woman's hands holding a phone and pen on a to-do list with text overlay - Living Well with Autoimmune Disease: How We Sustain an Autoimmune-Friendly Lifestyle (+ 10 Tips to Make It Easier)

How We Sustain an Autoimmune-Friendly Lifestyle

Anna Autoimmune Mom (& Dad) Life, Disease Management & Treatment, Healing Kitchen & Diet Tips, Living Well with Autoimmune Disease Leave a Comment

woman's hands holding a phone and pen on a to-do list with text overlay - Living Well with Autoimmune Disease: How We Sustain an Autoimmune-Friendly Lifestyle (+ 10 Tips to Make It Easier)“… 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.

Define Sustainability

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:

  1. Financial
  2. Food/doctor/service availability
  3. Personality
  4. Family circumstances
  5. Work arrangements
  6. Hobbies (like traveling, for example)

Every one of these can present significant obstacles, and 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. 

We don’t judge that decision at all, and we know some of those drugs work really well for people..

But what if you want other options?

Or… what if you have no choice?

While pharmaceuticals like natural desiccated thyroid hormone and Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) helped my Hashimoto’s Disease, I still struggled greatly with symptoms and high thyroid antibodies.  I also wasn’t too fond of my body destroying my thyroid at such a young age, especially during my childbearing years.

Could I have accepted my fate of just feeling “okay”?  Sure… but I didn’t want to.  I wanted energy and vitality.  I wanted a body that was actually healthy and didn’t struggle day in and day out just to go up and down the stairs.

I was hoping it would be a simple change, like removing gluten from my diet.  For some people, that’s all it takes and boom – they’re symptom-free.  But, I learned over the years it took way more than that.

To put it simply, Frank and I literally had to re-build our life from the bottom up.  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.  So, a few examples:

  • 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. 

Add kids and it’s even more unpredictable.  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).

Take our current situation for example:

  • I’m due to give birth to our third baby in a couple months and now have to find & switch to a completely new doctor and hospital in my third trimester due to unfortunate (and totally unpredictable) circumstances.  This might sound easy, but I have high standards for the doctors I choose to work with and it takes time to find someone I trust.
  • Frank is currently in process of becoming a certified health coach through the ADAPT Health Coaching program, while also working a full-time job.
  • It’s summer and we are still in a relatively strong lock-down due to Covid-19 and cannot visit our usual places with our kids (library, zoo, etc.).
  • We are in the process of finishing our basement and have contractors in and out of the house constantly.  Some days, we have to stay at our parents to avoid dust/smells/noise.  Frank’s also doing some of the work himself.
  • Due to the work in the basement, we don’t have a clothes washer or dryer in the house.
  • All errands, including grocery shopping, now take at least double or triple the time they used to take due to Covid policies.
  • We had to make major changes to our budget to accommodate salary changes from Covid, and those changes have proven themselves to be incredibly difficult to stick to.  And all of a sudden, it seems our kids eat 2X more than they used to.
  • Due to just how busy our days have been, the only time to work on our blog is at night… and we end up going to bed around 11:00pm or midnight, which is not okay, but it’s the only option we have right now.
  • Many appointments.  OBGYN, doula, iron IV infusions, chiropractor, acupuncture, etc.

I didn’t make this list to complain, but it sure felt good to lay it all out there.  I’m using it to show that this particular time in our life is beyond our norm.  We have very little free-time and therefore our stress level is way higher than it was just a few months ago.

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.

We Choose Checks and Balances

The key, we’ve found, is to help our bodies adapt to all the unpredictable events of life using various supplements, adapting routines, food, simplifying schedules, re-prioritizing, 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.

Example:

  • 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 the going gets tough.

10 Tips to Make an Autoimmune-Friendly Lifestyle More Sustainable

1. Mindset

We eventually realized we had two choices.  We could either see our healing lifestyle as an inconvenience to our life and therefore come to despise, reject, and loathe it every step of the way.

OR

We could see our lifestyle as the prescription to living a life that makes us feel well, and therefore come to embrace it and adapt, 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, ever.
  • 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.

This set of “rules” (but we don’t really see them as rules) form a strong foundation for our lifestyle and keep us from wavering.  If it wasn’t for this list of non-negotiables, we would likely cheat or give in way to easily when our stress level is high. 

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.

Our bodies all respond to stress differently.  I, for example, do NOT do well the day after a poor night’s sleep, but Frank can usually push through for a couple days before it catches up to him. 

Since I’m a mom, it’s inevitable I will have nights of poor sleep, so therefore, I’ve been experimenting over the years with various things I can do to help my body cope with that stress.  I’ve learned to not reach for coffee, and instead to make myself a pot of adaptogenic tea, increase my B vitamin intake, and possibly take a homeopathic remedy if I feel I need it.

I always make sure I have these things on hand so when an unpredictable night of poor sleep hits, I know exactly what to do the next day.  It’s a set “protocol” I follow. 

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 is easily one of the top reasons we are able to sustain an autoimmune-friendly lifestyle.  About 5 years ago, we went through a massive de-cluttering phase because the process of maintaining and buying “stuff” was keeping us from actually enjoying our life.

In fact, many times when I start to feel overwhelmed by life in general, I turn to de-cluttering and simplifying as a way to clear my head and forge a path forward.  This includes things like getting rid of toys and clothes we don’t use, meal planning, simplifying our budget, organizing documents, and establishing various systems and routines to keep daily life as simple as possible.

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 as our children grow and start new activities.  But, the goal is to use minimalism simply as a tool to keep things simplified and manageable.

6. Check-in 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!

7. Distribute responsibilities.

When it was just Frank and I living this lifestyle, it wasn’t that big of a deal.  Once the kids came along, things changed.

We realized none of this is sustainable if WE are the ones always doing all the work around the house while raising/homeschooling our children.

Instead, we’ve decided to distribute those responsibilities as soon as possible by teaching our children how to be self-sufficient and helpful around the house.

For example, our daughter learned how to fold her own laundry and put it away when she was 3.  One less thing on our plate, and she loves doing it. 

Of course, distributing responsibilities isn’t always possible, and may require hired help for some things, but it DOES help lighten the load if you are feeling overwhelmed with your daily to-do list.

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.

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 (if you’re looking for information, check out our list of the Best Autoimmune Resources in our toolkit by subscribing below), 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.

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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woman's hands holding a phone and pen on a to-do list with text overlay - Living Well with Autoimmune Disease: How We Sustain an Autoimmune-Friendly Lifestyle (+ 10 Tips to Make It Easier)

 

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