If I was completely honest with myself, I knew that I had adopted an unhealthy lifestyle that had resulted in chronic stress, depression, and autoimmune disease.
Change is inevitable. Growth is optional.-John C. Maxwell
My coaching logs were growing weekly, and I finally realized there was no better way to start the day than to log on to my computer and support people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
Over the last ten years, I have met with hundreds of autoimmune disease patients worldwide and have been a health coach as part of a research study for the last two years.
My goal was to teach them how to be healthy by forming lifelong healthy habits. So I also worked with my clients to develop healthy habits. I learned how to manage my mind, body, and soul by making simple and sustainable changes in my daily activities.
In this post, I’ll spell out exactly what I did and share a six-step roadmap you can download to help you get similar results.
Autoimmune disease and women
Autoimmune disease affects 23.5 million Americans, nearly 80 percent of whom are women. In my experience, approximately 90% of the people diagnosed with an autoimmune disease I have met or coached are women.
Based on my experience, I am writing and speaking to women. However, these steps apply to men also. If you’ve been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, are living with a different chronic illness, or suffer from an invisible illness, these steps apply to you.
I went from failing to being restored, energetic, and invigorated in mind, body, and spirit
My failure forced me to change, and change brought me knowledge. I am learning how to be healthy. Learning is an ongoing practice. We’ll never reach perfection in health, careers, or life, and that’s okay because it’s true.
Ten years ago, I was incredibly unhappy in my career. After being in the same role for 16 years, the work was tedious, my co-workers were difficult, and I was brutal with co-workers. It was time for a change, so I took the first position I could get in a different department just to get out. Unfortunately, I ended up landing in a horrible situation, with circumstances I never expected nor knew how to handle.
The stress was unbearable, and I was barely holding it together when I started to feel ill. I began to experience swelling, joint pain, and stomach issues. Walking became difficult. Mentally, my steps into the office building had been slow and painful, but now my legs physically couldn’t carry me inside. I tripped on the building entrance steps because I couldn’t lift my leg enough.
Nine months later, I received a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease called scleroderma—the deadliest of the rheumatoid autoimmune disease family.
How to be healthy without a cure?
The disease had progressed enough to cause permanent damage to my skin, hands, fingers, and stomach. My doctors prescribed medication and physical therapy to slow down the progress of the disease and hopefully prevent further damage. But unfortunately, there is no cure, just management through immune-suppression medications.
After six months of trying to cope with my failing career and body, I stopped working and hid away in my house. Then, at one of my doctor’s appointments, I read an article in Arthritis Today about therapy pools for those with arthritis. Luckily, a gym next to my physical therapist had a therapy pool! So, I decided to join, hoping the warm therapy pool would help me move again.
Going to the gym started a snowball effect for me of doing things to help take care of myself and take control of an out-of-control situation. Step by step, day by day, month by month, and year by year, my health improved, and I learned how to manage the chaos in my body, mind, and spirit.
being healthy is a journey, not a destination
Of course, there’s more to the story I’ll cover in other posts, but for this purpose, know that I am living out these steps to be healthy daily. Of course, some days are better than others. However, I learned that I know what to do at a basic level, and some progress is better than none. We’ll never be perfect on our journey, but we must keep moving forward towards the goal of being healthy with an autoimmune disease.
How to be healthy in six simple steps
I have tried a lot of different therapies, medications, supplements, exercises, diets, and research studies over the past ten years and what I found is not groundbreaking or trendy. Instead, what works best is basic and straightforward, but that doesn’t discount its effectiveness.
Perhaps you have tried some or all the steps before. On the other hand, maybe you’ve tried and failed or tried and succeeded but fell out of the habit. Either way, I ask that you look at these steps with a fresh set of eyes and start new practices slowly until they become ingrained habits part of your activities of daily living.
Adopting a healthy lifestyle after an autoimmune disease diagnosis can be challenging. Instead of starting on the ground floor, you may be starting in the basement! I know I did. At this point, you need to decide whether you will take steps out of the proverbial basement and take care of yourself or let your condition take over you.
STEP 1: How your spiritual life keeps your internal state steady and balanced
I risk losing you at this moment, but I understand that we all come from varied backgrounds and experiences that determine our spiritual path. However, I ask that you consider developing a Spiritual life for your mind, body, and spirit – it’s all connected.
When speaking of spiritual life, I am referring to this definition:
Keeping yourself steady and balanced in your spiritual life is the foundation for all other steps to living a healthy life in mind, body, and spirit. Choosing to follow God and accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior is the most important decision and choice you will make in this life, no matter the circumstance.
I have always believed in God but never understood what it all meant. A year before my diagnosis, I began to pursue a spiritual life with God and was learning the basics. Even though I grew up going to catechism and we had pictures of the last supper in my parents’ home, I had no idea precisely what it meant until I chose to learn more through personal study.
I started reading devotionals and Christian books on depression, fear, and stress. Topics that I needed help to overcome. I learned a lot. However, my understanding grew more profound when I studied the Bible.
It’s been a long process for me. I always have been a slow learner, so please understand this has taken me years. But finally, coming into my own through a daily Bible study practice sets me daily with a foundation of inner peace, steadiness, and balance to tackle whatever may come.
Do you have a daily spiritual practice that connects your mind, body, and spirit?
Do one small thing to connect to God, here are some ideas:
- Read a daily devotional series
- Read a book from a faith-based author
- Read a chapter of the Bible. Start at the beginning of the Bible with a commentary to help you understand. Then, before you start your study, ask God to reveal His Word to you. The stories are fascinating and relevant to you today.
STEP 2: How your mental and emotional health affects your body
Were you taught to hide or push away your mental or emotional health issues? Was having a mental or emotional problem a sign of weakness, or worst yet, shame? I learned early on that mental or emotional problems brought shame, so I became a master of disguise. The hidden truth is that at one point or another, most people will experience a mental or emotional health issue in their lifetime.
Hiding our pain away and sinking in an ocean of shame takes a toll on the mind, body, and spirit. Renowned psychotherapist and bestselling author Gabor Mate’ is highly regarded for his expertise on addiction, trauma, childhood development, and the relationship between stress and illness. He states that:
Emotional stress is a significant cause of physical illness, from cancer to autoimmune conditions and many other chronic diseases. The brain and body systems that process emotions are intimately connected with the hormonal apparatus, the nervous system, and in particular, the immune system.-Gabor Mate’
Dr. Maté’s insight into the relationship between the mind and the body is presented in his two books: When the Body Says No, and “The Body Never Forgets.”
Getting our mental and emotional health under control is step two in how to be healthy with an autoimmune disease.
Is Nobody Hurting Here?
Recently, I was in a large Zoom meeting with people diagnosed with the autoimmune disease scleroderma. The people in the discussion ranged from doing well to being in poor health, on oxygen, and homebound.
One co-host admitted that since her diagnosis, she had started to work with a therapist. She wasn’t referring to a physical or occupational therapist but mental health therapy. She asked who else had gone to therapy and how it helped. Nobody raised their hands except for me. NOBODY!!!! Either people were afraid to admit going to therapy due to the stigma this world has placed on mental health, or they had not pursued treatment from a mental health professional.
Why do we go to a doctor when our joints hurt, our cold won’t go away, or we feel shaky if we don’t eat, but not if our emotional or mental health is hurting?
If our bodies hurt, our minds are hurting, guaranteed! Learning to deal with emotional and mental issues is essential, especially if you are living with an autoimmune disease. We must take the time to process what is happening to our bodies. Just as we care for ourselves when we are physically sick, we should do the same or more for our mental and emotional health.
What do you do for your mental and emotional health daily?
Do one small thing towards better mental and emotional health. Depending upon your starting point, here are some suggestions:
- Journal daily
- Follow a mental health professional on social media – henry cloud
- Read a book on a topic of mental health you’re interested in learning more about
- Search for mental health professionals in your area or online
- Make an appointment
- Go to therapy
- Practice what the professional suggests
STEP 3: Why managing stress and relaxation is essential
Stress is difficult for a healthy person, but stress is dangerous for a person with an autoimmune disease. This is because stress causes your already overactive body and immune response to get worse.
Some people thrive on deadlines, feel good about themselves when they multitask, and believe they can be in more than one place at a time. We truly cannot multitask and do things well. Yet, we boast about our multitasking abilities. Multitasking depletes our brains and bodies of energy, resulting in us not giving our best to God, family, friends, and work, making us more stressed.
Our lives are overwhelmed with information, task lists, busy schedules, demanding bosses, and unrealistic expectations. We are surrounded by bad news in the media but only see the good news of friends or acquaintances on social media and live lives that are out of touch and out of balance. As a result, our blood pressure rises, cortisol increases, and dissatisfaction grows.
Stress affects the body
I always ask people what was going on in their lives when they were diagnosed with autoimmune disease. More likely than not, they were going through a significant stressful experience at the time. I understand this is not proper research, but it happened to me and is a pattern I picked up after speaking to patients over the last ten years
Here are some of the responses:
- Stressful situation at work, demanding boss that harassed me, lost my job, had to switch careers due to company closing,
- Going through a divorce or bad breakup
- My in-laws moved in with us
- My in-laws disapproved of me and refused to acknowledge me as part of the family
- I received another diagnosis of cancer, kidney failure
Stress affects the body, and the body lashes out in response. To combat the war in our minds and bodies, we must learn how to pace ourselves and relax. Again, this is a slow process. You will never eliminate stress from your life. It takes time to learn how to be healthy with an autoimmune disease, and minimizing stress is no exception. Slow and steady wins the race all the time.
Learning to pace yourself and relax may be new to you because most people I speak to with autoimmune diseases are go-getters. They are high-performing and accomplished people eager to learn and act!
Now is the time to do something for yourself and learn pacing and relaxation techniques to manage stress, which will help calm your mind, body, and spirit. Learn to save up your energy for what is truly important to you. Learn to choose between good, better, and best.
What pacing and relaxation techniques do you practice daily?
Do one small thing to pace and relax throughout each day. Depending upon your starting point, here are some suggestions:
- Deep breathing
- Write a to-do list every morning and focus on only those tasks that are necessary
- Do a brain dump to get all open tasks out of your head, then prioritize
- Journal your thoughts, gratitude, or prayers daily
- Read three pages of a book
- Sit outside in the sun or in a sunny window
- Get fresh air
- Get up from your desk, couch or bed and walk around your home
STEP 4: The health benefits of exercise for the body and mind
Motion is lotion. I first heard this saying when reading an article in Arthritis Today. You cannot underestimate the overall health benefits of exercise for the mind, body, and spirit. As a society, we sit too much on any given day. Add in autoimmune disease, and our inactivity increases due to fatigue and pain.
When I began exercising after my diagnosis, I went to the therapy pool and a class called Gentle Joints. The instructor asked me what part of my body bothered me, and I said all of it! The warm water helped me to move pain-free finally. I finally felt normal again. Like I could move without pain, faster and better than when I was out of the water. That feeling kept me going, and I want the same for you.
For many, movement is painful and difficult. Or sometimes, depression steals our motivation, and what we love to do before a diagnosis is no longer something we wish to do. All of these feelings are valid, so I recommend you do what you can to move your body. Start small and take your time. Remember, slow and steady wins the race.
Nobody is asking you to run a 5k or become a triathlete. Instead, move what you can, when you can, in small increments, especially if you are just starting to move. Exercise helps our mood, sleep, food choices, and much more.
If you already incorporate movement into your life, take some time to research and do a wide variety of activities. Then, incorporate different forms of exercise into your daily life. These include walking, stretching, cleaning, gardening, biking, aerobics, Zumba, swimming, Pilates, strength training, and running.
What type of exercise do you do daily?
If you are just starting to move, do one small thing for 10 minutes daily. If you already exercise, challenge yourself to do something different for two days out of the week. Depending upon your starting point, here are some suggestions:
• Strength training and core work
• Aerobics – Zumba, fitness videos, walking videos
• Use an under the desk bike pedals
STEP 5: How to use the 80/20 approach to eating healthy foods
I believe that it is difficult to eat 100% healthy 100% of the time in our society. So I have adopted the 80/20 rule of healthy eating. Knowing that I will not be eating healthy foods 100% of the time takes away the mind drama surrounding food. I have less stress and a better handle on what to eat and what not to eat. I know that if I make an unhealthy choice, I will practice healthier choices next time.
We will all have food situations outside of our control, such as parties to attend, dinners out with friends and family and holidays.
Healthy eating means fueling our bodies with nutrients from as many whole foods as possible. Healthy eating for those suffering from an autoimmune disease does not mean dieting for weight loss. However, you may naturally lose weight by eating healthier!
Healthy eating also means avoiding as many processed foods as possible and discovering which foods aggravate our symptoms. Even healthy foods may disrupt an autoimmune person’s body. Sometimes people with autoimmune conditions must avoid particular healthy food such as fiber, acidic fruit, and some vegetables.
It’s time for a shift
Healthy eating is about finding out what works for you best, not the latest fad diet—and then doing what works for you best every day for 80% of the time.
It’s time to shift your perspective on food from the diet culture to a healthy food mindset that focuses on you and your needs. Adjust your healthy eating depending upon your individual needs, preferences, and how your body reacts to certain foods.
There are many resources for healthy eating, so I won’t and even couldn’t attempt to put it all in this article. So, let’s start with the essential healthy foods: water, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and low-fat protein. Are you incorporating these foods into your daily intake 80% of the time?
What do you need to work on in the water, fruits, veggies, legumes, and low-fat protein areas to create a healthy diet?
What small change will you make to step closer to a healthy diet?
STEP 6: Learn How to be healthy in your sleep
Almost everyone I have worked with does not get enough sleep. Many can’t fall asleep. In contrast, some easily fall asleep but wake up often at night and have trouble falling back asleep. Most people, including myself, are addicted to their screens and stay up all night scrolling.
Sleep is a massive issue for those with autoimmune conditions because even though we suffer from fatigue and are exhausted, we can’t get good sleep due to pain or discomfort. As a result, most of us are sleep deprived which causes us to lack energy, suffer mentally and emotionally, make unhealthy food choices, not move our bodies, and lack inner peace.
When we wake up in the morning, one of our goals must be to prioritize our sleep that night! Prioritizing your sleep is a game-changer. Getting more than seven hours of sleep changes your energy and mood and allows your body at a cellular level to restore itself.
What can you do to improve your sleep and restore your body and mind?
Do one small thing to get better sleep tonight and every day after. Depending upon your starting point, here are some suggestions.
Create a sleep routine:
• Set and keep a sleep schedule – wake up at the same time and go to bed at the same time
• Turn off all screens one hour before bed
• Create a bedroom to delight your sleep senses, including lowering the temperature of the room
• Keep the room dark
• Wake up at the same time each morning
Learn How to Be Healthy and take your power back
When you prioritize your health after an autoimmune diagnosis, you take the power of your life back into your hands. These six steps are simple, effective, and empowering. Remember to start small with five minutes of exercise, add one vegetable at lunch, or turn off all screens 15 minutes before bed. Practicing and tracking small tasks consistently and over time will result in lifelong habits. Eventually, these new habits will become part of your life, like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes.