How to Sustain a Healthy Lifestyle for Managing Autoimmune Disease
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“… but it’s not sustainable.”
I hear this all the time. Podcasts. Blogs. Random conversations.
It will usually start off with something along the lines of “I really like the Autoimmune Protocol diet, and it worked really well for me, but… it’s not sustainable.”
And while I tend to hear it in relation to specific diets, I’ve also heard it in regards to an autoimmune-friendly lifestyle in general, which includes a more holistic approach of using various healthy habits to optimize sleep, reduce stress, reduce toxins, etc.
But what does “sustainable” actually mean?
We are all allowed to have different interpretations, but for the sake of this post, I am going to define my interpretation.
When I hear someone say that a specific diet, for example, is not sustainable, I assume it means that it’s difficult to stick with for a long period of time. This could be for a variety of reasons (work, financial, etc.) and every one of those reasons can present significant obstacles. Frank and I understand that first-hand.
In fact, we know many people who choose to use immuno-suppressant or biologic drugs instead of diet/lifestyle (sometimes in combination) because of these things. It’s just too difficult to maintain the lifestyle they need to feel well.
We don’t judge that decision at all, and that type of scenario works really well for some people.
But what if you want other options?
What if that’s not really working for you? Or it did at one point, but isn’t anymore? How do you jump from a life of convenience, where you can eat and do whatever you want (within reason), to a life that now seems more restricted in terms of just about… everything?
For example, Frank (due to his own autoimmune struggles) and I literally had to re-build our life from the bottom up in order to feel better. Everything changed. There were some things we had to say goodbye to for good, and our new life isn’t as flexible as it used to be…
- We can no longer eat whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we want. This makes busy days particularly difficult because ordering a pizza isn’t an option.
- Spontaneous travel is definitely limited, especially due to our diet restrictions (typically cost permitting).
- We are more sensitive to lack of sleep, stress, sickness, etc. and cannot turn to common OTC drugs, pharmaceuticals, or dietary interventions (coffee, energy drinks, alcohol, etc.) because they tend to cause flares or make us feel worse.
- If we fall off the bandwagon of our daily healthy habits, our health can start to decline rapidly.
- Many of the products we used in the past, such as personal care products, we no longer use due to their ingredients. As a result, we have to buy more expensive products only available at select stores or online retailers, do not have a variety of choices, or have to make our own.
If I could sum it up – our life became more expensive and more restricted in terms of… just about everything.
But, that doesn’t mean we’ve lost ALL flexibility. The freedom we gained from changing our lifestyle is 100% without a doubt worth the inconveniences, because it came with the grand prize of top-notch health. The only issue here is that sometimes, those inconveniences do get in the way, and we’ve had to build safety nets to keep us going.
Ebbs & Flows, Checks & Balances
Life itself is unpredictable, full of ebbs and flows.
There are times everything is running smoothly, and other times where it feels like everything is falling apart (like the one time our refrigerator, stove, AND dishwasher broke within a one-month time frame).
These types of situations are a true test of whether or not an autoimmune-friendly lifestyle is sustainable. When stress is high and the days are packed to the brim, we can learn to cope by incorporating checks and balances, or we can throw our healthy habits to the wayside and let our bodies decline into an autoimmune flare.
The key is to incorporate the right checks & balances.
In order to help our bodies adapt to all the unpredictable events AND keep this lifestyle sustainable, we use various supplements, routines/systems, food, simplified schedules, re-prioritization, and whatever else is necessary.
In simplest terms: if one part of our lifestyle is particularly stretched and stressed, we counter it by making changes to other parts of our lifestyle to accommodate. This helps our bodies (and minds) become more resilient to the effects of stress.
- If we don’t get enough sleep one night, then we may reach for adaptogens and eat a super clean/anti-inflammatory diet for the next day or two to counteract the stress on our body from not sleeping.
OR vice versa
- If we indulge on a little bit of Nada-Moo Ice Cream and homemade cake, then we get a good night’s sleep and eat super clean the next day so our body can have time to work through the inflammation caused by all the extra sugar.
It’s like a push and pull system. Many people probably do this whether they realize it or not, just usually in a not so healthy way. They might reach for an energy drink or coffee to counteract a poor night’s sleep, or for junk food to cope with stress.
The secret is to find habits to turn to during these times of stress that that work with your body instead of against it.
Then, once you’ve established them, you already have a safety net in place and know exactly what to do to counteract the stress without even thinking.
Doing that is easier said than done, so I’ve included our 10 favorite tips below to help make this lifestyle easier to sustain, especially when stress is particularly high.
How to Sustain a Healthy Lifestyle for Managing Autoimmune Disease
Instead of viewing a healthy and healing lifestyle as an inconvenience to your life, view it as the prescription to living a life that makes you feel well. Embrace it, knowing it unlocks more freedom to live a fulfilling life.
This is important. This lifestyle isn’t temporary – it must become part of who you are because that’s how you’ll find the continuous motivation to sustain it.
Related: 10 Mistakes I’ve Made While Recovering from Autoimmune Disease
2. What are your non-negotiables?
Non-negotiables are the things that under most circumstances, you will not do. I say most circumstances because… well, if you’re caught in a hurricane or something, you’ll likely have to bend the rules.
But, under most normal circumstances, these things take priority. So, for example, a few of our non-negotiables (not all), no matter how intense our life is:
- No gluten.
- Busy-ness is not an excuse to eat unhealthy, it’s just a sign we need to eat simply (i.e. smoothies all day long or a store-bought rotisserie chicken with some veggies).
- Vacations and travel are also not an excuse to eat unhealthy, skip supplements, etc. The last place we want to be is in a foreign place while experiencing an autoimmune flare.
- We do not keep any products with synthetic fragrance in the house. Even if they are gifts.
A set of guidelines help form a strong foundation for your lifestyle, and aid in helping you navigate stressful times.
3. Experiment to establish counteractive protocols and plan ahead for when you don’t get enough sleep, or don’t have access to your usual food, etc.
What types of scenarios could quickly devastate your health if you aren’t prepared? Make a list, and then think about what protocols you can have in place to counteract those and help your body cope with the stress.
- Instead of reaching for coffee, sugar, or energy drinks after an unexpected poor night’s sleep, stock up on adaptogenic tea, B vitamins, and any other natural remedies that can help your body cope in a healthier way.
Whatever you choose, be sure I have these things on hand so when an unpredictable event occurs, you’ll know exactly what to do.
These protocols will look different for everyone and can take some time to establish, but they are helpful for particularly stressful days.
4. Find your minimum effective dose.
Let’s say you find that a daily meditation practice helps to decrease your stress level. Ask yourself… what is the minimum amount of time you need to meditate before you start feeling the reduced stress?
If only 10 minutes of meditation is required to get the job done, then there is no need to do 60 minutes (unless you really want to).
Always try to find the minimum effective dose – the bare minimum you need of something to achieve the desired outcome. This goes for just about everything: supplements, diet, water intake, exercise, etc.
This frees up your time, money, mental space, etc. and makes healthy habits much easier to sustain.
5. Embrace minimalism.
On the note of minimum effective dose, the overall concept of minimalism and de-cluttering is extremely powerful for freeing up time, as well as physical and mental space.
This is a continuous process, as there is always more stuff coming into the house and more things added to our to-do list, especially if children are involved. But, the goal is to use minimalism as a tool to keep things simplified and manageable.
6. Check-in with yourself frequently.
Take a pulse of how you’re feeling at least once a week or so.
If you are feeling like things are not quite right, maybe on the verge of getting out of control – perhaps your schedule is really filling up, or you’ve fallen away from some of the things you know are crucial to your health, or your kids’ behavior is just absolutely insane… STOP, breathe, and give yourself a moment to evaluate where you’re at.
If it feels like your head is just barely above water, use this as a sign to reel it back in immediately before things get worse. Maybe that means cancelling commitments, spending more time at home, taking a vacation day, or re-evaluating your financial situation.
The goal here is to keep a simmering situation from boiling over. It helps you see the warning signs of a growing stress bomb and diffuse it before it explodes into a health crisis,
7. Outsource / distribute responsibilities.
If there is something mundane you can outsource, do it. Or if you have family living in the house with you, consider distributing the responsibilities of the house – cleaning, laundry, etc. so your plate isn’t as full.
8. Bring your own food.
This one is tough, and it’s going to vary based on each individual’s family and social situation.
But, in our experience, we offended way more people than ever before by not eating their food, especially those who intentionally went out of their way to make a “safe” meal, but did not take the proper precautions or used contaminated ingredients. The choice was between not offending or feeling sick. Choosing not to offend, of course, made this lifestyle impossible to stick to.
After a while, we decided it was best to always bring what WE needed to every gathering, with a clear explanation as to why. This also offended some people at first, but over time, it’s become the norm, and probably a lot easier for the host to cook/provide food for less people. We also volunteer to bring a dish to pass.
Related: How to Start & Actually Stick to an Autoimmune Healing Diet
9. Hire a health coach.
Want to know one of the main reasons Frank decided to become a health coach instead of a nurse, doctor, or other form of practitioner?
Because we realized long ago that the issue to reversing autoimmune disease isn’t a lack of information but rather… the lack of the right tools to make necessary lifestyle changes.
This lifestyle IS. NOT. EASY. At least at first. Especially if you are making the switch from a Standard American Diet/lifestyle. But a health coach is specifically trained to help you make these behavioral changes and actually make them stick.
The beauty of health coaching is that YOU are the one determining and making the change. Which is helpful because it’s not someone “telling” you what to do, it’s you telling yourself what you want and need to do. Sort of makes things stick better, which is important for sustainability!
10. Build a healthcare team that’s on your side.
When you are in a constant battle with your healthcare practitioners, or never able to fully speak out about what you’re doing… well, that’s exhausting.
And not only is it exhausting, but it’s disheartening. Some doctors can make you feel like you are on the totally wrong path and cause you to second-guess everything you’re doing, even when you KNOW they are wrong. It’s a huge motivation crusher, and you may find yourself throwing your hands up and saying “What’s the point?”
This all changes when you find even just one doctor or practitioner who is on your side. Even better if you can find 2-3. The more medical professionals you have lifting you up, the more confidence and motivation you’ll have to keep moving forward.
Plus, the more options you have in case you disagree with one!
Related: How to Find a GOOD Functional Medicine Practitioner
Is it worth it?
As I stated at the beginning, we decided to make this lifestyle work because it was the prescription for regaining our health.
Is it worth it? We would say… of course! But we also had the advantage of starting this at a young age, before we were even married, had full-time jobs, and well before kids. We had the time.
Now, ten years later, we can see how difficult and overwhelming it would be for someone just starting out while juggling multiple commitments. If you fall into that category, I have some parting words of encouragement for you…
- It does get easier. I promise you this. The first 1-2 years are particularly rough and may seem overly restrictive, but there is potential for it to loosen up (see #2 below).
- You can gain more flexibility back as your body heals and becomes more resilient. Two years ago, I couldn’t eat the tiniest bite of egg without going into a full autoimmune flare (for weeks). Just a few days ago, I ate an entire egg without any signs of a flare.
- Even if your flexibility doesn’t let up, which could be the case for some, there is still so much purpose behind the way you are living. Instead of just “getting by”, you are giving your body and brain the best gift possible, and will be able to accomplish so much more.
- It forces you to stop running so much, slow down, and appreciate the finer points in life. Just like most other people, we had aspirations of traveling the globe and striking off bucket list items. But now, we take the time to literally pick the tiniest little flowers for our kids. You would be shocked at how small some flowers are, but we have the time and focus to see the beauty in them.
Related: 11 Benefits of Living with Autoimmune Disease
I guess what I’m saying is… there’s no doubt this lifestyle can be daunting and a little demanding at times, but it is worth the struggle plus some to have possession of our health and to live symptom-free, so we can focus on our family, our faith, and helping others do the same!
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Hi! I’m Anna, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. After managing my own autoimmune diseases using lifestyle, habit, and mindset changes, I now work to teach others how to navigate the treacherous and confusing journey of chronic illness living. I firmly believe YOU hold the power to question, think critically, and become your own rock-solid advocate in a world full of unhealthy habits, so you can find the healing you deserve.