Information for New Autoimmune Patients
Autoimmune disease is fairly common and affects women nine times more often than it does women. It does damage principally through inflammation. Most medications for autoimmune disease act by suppressing the immune system. Everything you do in your self care will serve to mitigate these factors.
Firstly, do not feel singled out. The National Institute of Health estimates that up to 23.5 million people suffer from autoimmune disease and the prevalence is rising. After a diagnosis, feeling discouraged is natural. However, discouragement should only be a short stage. Do all you can to maintain a positive attitude. Positive attitude has many measurable biochemical effects on your disease activity and immunity.
Do not simply try to have a positive attitude. Don’t be surprised if it does not come naturally. Having a positive attitude must, like many other skills, be studied and practiced with the use of books, audio materials (podcasts, CDs) classes and counseling.
Maintaining mobility is key to a good life whether or not you have autoimmune disease. When you are first diagnosed, you are often pretty sick and your symptoms are not well controlled. You may be discouraged about the prospect of exercise, but realize you will be able to work back into it.
Consult with your physician about where you can start. Not uncommonly, at the outset of your diagnosis, your first exercise may be with the assistance of a physical therapist in a “ warm pool”. As you work up, you will usually incorporate walking and yoga. These are mainstays especially for arthritic patients. From there you can work up to cardio and weight bearing exercise.
Consistency of physical activity is much more important for autoimmune patients than it is for other people. That is because gains are harder to get and losses are harder to make up. Gradual advancements in your exercise regimen are less stressful for your body. Mild to moderate exercise done consistently gives your body tissues time to adjust to the exercise, and thus protects against injury, which is not only an injury, but a recipe for a flare.
Many of the medicines used to treat your immune disease render a person relatively carbohydrate intolerant. Additionally, as a group, these medications have a tendency to cause muscle wasting and encourage the deposition of fat. Your dietary choices will need to factor this in. In short, everything you eat should be for the purpose of giving you beneficial nutrients. There should be no empty calories and no omissions in your nutritional requirements for the day. Focus on getting adequate high quality proteins. This usually takes the form of lean clean meats, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy if it is tolerated. The rest of the calories and volume should be filled in mainly by fruits and vegetables and a small portions of well chosen complex carbohydrates. (For more information, see our section on Nutrition.) Your doctor can advise you if you have special dietary constraints beyond this.
It is certainly a different way of eating compared to the mainstream American diet, but it is in no way restrictive or unpleasant. It is not entirely dissimilar to the trendy so-called “Paleo” diet which is popular right now. While the term Paleo is a misnomer and the diet is not entirely evidenced-based, the Paleo cookbooks on the shelves in stores these days are attractive and useful when trying to eat this way They do a good job at presenting recipes which provide plenty of nutrition and reduce the amount of simple carbohydrates in the diet. This means starch, sugar, fruit juices, and alcohol, are out. But you won’t miss them with all the beautiful flavors in a healthy diet. See our section on Nutrition to learn more.
You probably know by now that stress can cause a flare of your autoimmune symptoms. Stress is not some abstract intellectual concept. It is a well defined neurophysiological set of responses in the body. It autoimmune patients some of the stress responses involving inflammatory mediators go significantly overboard. When you experience an acute stress, it is only a matter of seconds before your adrenal glands in concert with the immune system send out a flush of chemicals into your bloodstream which ramp up your immune and activity.
It is impossible and undesirable to have a life without all stress. The key is to have manageable stress. The key difference is the element of control. While you cannot control the weather, a capricious disease, or other people, you can control your self and your responses. Focus on that for starters.
Another key focus is routine. Routine sends the body a profound signal that all is well. Routine reduces stress. Have routine in as many things as possible, in sleep and wake times, meal and snack times, and in exercise and work. Use proven stress reducers such as yoga and meditation. The body interprets all these measures as “ peace and plenty” and this helps disease activity dissipate. See our section on Health to learn more.
Your medical care is not a luxury, it is a necessity. Make sure you are an engaged patient. Be proactive and take charge of your follow up appointments. Keep good records. Know your recent blood work results. Know what you are supposed to report, versus what you can let slide. Your doctors are your allies, but you are the most important member of the team. Click HERE for information on how to be a engaged and empowered patient.
Take Home Point
While autoimmune disease is still is serious concern, it is not the dreaded disease that it once was. I like to think of it as a call to action to take up the cause of health in body and mind, and to live life to the fullest.