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Written by
Paige Milatz
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Danielle Desroche

Health happens far beyond the 4 walls of a doctor’s office: It’s happening and developing with every choice you make throughout times of stress, eating, exercising, socializing, and deciding what or what not to consume. Health is how we interact with our environment, and how much energy we have to devote to the activities and people we love. When you want to actively improve your health, you have much more power to change it than you might think.

You might start considering a change away from an unhealthy habit by adding a new healthy habit into your wellness routine. Lifestyle changes for autoimmune health can have many positive benefits for your condition, and there are many dimensions of your health that you can choose to focus on. Lifestyle changes are a holistic, empowering approach to lessening your autoimmune symptoms and living with ease, regardless of your diagnosis.

Here is everything you need to know about making lifestyle changes to boost your autoimmune health.

Lifestyle Changes: What Are They?

Lifestyle changes constitute an active process of modifying habits that we have control over in our daily lives. Lifestyle changes commonly occur outside the health care setting, and heavily rely on your commitment to changing a health-related behavior so that it eventually becomes a regular part of your routine.

The American College of Lifestyle Medicine recognizes 6 pillars of lifestyle medicine:

  • nutrition
  • physical activity
  • stress management
  • restorative sleep
  • social connection
  • avoidance of risky substances

These interventions may be appropriate for many chronic conditions, and we’ll be exploring each pillar in detail later on. (Source)

How Lifestyle Changes Are Made

There’s no denying that changing any of those behaviors is hard! You’ve probably engaged in some form of lifestyle change in the past — think of a prior New Year’s resolution, for example. How long did you actually stick to it? What was the reason behind moving on from your goal? There’s a lot that goes into the process of making a change and sticking with it, so it’s helpful to look at a model of how changes happen.

The transtheoretical model of behavior change, developed by psychologists in the late 1970s, shows the stages that individuals move through as they engage in change. There are 5 stages of change for health-related behaviors:

  • precontemplation: You haven’t started to think about making a change — it’s probably not even on your radar.
  • contemplation: You’ve started to consider changing an aspect of your life, and are beginning to weigh the pros and cons of the change.
  • preparation: After careful consideration, you’ve decided the time is right to make a change and started figuring out how to make it happen. A lot of research and brainstorming can happen at this stage.
  • action: The time has come to put all your hard work into practice and give your behavior change a try, whether that’s modifying an unhealthy behavior or adding a completely new behavior to your routine.
  • maintenance: This stage occurs when you’ve consistently maintained your change for 6 months or longer and intend to keep it that way, addressing any challenges or barriers as they arise to prevent you from relapsing to any of the previous stages.

(Source, Source)  

You can think of this model of behavior change as a cycle. Each stage leads to the next with maintenance connecting back to precontemplation, acting as the link for whenever you’re ready to engage in another change. The image is also fitting because lifestyle changes are not a mountain to climb with a designated summit, but a process that is ever evolving and building onto itself — a forgiving circle whose shape symbolizes that change is not a linear, one-way process.

What Lifestyle Changes Are Right for Me?

Now that you know the inner workings of how lifestyle changes happen, let’s dig into the 6 pillars we talked about earlier. Depending on how you’re currently managing your autoimmune condition, you may be able to determine a starting place for changing a certain habit to improve your autoimmune health.

open face avocado onn a marble counter

Nutrition

There are many benefits to healthy eating. From supporting your muscles, to boosting immunity, to achieving and sustaining a healthy weight, and helping the digestive system function effectively, the food you eat has immense power and influence over your wellbeing. But with so many diets and fads that often conflict each other, what changes to your nutrition are best for your autoimmune symptoms? (Source)

The Autoimmune Protocol Is One Option

Across multiple studies, researchers have found that following the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet can lessen symptoms and decrease inflammatory markers for multiple autoimmune diseases. Evidence suggests that dietary modification through AIP can improve Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and inflammatory bowel disease, and is becoming more widely adopted as a science-backed way to treat a range of autoimmune conditions. (Source, Source)

The protocol involves an elimination stage of certain food groups that may stimulate adverse immune responses, followed by a gradual reintroduction phase. The goal of AIP is to flood the body with nutrient-dense foods, take away highly processed items that may lead to inflammation, and allow the body its best chance at healing. Other lifestyle changes are also included to further promote healing, so it’s more than a diet —  it’s a holistic way to approach your autoimmune symptoms. (Source)

The autoimmune protocol requires a thorough understanding of the elimination and reintroduction phases. It’s important to do your research and involve your care team to ensure you adhere to the protocol safely based on your autoimmune disease. WellTheory has a plethora of resources to get you started, to include a Masterclass on “What Is AIP?” and The Ultimate Guide to the AIP Diet.

Even Small Changes Can Make a Difference

If AIP seems like too big of a lifestyle change at the moment, know that even small dietary changes can bring you some relief! Two guidelines that go hand-in-hand to ensure your body has what it needs to thrive are limiting foods and beverages that are high in added sugars, saturated fat, and sodium, and ensuring that at least 85% of your calories are coming from nutrient-dense sources. (Source)

Questions to consider when making a nutrition-related lifestyle change:

  • What healthy foods am I interested in adding to my diet?
  • What is one unhealthy food choice I am ready to give up in order to benefit my overall health?
  • Where are the majority of my daily calories coming from?
  • What food choices make me feel good?
woman stretching outside

Physical Activity

The U.S. government’s Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that adults engage in 2 hours and 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise per week for substantial health benefits. However, the guidelines emphasize that some activity is better than none, and that sitting less and moving more throughout the day can have positive impacts on health. (Source)

That’s an encouraging way to approach physical activity, especially for those of us who are nowhere near the marker of 150 weekly active minutes. But when the time is right for you to engage in more movement, there are some key benefits to working up a sweat that especially impact autoimmune health. Physical activity:

  • significantly elevates T-regulatory cells, which are cells designed to suppress the immune response
  • decreases immunoglobulin (also known as antibodies) secretion
  • decreases Th1 cell production, which tend to produce proinflammatory responses
  • promotes the release of the small protein IL-6 from muscles, and in turn induces an anti-inflammatory response

(Source, Source, Source, Source)

These outcomes have an impact on autoimmune health, since many autoimmune conditions produce an overactive inflammatory response in the body. Incorporating movement into your healthy lifestyle is one way to reduce fatigue, enhance your mood, improve cognition, and help you sleep better, starting from the cellular level. (Source, Source).

Work Exercise into Your Daily Life

Exercise looks different for everyone, but you can keep yourself on track with your lifestyle change by finding activities you enjoy!  Maybe rock climbing has always been of interest to you, or there’s a hike near your workplace that you’ve been wanting to try. The simple acts of parking farther away from your destination, choosing the stairs, and scheduling in short walk breaks throughout the day add up to a lot of extra movement. Before embarking on a new workout plan, consult with your care team to make sure that the activity you’ve chosen aligns with your larger health goals.

Physical activity is a beneficial lifestyle change that has the power to dramatically improve your autoimmune symptoms. These questions can help you explore if more movement is a change you’re ready for:

  • How much movement do I get throughout the day?
  • How much movement do I want to get?
  • What activities bring me joy?
  • Who could I call on to be a potential workout buddy?
woman lying down with eyes closed and hand on heart

Stress Management

Stress management plays a crucial role in caring for your autoimmune health, since stress acts as a trigger for many autoimmune symptoms. Modern life, busy schedules, and a whole slew of personal factors contribute to stress, and that stress can become chronic and increasingly detrimental when left unchecked. (Source, Source)

We all know that stress surrounds us, but it takes time and attention to actually do something about it. There are many stress management techniques to draw from when you’re bringing more calm into your lifestyle. Here are some science-backed suggestions for reducing stress:

  • yoga and meditation
  • mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR)
  • humor
  • spirituality
  • time management skills
  • exercise
  • massage
  • social support
  • time in nature
  • breathing exercises

This list is in no way exhaustive, and if you’re looking for even more ideas, check out this article on more ways to reduce cortisol naturally. Whatever you choose, the benefits will be there to support you: decreasing pain and fatigue levels, improving biomarkers of cellular aging, balancing the autonomic nervous system, and even increasing cheerfulness. (Source, Source, Source)

Stress doesn’t have to be your normal state of being. By incorporating stress management techniques into your lifestyle, you can reclaim your innate state of calm and be better equipped to handle your autoimmune symptoms as they come. When you’re ready to commit to changing your stress levels for the better, start by asking yourself these questions:

  • What is the biggest contributor of stress in my life?
  • How have I effectively managed stress in the past?
  • What does the opposite of stress look like for me?
  • What could be the best possible outcome of reducing my stress?
woman sleeping in a white bed

Restorative Sleep

A good night’s sleep is an integral part of a healthy lifestyle, but autoimmune diseases can at times make it harder to achieve adequate levels of rest. Disturbed sleep is often reported by those with autoimmune diseases, and some research indicates that chronic lack of sleep may be a contributing factor in developing autoimmune diseases. Because high stress levels can contribute to poor sleep, the interconnectedness of these lifestyle factors becomes clearer than ever. (Source, Source)

So, how to go about developing healthier sleep habits for your autoimmune health? You may have heard of the term “sleep hygiene,” which refers to the environment and routine you create around sleep that can help promote consistent, quality zzz’s. Improving your sleep hygiene starts with having awareness of your current nighttime routine. (Source)

When assessing where your current sleep schedule stands, see how it aligns with these recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Consistently go to bed at night and wake up at the same time each morning to help calibrate your internal clock.
  • Ensure your bedroom is dark and quiet, and that the temperature, your sheets, and pillow are comfortable.
  • Eliminate electronic devices from the bedroom.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeinated beverages, and alcohol in the evening hours.
  • Partake in exercise during the day and utilize relaxation techniques close to bedtime.

(Source)

Better Sleep Has Many Benefits

As you look to implement healthy sleep habits, know that better sleep can provide a wide range of benefits, as sleep gives your body and brain time to repair and remove toxins from your system. After many consecutive nights of 7 or more hours of sleep, you may see how quality rest can positively influence all other aspects of your day. And if you’re looking for even more reasons to invest in restorative sleep, explore the connection between cortisol and sleep and how to get more slow-wave sleep. (Source)

When you’re ready to make restorative sleep a non-negotiable part of your healthy lifestyle, ask yourself:

  • How am I winding down at the end of the day?
  • In what ways do I feel the impact of an excellent night of sleep throughout the day?
  • What does my ideal bedtime routine look like?
four people next to each other talking

Social Connection

There’s no feeling quite like sharing a laugh with close friends, or cuddling up with your family at the end of a long week. We are social creatures by design, and we thrive when we’re connected and supported by a strong network of people around us.

You may have heard of the Roseto Effect: In the 1950s, a small town named Roseto in Pennsylvania was mainly composed of families who had immigrated from Southern Italy. Compared to the next town over, the inhabitants of Roseto had strikingly low rates of heart attack deaths. Studies attributed this to their strong social cohesion and community relationships — maintaining their extensive ties to culture and people is what kept Roseta residents healthy. Unfortunately, as Roseto generations aged and the town’s identity changed later in the century, this protective effect was lost. (Source)

This unique study shows how social structure can keep us healthy and happy. Other studies show that having support through touch, warmth, and empathetic interactions can boost well-being, and that connections are key to combating social isolation and its detrimental psychological effects. (Source, Source)

And don’t think you’re limited to human interactions to fill up your cup! There’s research showing that spending time with dogs and cats can boost your mood through lowering cortisol. Maybe you already have a pet at home who could use a little extra love, or you live near a park or trail where other people take their animals. (Source)

Appreciate What You Have, and Foster More

Connecting with the world around you is highly indicative of overall well-being. Appreciating the social connections you already have or devoting yourself to fostering new ones is a positive way to change your lifestyle and support your health. Although this area may seem more ambiguous when it comes to making a change, it all depends on how much social connection you have now and how much you ideally would want to have. Here are some inquiries to get you started:

  • Who is someone that I think about often but haven’t reached out to in a while?
  • How much time during the week am I willing to dedicate to social activities?
  • Who can I help today?
  • What’s a random act of kindness that I could do for a coworker, loved one, or stranger?

Avoidance of Risky Substances

As we round out the 6 pillars that contribute to a healthy lifestyle, this topic may be one that you’re already familiar with: avoiding or eliminating risky substances, such as alcohol and nicotine. We already mentioned that alcohol consumption can impact quality sleep, but let’s get more specific on how and why alcohol and smoking take a toll on autoimmune health.

Alcohol suppresses the immune system, promotes inflammation, and aggravates chronic health conditions, which are factors to consider when deciding to drink with an autoimmune disease. Excessive alcohol consumption is linked to increased occurrence of chronic disease and higher death rates. Furthermore, alcohol is eliminated while following AIP, so there are many strong reasons to avoid alcohol for the betterment of your autoimmune symptoms. (Source, Source)

And with smoking, there is overwhelming evidence that using tobacco products has negative health outcomes. Because smoking increases oxidative stress, it can dysregulate the typical immune response and spur the onset of multiple autoimmune diseases. But by avoiding smoking, you can gain various benefits from this behavior. Research shows that quitting smoking can increase psoriasis remissions, lessen the chance of developing Crohn’s disease, and boost your immunity against common illnesses. (Source, Source, Source)

By now, it’s well known that alcohol and smoking typically don’t have a leading role in creating a healthy lifestyle. But even so, social pressures or ingrained habits can be strong enough to keep you in the cycle of using these substances.

It’s important to be upfront and discuss your concerns surrounding risky substances with your health care team, so that you can get the support you need for whatever stage of change you’re in. Whether alcohol and smoking are things you’ve already given up, are looking to eliminate, or have always stayed away from, it can be beneficial to do some self-reflection around this topic. Ask yourself:

  • What role do risky substances currently have in my life?
  • Are they keeping me from managing my autoimmune symptoms in the way I envision?
  • How does my physical and social environment influence the choices I make around drinking and smoking?
person lying next to another person relaxing

Potential Complications of Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle changes don’t necessarily have the same long list of negative side effects that pharmaceuticals or other treatments may come with. Because they are well-informed choices that you’re making, and have been vetted through your care team, they should be a part of your autoimmune journey that produces few complications. The key is to listen to the feedback your body is giving you, adjusting incrementally over time. Keep these tips in mind as you gear up for a change.

Monitor Your Body’s Response

As with any change, it’s difficult to know exactly how your body will react. It’s important to pace yourself with making changes so that your body has time to process the new variables, and so you can clearly see what the benefits or drawbacks are from paying attention to your body’s response.

As an example, the AIP diet slowly eliminates foods so that you can gradually adjust to your new eating plan. It's not an all-at-once change, and requires methodical eliminations and additions to see what your body wants to tolerate.

Start Low, Go Slow

With exercise, a good rule to follow is “start low and go slow.” This applies to all types of exercise. If you’re weight training, start with low weight and focus on a small number of reps with good technique. For cardio, cranking up the treadmill speed for a 45 minute run after an extended gym hiatus is not the smartest option. Work your way into it to prevent injury, keep motivation up, and create sustainable habits. (Source)

Focus on Stress Management

Change is a process, not a destination, and you’re in control the entire time. If you’ve been working on a stress management technique but you’re just not able to dedicate as much time to it as you’d like, try another goal on for size. Stress management will be there for you at a different time, and your next goal may be connected to lowering stress in ways that your new goal will allow you to explore.

hands cutting fruit for a smoothie

Potential Benefits of Lifestyle Changes

There are many, many benefits that can come from lifestyle changes. We’ve discussed how more cheerfulness, energy, and a longer lifespan are all on the table when you’re living a healthy life, along with decreasing cortisol, maintaining a healthy weight, and reducing inflammation. The most potent benefits will be the ones you personally discover when you engage in lifestyle changes for your autoimmune health.

The Bottom Line on Lifestyle Changes for Autoimmune Health

There are 6 main lifestyle factors that you can change to improve your autoimmune health and overall wellbeing. By choosing one area to focus on and make a change, you will likely be influencing all other areas since one healthy choice often leads to another.

Many positive health benefits are associated with a healthier diet, increased activity, better quality of sleep and social connections, use of stress management techniques, and making smart choices when alcohol, smoking, or other risky substances and behaviors are involved.

When you’re ready to implement a lifestyle change to promote your body’s innate ability to heal, remember to loop your entire care team in, find community support for your change by sharing your goals with loved ones, and take consistent steps in the direction of your desired change to reap the long-term, life-giving benefits. If you’re looking for guidance and accountability in creating sustainable lifestyle changes, WellTheory’s Care Team is here to help.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis
January 6, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Lifestyle Changes for Autoimmune Health

Discover how lifestyle changes for autoimmune health have the power to transform your condition and quality of life.
Medically Reviwed
Written by
Paige Milatz
Medically Reviewed by
Dr. Danielle Desroche
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