5 Tips for Autoimmunity
I’ve had some form of auto-immune patterning for almost all of my life. It first started with skin issues when I was very young and then led to chronic pain in my gut and crushing fatigue and brain fog as a teenager. I was later diagnosed with Crohns but was so scared by the extreme treatment options, my 21 year old self fled the doctor’s office and I set out to figure it out myself. What happened over the next three months forever transformed my perception of health and healing.
I had serendipitously just read Michael Pollan’s book the Omnivore’s Dilemma. It opened my eyes to the reality of our industrial agricultural and food system and convinced me to try my hand at cooking from scratch for the first time in my life. At this point, I didnt even know how to boil rice, so to say I was a newbie is an understatement. But I figured it out with internet recipes and some trial and error and within three months of not eating my usual processed and restaurant food, the chronic pain in my gut was gone. WHAT! And it hasn’t come back in over 10 years….
So I went from fast food and a packet of ramen for breakfast lifestyle to a whole food based one (meaining eating meals made from ingredients that have one ingredient! Like whole like fresh veggies and spices. I can tell you for me, the extra effort was worth it. Aside from food though, there are many things I implemented into my life after that, that help me maintain immune system balance and health as I age, that are important for anyone with autoimmune patterning. Here is my top list of things to implement to rebalance an overly excitable immune system.
SLEEP: Sleep enough. Sleep as deep as possible. Sleep like the dead; if you can. I know, you’ve heard it before, but it really is true. Getting even 10 % more deep and/or REM sleep a night can add up to health gains. I have all my sleep tips on a more comprehensive sleep post found here.
To be blunt, the best way I’ve found to dial in my sleep is I got an Oura Ring a few years ago and I use it religiously to track my sleep nightly. It also happens to track physical activity and readiness (how well your body is recovered and ready to do a big workout). The very best part of this ring though, is that you can keep it set on airplane mode except for when you are syncing it to your phone, so you don’t have a bluetooth signal against your body all day and night. This is important.
Bonus - it is super subtle and looks just like a piece of jewelry. No more wrist fitness trackers for me. This one piece of technology has been my best health purchase to date because it showed me the black and white data of what even one alcoholic drink does to my deep sleep, how late night eating keeps my heart rate elevated, how sleeping alone in a bed vs with another human allows me to get better sleep or how blacking out my room makes a huge improvement in my sleep quality compared to a room ambiently lit by street lights, headlights or the moon. I now use this info to make decisions about my sleep environment. Your body will be different from mine and that is why its important to track your own data and to adjust your routines accordingly!
IDENTIFY FOOD SENSITIVITIES AND OTHER TRIGGERS: Autoimmunity always has a gut healing component and a damaged gut leads to food sensitivities and often immunoexcitability. Identifying these inflammation triggers is a big big part of stopping the inflammatory cascade and reducing and reversing your autoimmune symptoms. The most common triggers are gluten, dairy, soy, corn and eggs but I’ve seen other things such as seaweed, citrus, beef, carrageenan and the list goes on. Once the gut is healed, you can sometimes add back in some of the offending foods, but this takes pateince and should be approached with caution. There are two ways to identify food sensitivities and I recommend doing both for a more complete picture. The first way is using a blood test.
My favorite lab for food sensitivity testing is Cyrex Labs and the most comprehensive panel they offer is Array 10. A skin prick test is not the same as a blood test and often someone with a lot of food sensitivities will have a completely negative skin prick panel, so don’t assume you dont have food sensitivities if you had a prick test come back negative. The Array 10 tests for delayed food immune reactivity. Some food sensitivities can take up to four days to manifest outwardly in the body, so its often very difficult to pinpoint these items without blood work or an incredibly detailed food and mood journal.
A food and mood journal is the other way to identify food triggers by tracking symptoms. I recommend starting out with jotting down what you eat and how you are feeling directly after. This is especially important to do during a flare up of symptoms. During flare ups, try and write down all the details you may have left out about the past few days, including foods eaten (hopefully you’ve logged those along the way) but also things like activities, sleep and other important notes like stress levels or other unusual events. The best thing you can do is to start to connect the dots between lifestyle factors such as food and activities with symptom severity. Often a picture starts to emerge within a few days of journaling; sometimes with symptoms that have been around for decades! Its very difficult to track so many elements without physically writing them down, so this part is key. You will not remember everything you ate, drank, did and experienced. You may only need to do this journal for a few weeks, so give it your all. You are worth it.
EAT WHOLE FOODS: No, not the store. But seriously, purchase organic produce and cook simple flavorful meals from scratch OR purchase precooked food from an establishment that uses whole produce and cooks from scratch. These establishments in most areas are rare or nonexistent. This may not be an option for you, depending on where you live. Choose your restaurants carefully. Even high end places sometimes use poor quality oils or cook olive oil past its smoke point or dont really use organic produce even though the decor would have you think they are a crunchy farm to table joint. Just recently my go to local co-op that I have purchased high quality hot bar food from for years has switched to using poor quality sunflower oil instead of avocado oil so I have stopped shopping there completely. Stay abreast of ingredient changes at your favorite places, things change often.
My preference, especially at the beginning of healing from an autoimmune imbalance when symptoms are at their worst, is home cooked meals cooked batch style, so you arent spending every evening in the kitchen. Check out my post on My Top Kitchen Gadgets for Cooking from Scratch. My all time absolute favorite gut healing whole food is bone broth. For more details on the why and how of making broth, check out my blog post here.
If symptoms are very severe or long standing, embarking on an AutoImmune Paleo Diet may be the fastest course to regaining health. You can find more information about the AIP Protocol at https://autoimmunewellness.com/
A special note that within that protocol and for life in general, it is important to incorporate foods that modulate (meaning normalize) your immune system. For many with autoimmunity, either TH1 OR TH2 levels are often elevated, depending on which autoimmune disease(s) you are challenged with. Some compounds that modulate both TH1 and TH2 include:
Fermented foods like lacto-fermented vegetables, kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, miso paste, kefir and kombucha.
Vitamin A rich foods which include organ meats like liver as well as cod liver oil and butter and eggs from pastured animals only. If the butter and eggs are not grassfed or pastured, the vitamin A levels will be negligent.
Vitamin E rich foods like pastured egg yolks, avocados and raw organic nuts and seeds.
T-regulatory supporting compounds:
Vitamin D rich foods and activities such as sunbathing and in foods such as pastured liver, cod liver oil, sardines, raw pastured dairy and pastured eggs.
Omega 3 rich foods high in EPA and DHA such as fatty cold-water fish like wild caught salmon, sardines and mackerel. Found also in pastured eggs and meat, just in smaller quantities.
GET HEALTHY SUN THROUGHOUT THE DAY: We’ve been conditioned to be scared of the sun due to burning or skin cancer risks; but this has gotten us into is a bit of a pickle. Our vitamin D levels as a nation are at a record low and skin cancer incidence has never been higher, despite record use of sunscreen and sun avoidance! Something just isn’t adding up. After delving into the statistics, I discovered that regions with the lowest sun exposure in our country like Seattle, Maine and Vermont have the highest incidence of skin cancer in the country, hmmm.
The other tidbit I found interesting is that office workers are just as likely, if not more likely to get melanoma; these are people who work under artificial lights all day and next to windows usually without tint, subjecting them to UVA rays without UVB rays which trigger Vitamin D production which is protective. So with those facts in mind, I delved into the idea of healthy sun exposure. This led me to discover the merits of getting healthy sun exposure; especially in the morning but also midday and in the evening. With that in mind, I try and eat my three meals a day outside, as much as possible. This means no sunglasses and direct sun on skin for up to about 30 minutes for my skin tone. Everyone is different in how much sun they can handle, so adjust your amount accordingly and work up to more and more once you get a nice base tan. If it is not possible for me to eat my meals al fresco, I will try and take calls or do other work outside to fill in the gaps. My goal is essentially to get as much natural light as possible throughout my day, without burning. This boosts my mood and attention span naturally, as well as promotes deep sleep.
REMOVE CHEMICAL STRESSORS FROM YOUR ROUTINE: Natural products are becoming more common, but having totally clean body care and cleaning solutions is far from easy. It takes a discerning eye and a fair amount of research to figure out which products are going to offer the least amount of body burden. By body burden, I mean which products are going to require the least amount of work from your detox pathways. The average US woman uses 12 personal care products and/or cosmetics a day, containing 168 different chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group. For men, depending on the products they use, the number can be just as high. My rule of thumb is, as much as possible, use simple products with simple ingredients you recognize and that are preferably unaltered. For example, I like to use raw honey to wash my face now, or apricot oil to remove makeup, whereas I used to use a face wash and a makeup remover with close to 20 ingredients in each. By simplifying my products, I err on the side of historic safety vs using new ingredients that are formulated using the latest “technology.” They may be fine, they may not be, but at least I dont have to be the guinea pig for it all. This goes for cleaning products too. Simple is best. I’ve made my own in the past with distilled water, vinegar and a few drops of essential oils but now I use Branch Basics and really prefer them. Check out the Branch Basics website here. You can also check out the Environmental Working Group’s database called The Skindeep Database and search for the score for your favorite products. Ideally you want between a 0 and 3.