Chronic disease has steadily risen over the last several decades. When heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancers were once rare it is hard to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched by one or more of these diseases.
One set chronic disease that has effected multiple generations of my own family is autoimmune disease. There are over 100 recognized autoimmune diseases right now. There are even some autoimmune diseases that increase your likelihood of developing a second autoimmune disease.
For an example, individuals with Celiac disease – those who are allergic to the protein gluten have an increased chance of also developing Type 1 Diabetes – a disease where your pancreas no longer makes insulin, a necessary hormone for life.
Very few things scare me as much as developing a life-long chronic disease. I watched my own mother go from an active, mobile woman to one who had a hard time getting up out of a chair when she was first diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 34.
I see and hear the frustration of my aunt trying to figure out how to manage her Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease. I see the challenges of Type 1 Diabetes and Celiac disease in my other aunt.
We also have men in my family that were diagnosed with Lupus. I mention this last bit because the vast majority of individuals diagnosed with an autoimmune disease are women. You can see as I’m approaching my mid-30s that the thought of developing my own autoimmune disease is becoming a bigger and bigger monster to conquer.
I first set out to better my health in hopes of avoiding an autoimmune disease over a decade ago when I started out my college career.
With a degree in biochemistry and molecular biology with an emphasis on infectious disease I armed myself with the latest research and expanded my critical thinking skills and ability to read and understand peer-reviewed journal articles.
I love my family, but I am sure as heck didn’t want to follow in all of their footsteps. Before I go into how I’ve changed my life in order to reduce my chances of developing an autoimmune disease, let’s first look at what exactly an autoimmune disease is.
The word “autoimmune” broken down means immunity (immune) against your person or body (auto). One of the classic hallmarks of autoimmune disease is chronic systemic inflammation. Where exactly that inflammation occurs is different from disease to disease, and even person to person within a specific disease.
Take Rheumatoid Arthritis for example. Some patients diagnosed with RA are more affected in their hands and feet while others have more issues with their shoulders, hips, and spine. Some diseases you’re more likely to develop as a child, like Type 1 Diabetes, while others tend to show up later in life, like Lupus.
Over 50 million people have been diagnosed with at least one autoimmune disease. Of those 50 million, 75% of those are women. That means 1 in 5 people, or 20% of the population is living with at least one life-altering chronic disease.
Due to how prevalent autoimmune diseases are, especially among women, they are considered one of the top 10 causes of death in women under the age of 65.
While each autoimmune disease presents differently, there is a main underlying thread that runs through all of them: chronic, systemic inflammation. Our immune system is a beautiful and intricate community of cells, cytokines, interleukins, and organs that help fight off foreign invaders.
A strong immune system means you rarely get sick, and when you do you’re capable of fighting off the invader quickly and efficiently. Part of the way our immune system works is by creating inflammation to “burn out” the invading pathogens and materials.
Unfortunately, our modern society has created an ecosystem where we are under more stress and introduced to more inflammatory compounds than ever before. This means even those who do not have a strong medical history of autoimmune diseases like myself the high-risk population are developing autoimmune diseases.
Even though I’m in the high-risk pool, that doesn’t mean there is nothing I can do to lessen my chances of developing an autoimmune disease. This is what I’ve been working on and developing over the last decade and what I want to share with you today in hopes of reducing symptoms of an already diagnosed autoimmune disease or reducing your risk of developing an autoimmune disease regardless if you are in a high-risk pool or not.
There are 6 main areas of inflammation that we can control. They are the food we consume, the cleaning products we use in and around our home, our beauty products we use on our bodies, what medications we choose to take, how we manage stress and quantity and quality of sleep we get, and how much or how little we move.
Let’s tackle each of these one by one.
Eat Green Clean Food
What the heck does that even mean? Thanks to modern technology, many of our food is sourced through industrialized farms using modern farming techniques. That typically means genetically modified crops and use of harmful pesticides and herbicides.
Yes, there have been studies showing there is no statistical difference between organic and non-organic foods, and that GMO foods are safe for consumption, but there are other studies that say otherwise.
Here is my issue with genetically modified crops – the crops that are modified inside a lab and not through cross breeding, the original genetic modification that has been going on for thousands of years. We have the capability of sequencing genomes, the part of your cells that make a human a human or a Roma tomato a Roma tomato.
Our sequencing techniques have improved tremendously since February 18th, 1953 when James Watson and Francis Crick first pieced together through the help of other amazing scientists, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin, how the nucleotides formed the DNA ladder in the elegant double helix. The trouble we find with sequencing is there are a lot of areas in the “ladder” that have repeated nucleotides.
The way we sequence DNA is by cutting them up into smaller, more manageable fragments, then piece them together like a giant puzzle. With those repeated nucleotides, often in what is called a non-coding region, scientists don’t know if there are 500 nucleotides or 5000 nucleotides worth of the repeated nucleotide sequence.
Another issue is that even though there are these non-coding regions of our DNA, nature is not one to have arbitrary or useless materials just hanging around. Each microscopic and sub-microscopic piece of any entity has a purpose.
We simply do not have the knowledge at this time to understand what these seemingly arbitrary pieces actually do. Even the smallest point mutation can cause a normally functioning protein to become useless or less efficient.
Because we are cutting and pasting genes into plants that normally would not be present through traditional cross breeding and into these supposedly useless non-coding regions, what are we really doing to our food? Is it really healthy, especially those who are prone to autoimmune diseases? This is why I highly encourage everyone to eat non-GMO foods when they can financially afford to.
Same goes for organic foods. The traditional pesticides and herbicides deplete the soil of essential minerals, thus rendering the crops less nutritious than their full potential. Thankfully there is a growing movement for non-GMO and organic food so more and more companies are offering this green, clean food and proudly bearing the labels of non-GMO certified and certified organic.
To really get the most out of your diet, eat mostly whole-foods or foods with just a single ingredient. Think produce section. Go hog wild in choosing foods from there, organic or not.
Even if you can’t afford organic and non-GMO, simply moving to a whole-food plant-based diet will greatly reduce your inflammation, thus reducing your symptoms or chance of developing an autoimmune disease. A bonus for eating a green and clean diet is you support a healthy immune system and diverse gut bacteria ecosystem.
Both of which reduce your chances of getting sick, therefore reducing illness-induced autoimmune disease.
Get Rid of Toxic Home and Garden Products
Environmental toxins are one area of inflammation that many people forget about. While we can’t do much about our air quality without moving to the middle of Montana, we can control what products we use in and around our home. Let’s start with taking care of our lawns. The American ideal is a lush green lawn absent of weeds and pests.
That is simply not attainable without a lot of hard work and sometimes chemical compounds due to the nature of the grass species we have settled on as our ideal. Think about this: you hire a lawn company to take care of your lawn because you don’t have the time or knowledge to keep the lawn up to the American ideal standard.
The lawn company comes by and sprays for weeds and pests. They leave a border of little flags warning people to keep pets and humans off the lawn. Those products they just sprayed on your lawn were aerosolized, rain washes excess products into the sewer system and out into the water system.
The ecosystem in your neighborhood is then compromised, reducing diversity thus reducing health.
Thankfully there are more lawn companies that are taking a “green” approach to maintaining lawns. Other options are to weed the lawn yourself (and save those dandelions for teas, salads, and tinctures) and plant specific garden plants to reduce insect populations.
There are seven plants that are excellent for repelling mosquitoes including: citronella, marigolds, lavender, rosemary, catnip, basil, and scented geraniums. Add some of those to your garden and reduce the need for spraying for mosquitoes.
Just be aware that some of them do spread easily so plant them in planters or keep on top of the spread by pulling the young shoots. A couple other ideas are to plant maintenance-free lawns using other low-lying ground cover or turning most of your lawn into a garden.
This last suggestion does have limitations depending on your city ordinances so please check with your city or town before you start digging up your lawn.
Environmental toxins inside the home are another area often forgotten. There are so many products to choose from to keep our home clean and sanitized. Really, most of those products are overkill and leave a film on your surfaces and spreading to your furniture and even your food.
There are three products I believe every household needs to keep their home clean: Vinegar, rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. If you need an added punch, some castile soap will do the trick.
Using these four products along with a couple microfiber cloths and you can clean your house from top to bottom without lugging around 10 different cleaners.
Don’t forget your laundry though. Conventional laundry detergents are filled with inflammatory chemicals that do a great job cleaning and scenting your clothes, but can cause contact inflammation.
Switch to a plant-based detergent and add some borax to the wash as plant-based detergents are only effective with soft water. The borax softens the water, increasing the effectiveness of the detergent.
If plant-based detergents are out of your price range, then stick with detergents that are “free and clear” to reduce unnecessary additives. Do not make your own laundry soaps! While they sound fantastic, modern washing machines are not made for soap, but for detergent.
You can still make the laundry soap, but you still need to add some detergent to it in order for it to actually clean your clothes and not ruin your washing machine.
Change to Organic Beauty Products
There is no way around cost with this one. Organic products simply are more expensive. The less volatile components, however, will be a blessing to your skin and to any inflammation you cause by using conventional products. Our skin is the largest organ of our body.
What we put directly on it through soaps, lotions, and makeup can cause a wide range of inflammatory symptoms from rashes to chemical burns. Knowing what is in the products you use on your body is extremely important as your skin is your first line of defense against pathogens and toxins in our environment.
Thankfully there are a growing number of companies that understand that our conventional cleansers and makeup is causing more harm than good. Instead of one brand to choose from, you now have at least a dozen organic brands.
Time permitting, many beauty products can easily be made in the comfort of your own home. I personally love using a 50/50 mix of baking soda and coconut oil for a gentle face wash and exfoliator followed by some vitamin E oil or jojoba oil for a moisturizer.
Not only are these ingredients healthy for your skin, but they also cost a lot less than your average conventional beauty routine.
Don’t forget your teeth! You can use that same 50/50 mix of baking soda and coconut oil to clean your teeth with. If you want whiter teeth, skip the whitening strips and toothpaste and go for activated charcoal.
Not only does the charcoal brighten your teeth by naturally removing stains, it also is an excellent absorbing harmful materials often used for treatment of poison ingestion and has the capability of removing harmful plaque and bacteria during the brushing process. There are brands that sell charcoal-based toothpaste if you don’t care to make your own.
Deodorant, lip balm, and perfume are other beauty products that often get overlooked. Again, there are many natural and organic brands that sell these products or you can easily make your own at home.
For home-made perfume, I like a 50/50 mix of distilled water with either witch hazel or un-flavored vodka along with a few drops of my favorite essential oil. Just be aware that most citrus oils are photo-sensitive so stay away from using those or be mindful of your sun exposure.
Choose reputable companies that provide their GC/MS reports prior to purchasing to ensure a pure essential oil (they will say if the oil is pure at the bottom of the report), and dilute to no more than a 2% dilution to prevent contact sensitivity. If you have any health or medical conditions, please check out the contraindications of the oils to see if it is safe oil for you or not. Not all oils are safe for everyone!
Be Mindful of the Medications You Take
While individuals who are diagnosed with an autoimmune disease typically take drugs to reduce inflammation, there are other drugs that can induce inflammation. One drug that is often overlooked, and rather controversial, are vaccines.
Vaccines are specifically designed to create inflammation in order for your immune system to mount an attack on the antigens present in said vaccine. The portion of vaccines that create that inflammation are called adjuvants.
Unfortunately for those of us who are at high risk for autoimmune diseases, those same adjuvants can cause an autoimmune flair, cause another autoimmune disease to arise, or cause you to develop your first autoimmune disease. This phenomenon is called Autoimmune/Inflammatory Syndrome Induced by Adjuvants, or ASIA.
Being the topic of vaccines is so controversial, I highly recommend speaking with your primary care physician to determine what is in the best interest for your health considering your own medical history. You will have some physicians recommend vaccines because individuals with autoimmune diseases have a compromised immune system while others may advise against.
This must be a case-by-case basis. I bring ASIA up only because it is not something many people are aware of, even among the autoimmune community.
Develop Better Stress Management Techniques and Better Sleep Habits
Our current American culture glorifies being busy. Always going from one activity to the next, being involved in multiple volunteer activities, and making Pinterst-worthy meals and activities with the kids. If you don’t take time to slow down you don’t allow your body the rest it needs in order to recuperate.
That chronic stress then leads your immune system to go overboard and push an otherwise healthy individual to developing a chronic disease like one of the 100 recognized autoimmune diseases.
Instead of burning the candle from both ends, you must schedule in time to relax. Whether that means you meditate for 15 minutes every day, go for a walk around a local park, or hide in a coffee shop with your favorite book.
Also, be mindful of the words you say to yourself. Negative and hateful words increase internal stress and anxiety. Be kind to yourself and give yourself the grace we all deserve.
Self-care and relaxation can reduce that chronic stress and inflammation, thus reducing your risk of chronic disease.
This especially goes for adequate sleep. Taking pills to help you get to sleep and stay asleep are great short-term solutions, but your body is capable of restful and restorative sleep without those sleep aids.
Did you know that when you sleep it is the only time special channels in your brain open up and allow the metabolic byproducts to leave and be processed for excretion? That brain fog you get from being up for too long? That is the result of all those metabolic byproducts.
They are toxic to your brain, thus the essential need for a restful sleep.
Different things to try to gain more restful sleep: keep electronics out of the bedroom. The blue light they emit and the EMF radiation can negatively affect your sleep patterns. If you must have your phone in the room, turn of the WiFi and Bluetooth features, silence all notifications, and place the phone screen down so the periodic flashes don’t bother your sleep.
Consider investing in black out curtains. This is especially important for those who work 2nd or 3rd shift and don’t have a standard sleep cycle. Wear breathable clothing and keep the temperature slightly cool either through fans for air conditioning units.
Finally, keep your bedroom strictly for sleep and sex. When you incorporate other activities in the room you lose the restful nature your bedroom is supposed to provide.
Move Your Body More Than 30min a Day
Your bodies are designed to move along three different planes of motion: side to side, forward and back, and rotational. How do most of us move (or don’t move) during the day? Along the front to back plane of motion.
Even when we exercise, the most popular form of exercise running is just in the front to back plane. And those 30 minutes you spend at the gym? That doesn’t negate the other 12 plus hours we are sedentary. That lack of movement is hard on the body.
Treat your body the way it was designed and you will be amazed at how healthy and vital you will feel.
Set a timer for every 30 minutes. When it goes off take a moment to stand up, walk around your chair a couple of times, fold forward, stretch back, then reach side to side. When you sit back down rotate your torso to the left then around to the right.
Not only will those few moments bring life and energy into your body, it will increase your focus and mental clarity.
While there isn’t one single cause of autoimmune diseases, we do know that it is a culmination of stress and inflammation from multiple sources. By no means is this list exhaustive, but simply some major categories of where we are exposed to chronic stress and inflammation.
If we can get a handle on the sources of stress and inflammation we can reduce symptoms, reduce our risk of developing an autoimmune disease, and gain a life full of vitality and health.
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In-Post Image: Shutterstock.com & pathwaysreallife.com