When patients first find out they are suffering from an autoimmune disease, they often experience some very heightened emotions: fear, confusion, distress, even guilt.
When you suffer from an autoimmune condition, you feel like your body has failed you – as it is now attacking healthy cells, mistaking them for a foreign body, a danger, an intrusion. And while different kinds of treatments for different kinds of autoimmune diseases are certainly available, each individual case will be very different and react to different treatments in varying degrees.
With so many unknowns and so many variables, it can be very hard to find a firm starting point to healing. Yet, as with many other health challenges, what you eat and how you move can have a significant impact.
Let’s explore the connection between diet, exercise, and autoimmune disease treatment.
Autoimmune disease and diet: what helps and what doesn’t
The first fact we need to establish is that there is no such thing as an autoimmune diet. Different conditions will demand different dietary approaches, and all of them will also need to be tailored to the patient.
Most autoimmune diseases benefit from some sort of adapted diet, i.e., cutting out or adding in certain nutrients. This includes diseases such as lupus, MS, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and others.
The best approach, in any case, will be to keep track of what you eat and how it impacts your symptoms. That way, you will know what to expect after certain kinds of meals and be able to eat less of the foods that worsen your symptoms.
In general terms, there are four broad diets you can reach for, depending on the autoimmune disease you have:
The autoimmune protocol diet (AIP)
The AIP diet is a more extreme version of the Paleo diet, which is based on eating foods our caveman ancestors were once likely to eat.
The foods you are avoiding with the AIP diet include dairy, processed foods, sugars, legumes, nuts, seeds, eggs, and in short, any kind of food that was mass-produced for the modern man and that doesn’t come from nature itself.
While the diet sounds difficult and restrictive, by following a tailored meal plan, you can ensure youʼre not eating anything you shouldn’t be.
The basis of the AIP diet is to eliminate different food groups that might be causing inflammation in your body, and then slowly add them back in, while monitoring how you react to them.
The AIP diet has shown some improvement for patients suffering from inflammatory bowel disease, but can also work for other autoimmune diseases.
The anti-inflammatory diet
This diet is similar to the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to be incredibly beneficial and is best suited to those suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis.
It is based around foods like fish, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. As much as possible, these foods should be natural, organic, and the meals should be prepared at home, as that will eliminate any added sugars or processed ingredients.
The intake of dairy should also be limited, at least to begin with, and can be added back in gradually, if no flare-ups occur.
The plant-based diet
Plant-based diets are recommended for all kinds of autoimmune diseases, as our bodies are believed to better handle nutrients from plants than from animals. However, there will be certain nutrients missing from your diet if you swear off meat and dairy – and as there is no concrete evidence that plant-based diets are the way to go, it will be up to you to make the choice of going vegan or not.
The gluten-free diet
Eliminating gluten is the way to manage celiac disease, which is caused by gluten intolerance.
However, going gluten-free can also benefit other autoimmune diseases, such as thyroid-related issues. Again, you will need to test and see how you feel when not eating gluten because there is no concrete proof to show gluten is the cause of inflammatory flare-ups.
Before you choose to adopt any dietary changes, make sure to talk to your GP and a dietician, as well as to keep a meticulous journal of symptoms and meals. Thatʼs the only way to determine what your specific condition can benefit from.
Exercise and autoimmune disease: should you or shouldn’t you
Overall, exercise is considered one of the best ways to keep your body healthy and strong. However, when suffering from an autoimmune disease, youʼre faced with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, muscle, and joint aches, fatigue, anxiety, and depression – and exercise can sometimes make them even worse.
Most of those suffering from an autoimmune disease will have symptom-free periods and periods of flare-ups and will feel so unwell that they have no motivation to exercise.
However, moderate and low-impact exercises can still be very beneficial. They boost energy levels, produce endorphins that naturally reduce pain, reduce inflammation throughout the body, and can help lessen the extent of anxiety and depression. Exercise will also detox the body, improve brain functions, and improve the quality of sleep and overall health.
When exercising with an autoimmune disease, though, you can’t expect yourself to be able to do it like anyone else, and there are certain guidelines to keep in mind:
Take it slow
Your body will behave differently on different days, and you can’t rush it or force it to do more than it’s ready for. It’s very important that you start out slowly and work your way up to more demanding exercises gradually. While most guides will tell you to keep upping the ante with every workout, you will be perfectly fine if you keep doing the same thing until you can perform each move with little effort, and only then make it more difficult.
Choose an exercise you enjoy and your body likes
If you hate running, don’t do it. Exercising with an autoimmune disease should be good for your body and mind, so choose something that is fun for you and that is low-impact enough. Even if you just dance around the house and never put on a pair of running shoes – you will still be getting some cardio in.
Only do low-impact exercises
These may include swimming, walking, yoga, Pilates, weight training with light weights, step climbing, and so on. These kinds of exercises are kinder to your joints and muscles and theyʼre not too demanding on your central nervous system either, so your body wonʼt have trouble coping with them.
Keep an exercise journal
Just like youʼre journaling what you eat, the same principle should be applied to your workouts. That way, you will be able to determine patterns and figure out what works best: when you have the most energy, when you are feeling particularly drained, and what your symptoms are like.
Always cross-reference your two journals to see how the foods you are eating are impacting not only the way you feel but also the way you can work out.
Take a break
Remember that your body needs to rest too, and if you fail to exercise for a few days due to a flare-up, don’t beat yourself up about it. Your goal with exercise is to lessen your symptoms and to make yourself feel better and be healthier – it’s a means to an end, and you should treat it that way. If you can’t exercise on certain days, or youʼre in too much pain when you do, just skip the workout and come back to it when you feel better.
What you eat and how you move can and will impact how your autoimmune disease behaves. Depending on the illness youʼre faced with, figure out a baseline diet to start with, then test it and tweak it until you find what works best. Once you are fueled with the right diet, try to work out as much as feels right. This approach will allow your body to experience the combined benefits of exercise and a personalized, healthy, and well-rounded diet.