ourselves outside of short-term stress -- which by itself can improve the immune system -- and instead find ourselves living in chronic stress. This chronic stress has a significant effect on the immune system and can lead to inflammation in the body. This is noteworthy because inflammation is related to chronic illness.
Note: While I'm discussing the concerns of chronic stress on the body, I don't mean to convey that the stress response is bad and the relaxation response is good. In fact, as I write this blog post I'm swinging towards the stress response simply because I'm motivated, excited, and taking action. The key here is not to eliminate any and all traces of "stress" in our lives. We need time in both of these states for a healthy and productive life. Instead, this is a post directed at those of us trying to heal from physical ailment like an autoimmune disease. When this is the goal, our focus should be placed more heavily on carving time out of stress and time in relaxation.
So as mentioned, this is why some folks love and might advocate for dietary changes, longer sleep, meditation, restorative Yoga, or even EFT and less-toxic living. These practices often reduce the amount of stress on the body. For example, dietary changes could reduce the amount of stress placed on the gut and digestive tract. Meditation and Yoga could give the body a much needed break from the stress of social media, work demands, or never-ending to-do lists. Swapping toxic products for cleaner alternatives could reduce the amount of stress placed on the body from foreign substances that trigger chemical or hormonal imbalances and allergic reactions.
And since stress is the total sum of stress in our lives, reducing any stress at all is a huge win moving the needle in the right direction. Plus, some of these practices, like certain meditations, Yoga Nidra, and any repetition paired with active clearing of the mind, move us not only out of the stress response but also into that relaxation response. (The term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson that denotes the place where all the healing magic happens!)
It's in this relaxation response that the body seems to have the best chance to do what we want – restore.
I know that as we talk about these self-care remedies or natural treatment approaches as tools for feeling better, you might be rolling your eyes or feeling hard on yourself for not sticking to these practices already. Because if you're on this blog post, you're probably not one of the people who find that these tools just work - easily, effortlessly, quickly.
I'm sure you know who I'm talking about -- those who take to self-care and natural remedies and incorporate them into daily life relatively easily. The ones who don’t feel restricted, deprived, bitter, or overwhelmed. The ones who simply make changes, feel better, and go on with life. The people who (I think) tend to account for a lot of the traditional success stories we see online.
These people are awesome -- and also not the reason I'm writing this post today. These folks are doing what works for them and all I want to do is encourage them to keep going.
Instead, I'm writing this post for the other group of people. For the ones, like me, who have a more difficult time adopting these changes. For the folks who struggle to stay consistent or motivated. For the people who don't see results even when they’re doing everything “right”. And for the ones who feel incredibly restricted, deprived, or angry at needing to make these dietary and lifestyle modifications in the first place.
Those are who I'm on a mission to help. And because of that... I have to ask the question: What the heck gives?
Why do natural or self-care treatments work for some people? How come some can stay “committed” or focused or “on track” while others struggle? And then, even more, when both parties are taking the same actions to the same extent... Why do these tools work for some and not for others? What’s the difference between why some people feel better and "get well" -- and some people don’t?
As I've studied this question, I've realized there's one glaring point of discussion staring me in the face. It's the point of discussion where the conversation usually stalls out. You see, traditionally when we're not feeling better and seeing the changes we want, we blame willpower, perceived laziness, or a specific exercise plan, diet, etc.
But before we tweak our tools, we need to assess their efficacy.
The question isn't solely how come some people stay consistent or how come some folks end up feeling better through these practices. Instead, the very first question we should ask is... Does the change I'm making ACTUALLY bring about the desired effect? Is it ACTUALLY leading to time out of the stress response and time in the relaxation response?
This is so important because these same self-care remedies and natural treatments also have the ability to turn up the stress in our lives. Feeling restricted, feeling deprived, disliking or not believing in a change we’re trying to make… these mental and emotional reactions can trigger the exact response we’re trying to avoid.
What triggers these mental and emotional reactions?
This is the question I answer in what I call The Restorative Method. I dive into 5 possible hidden stressors -- or factors that may make a particular self-care remedy or natural treatment plan inadvisable, less-effective, or, in some cases, harmful. If you want to learn more about these 5 stressors -- and see if one of these could be holding YOU back from feeling better -- I invite you to take the hidden stressors quiz.
And as you dive into why a certain tool might be stressing you out more than it's helping, I also want to highlight one thing previously mentioned. One of the reasons I love this concept so much is because it levels the playing field, especially when it comes to dietary recommendations.
You see, I'm not sure about you, but since becoming curious about natural healing as treatment for many autoimmune issues experienced over the years, I've been constantly bombarded with messages about food.
Don't eat this.
You are what you eat.
Make sure to cut out X.
Dietary changes are one of the first places we go when it comes to recommending "natural" treatment for chronic symptoms or chronic pain. And, while this works for some people and IS a tool worth considering, a lot of us still struggle to make these changes. We aren't told that food is just one tool to help us reach our goal of feeling better.
Yes, food is important and I don't think anyone argues the value of whole foods. But also, some of us need to hear that food is just a "simple" (albeit not easy) tool that can help decrease stress and allow the body a chance to function more optimally. It's a seemingly "failproof" way to affect the stress scale in a big way.
Which means... If eating certain foods and removing others works for you then keep going. But, if it doesn't seem to click things into place for whatever reason, it's time to have the conversation that many people are not having.
It's time to give permission for us to admit that (1) there are side effects of changing your diet, even when making those changes for your health. (This is where the hidden stressors may come in and why sometimes these just don't work for us.) (2) And also time to remember that what food can do is what all of these other tools can do, too. They all have the same goal in mind.
So, if it is easier for you to start with another tool... start with another tool.
I find that many people (me included) get tripped up when it comes to using self-care or natural treatment because we're not ready to do an elimination diet -- or we do an elimination diet and it doesn't work. (Because it only stressed us out more, right?) If this is making things really hard for you too, then remember there are other tools doing the same. There are other tools helping to reduce stress on the body. They may work in a slightly different way or make an impact on a slightly different scale, but why not try another tool and see if it's an easier place to begin.
If you want learn more about the effects of stress on the body (both the positive effects of short-term stress and how chronic stress may relate to chronic pain or symptoms), join The Wellness Boulevard and dig into the class titled "Orange Alert: A deep dive into stress" with myself and Kristin Leal. You can also click here to watch a 5-minute snippet of our 60-minute class!
As always, please know that this information is solely for your general knowledge and not a substitute for medical advice. Always speak with your doctor and team of healthcare providers before making any changes to your diet, exercise, or lifestyle.