“Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action.” This is a perfectly suited quote for many things in life, but particularly… overcoming an autoimmune disease.
The title of this post poses a tricky question. And, yes, I will actually answer it. But before we get to that, I need to explain a very important philosophy, coined: “The aggregation of marginal gains”.
The aggregation of marginal gains looks to offer a solution to the “massive success – massive action” paradigm. Here is how it works… in story form!!!
Background: British Cycling, the governing body for professional cycling in Great Britain, hired Dave Brailsford as its Performance Director (which is a sweet title) in 2003. Here’s what happened…
“At the time, professional cyclists in Great Britain had endured nearly one hundred years of mediocrity. Since 1908, British riders had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games, and they had fared even worse in cycling’s biggest race. The Tour de France. In 110 years, no British cyclist ever won the event.”
That’s just sad.
“In fact, the performance of British riders had been so underwhelming that one of the top bike manufacturers in Europe refused to sell bikes to the team because they were afraid that it would hurt sales if other professionals saw the Brits using their gear.”
I spoke too soon, NOW it’s sad… But here is where my long-winded point begins to find a home.
“Brailsford had been hired to put British Cycling on a new trajectory. What made him different from previous coaches was his relentless commitment to a strategy [HERE IT COMES!!] that he referred to as “the aggregation of marginal gains,” which was the philosophy of searching for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do.”
Now, you probably think I’m answering the question of the title right here, and you would be mostly right in thinking that. But I beg you, don’t let my inability to keep a secret, or uphold suspense keep you from reading more. I promise, there is more juicy deets along the way.
“Brailsford said, “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
The concept makes sense! But did it work? Did British Cycling climb its way to the top?!
“Brailsford and his coaches began by making small adjustments you might expect from a professional cycling team. They redesigned the bike seats to make them more comfortable and rubbed alcohol on the tires for better grip. They asked riders to wear electrically heated overshorts to maintain ideal muscle temperature while riding and used biofeedback sensors to monitor how each athlete responded to a particular workout. The team tested various fabrics in a wind tunnel and had their outdoor riders switch to indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic.
But they didn’t stop there. Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements in overlooked and unexpected areas. They tested different types of massage gels to see which one led to the fastest muscle recovery. They hired a surgeon to teach each rider the best way to wash their hands to reduce the chances of catching a cold. They determined the type of pillow and mattress that led to the best night’s sleep for each rider. They even painted the inside of the team truck white, which helped them spot little bits of dust that would normally slip by unnoticed but could degrade the performance of the finely tuned bikes.”
And while these marginal gains might seem valuable for a mere sport (no offense), consider those of a finely tuned autoimmune-lifestyle (hint: lots of 1% gains to be had)…
“As these and hundreds of other small improvements accumulated, the results came faster than anyone could have imagined.
Just five years after Brailsford took over, the British Cycling team dominated the road and track cycling events at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, where they won an astounding 60 percent of the gold medals available. Four years later, when the Olympic Games came to London, the Brits raised the bar as they set nine Olympic records and seven world records.”
Fast forward a bit…
“During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.”
I want to quickly mention that the excerpt quoted above is from a book I highly recommend called: Atomic Habits, by James Clear. You can (and should) buy it here, in case you’re looking to successfully implement a… healthy habit (get it!? The name of our blog…).
Well, that just about settles it, don’t ya think? I mean sure, cycling has a history of doping and other nefarious behaviors, but it’s pretty well documented that the playing field was even. Which proves my point, this philosophy of aggregation of marginal gains, holds immense power. So, does the philosophy hold the key to autoimmune healing?
The Difference Between Marginal Gains and “The Magic Bullet”
Particularly in allopathic (conventional) medicine, the concept of “The Magic Bullet” reigns supreme. What is the latest miracle drug that I can take to remedy my symptoms?
In the world of autoimmune disease, this approach results in a predictable cascade of side-effects, followed by another drug(s) to combat the side-effects, followed by new side-effects from the new drug. And, spoiler alert, you get to keep your autoimmune disease AND all of it’s symptoms at least to some extent.
After all, “You can’t drug yourself healthy” – Dr. Eric Balcavage.
In other words, there is typically (probably 99%) of the time, no magic bullet, or miracle cure for autoimmune disease.
Which is why you might be here. You have heard of the greater potential that functional medicine, and a lifestyle-approach to healing has to offer. But there are examples in functional health that can be considered a magic bullet, too. For instance, some people pull gluten out of their diet and, POOF! They are cured.
But, nothing is guaranteed, mainly because everyone’s case is so individualized.
Even pharmaceuticals can be very helpful to shut off certain aspects of the immune system/specific symptoms so the body can catch up (used strategically, of course).
The overreaching point, however, is that magic bullet cures don’t really exist. At least, I don’t think it’s the full story if someone points to one specific thing that cured them.
Which is the point of this whole topic, to emphasize the MONUMENTAL value of the aggregation of marginal gains. The idea that tiny improvements stack together to make real progress, and in my opinion is the only way to heal an autoimmune disease.
Shifting to the Scope of Wellness
To realize the full power of the aggregation of marginal gains, we need to change the lens through which we view “health.” Health is only considered in the physical sense, too often. If we are lucky, it includes spiritual and emotional.
In short, this view of health is incomplete. By using wellness as the new lens through which you view health, the umbrella expands and captures new areas of life that significantly contribute to your overall health… a.k.a. wellness!
Wellness has different aspects for everyone, but generally encompasses six primary areas:
Importantly, each of the areas usually influence another.
An obvious example is: an autoimmune disease. Something like Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis can make doing your job difficult, stressful, and overwhelming (occupational), your body feel broken (physical), turn you into a recluse from pure exhaustion (social), cause brain fog that makes it feel like you live in a bubble (intellectual), result in bitterness and detachment from God because of the consistency of your symptoms (spiritual), which all compound into a messy emotional ending… (emotional).
The result is a layering of interactions between all facets of life that total to create wellness. Each part of your life, in some way, is influenced by another part of your life. To bring this full circle, an autoimmune disease is both affected by, and affects (like the example above), your occupational, physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, and emotional wellness.
But each area of wellness can also affect your autoimmune disease. An anti-inflammatory diet high in vegetables, can significantly improve your physical wellness, while also trickling into other areas of your overall wellness. This is where we really dig in, in the next section.
In short, it’s critical to expand the scope of health into the six categories of wellness. If you were to focus only on making 1% improvements regarding your health, you risk overlooking a glaring issue that is hiding in a different part of your life.
Making the Most of the Aggregation of Marginal Gains
With the new breadth of wellness, and the power of marginal gains within grasp, let’s finally put these concepts to use through examples.
Beginning with the first example of cycling, all of the marginal gains that were used to climb to the top of the cycling world started with a singular focus – becoming the best cycling team. Winning.
Once the focus, or vision, was established, Brailsford and crew broke down cycling into smaller subsets (similar to the areas of wellness). They likely included:
- External Influence
I’m certain there were more, but let’s use these four for the sake of simplicity, and to keep drool forming at your lip from boredom!
Next, they developed actionable steps they could take in each of the categories.
- Rider: warming shorts, optimized sleep, massage gels, hand washing to reduce illness
- Bike: alcohol on tires for grip, dust free bikes from painting transport van interior
- External influence: reduced illness from hand-washing, white painted interior for dust visibility, aerodynamic suits
- Gear: warming shorts, more comfortable bike seats, aerodynamic riding suits
Once again, not capturing everything, but picking up some of the highlights. What’s interesting here is that there is overlap between the categories!
Just like diet affecting your physical, possibly emotional, intellectual, and social aspects of wellness, the marginal gains set by Brailsford and his team overlapped into categories. And that’s where the real power comes from. When they are added together, they make a holistic improvement to… cycling (in this case).
Marginal Gains Applied to Autoimmune Disease
I know, the anticipation has been building from the start! But by now, you could fill this section out yourself!
I guess I’ll still help…
Let’s start with the focus or vision: “Healing my autoimmune disease.” And when paired with the pre-generated categories of the wellness model, we can dive right into marginal gain ideas for healing autoimmune disease! So many exclamation points! Because I’m so pumped for this part!
- Occupational – Coping with stress from deadlines, coworkers, and management using techniques like mindfulness meditation, EFT, breathing techniques, light office-appropriate exercise. Finding a fulfilling career to boost engagement, outlook, and endorphins.
- Physical – Diet, exercise, quality water intake, less toxic cosmetic products, time in nature/outside, playing with kids instead of sitting and watching movies, improved sleep quality/duration.
- Social – Finding Facebook groups or real-life people who share similar views and lifestyle. Opening up to family about your struggles. Finding a counselor to work through difficult social scenarios/events.
- Intellectual – Reading for enjoyment. Learning new things, especially new information or potential interventions to review with your practitioner to improve your disease-status. Reducing TV, or junk information. Journaling. Starting a new healthy habit.
- Spiritual – Praying, meditating, mindfulness, spending time in churches/nature/in silence. Gratitude or experiential journaling.
- Emotional – Journaling, seeking out meaningful relationships, improving diet including macro/micronutrient status. Exercising to boost endorphins. Mindfulness/meditation, breathing techniques.
My standard disclaimer applies once again – this list could probably go on for another page, but I think we can see where it is trending.
The big takeaway is similar to the one we found during the cycling routine. Using the six components of wellness to map out marginal gains gives us the ability to examine ALL areas of our life, and find interventions that will directly improve our autoimmune disease.
Each small habit or intervention that we successfully implement turns the dial one click, slowly ratcheting-up the resilience, power, and robustness of our body, mind, and spirit. This system, matched with the healing prowess of time equates to true healing!
I’m virtually shaking your shoulders right now! Do you feel the energy? The promise that this holds? What does it all mean?!
Can One Tiny Change Heal Your Autoimmune Disease?
It depends. Do you consider a single philosophy like the aggregation of marginal gains a tiny change? If you do, the answer to the title of this post is… YES!
I want to take one more opportunity to drill this in. Anna and I have whole-heartedly adopted this philosophy and live it every day. Not sure you have seen our latest health-status, but autoimmune disease will soon be a thing of the past.
Spoiler alert! I no longer have a single Celiac symptom, and Anna’s Hashimoto’s Disease has been clinically diagnosed as: GONE.
Not to mention that no-longer-Lupus-diseased-doctor Brooke Goldner has implemented a similar approach. She definitely focuses a ton of attention on diet, but emphasizes, particularly in her book: Goodbye Autoimmune Disease that it is not the only requirement to heal.
It takes time, the right inputs like clean food, water, air, reduced environmental toxins/load, sleep, light, exercise and play, and everything else that we know is good for us! And while it seems overwhelming initially, that is the beauty of an autoimmune disease.
It humbles us.
We are reminded that God designed our body to work with the earth and all its inhabitants. There is a certain joy in learning all of these intricacies and how to make them a part of your life.
So, are you going to make one (thousand) tiny change to heal your autoimmune disease? Or will you continue to seek the magic bullet… that may or probably does not exist. Either way, I wish you true wellness as you find your way to what works for YOU.
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Hey there! I’m Frank, co-founder of Healthy Habits Reset. My wife, Anna, and I have battled our respective autoimmune diseases for over a decade. We have fumbled through and eventually learned that REAL mental and physical healing requires you to be your own advocate, to think for yourself, and to determine what information works for YOU.
We created this blog to teach everyone how to use the resources and tools available to make the best personal decision surrounding any health, faith, and lifestyle choice.