When your immune system gets triggered, a miserable flare-up can ensue. Here are 13 things you can do right now to calm your system back into remission.
Autoimmune diseases impact 50 million Americans, and nearly a quarter of those suffer from more than just one. (1) Whether you have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, or one of the other 80 autoimmune disorders, symptoms typically wax and wane depending on where you are in remission or immune activity. (2)
Fortunately, there are methods that can help to provide relief and encourage your body to get back into a normal balance.
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What Autoimmune Flares Look Like
An autoimmune flare can feel different depending on the type of disease you have, but research shows that most follow a pattern that alternates between flares and dormancy. (3) Still, it’s not conclusive as to what exactly can prevent flares, since there seem to be a number of triggers for them.
- Viral or bacterial infections
- Hormone changes
- Vitamin D deficiency
Besides avoiding obvious flare triggers like smoking, there are other lifestyle factors that can help to prevent or decrease the number of flares and help to ease your body out of one that has started.
13 Ways to Calm the Immune System
1. Use Astragalus to Support Natural Immunity
Supporting immune function when you have an autoimmune disease is tricky. Since your immune system is already in overdrive against your own body, you don’t exactly want to bolster its energy to continue attacking you with increased fervor.
What you do want to do is modulate the immune system, which means help re-educate it about what it is supposed to be doing: sparing your own body tissues and attacking foreign invaders like viral and bacterial infections.
You can naturally modulate your immune system with certain herbs like astragalus, which activates only specific aspects of the immune system. (10) It provides a balancing effect on the immune system instead of just a stimulating effect like echinacea or goldenseal, herbs which should be avoided in cases of autoimmunity. (11, 12) You can find astragalus supplements online or at your local health food store. Most health practitioners suggest taking them for only a set amount of time (usually three to six months), so ask your doctor for the time period that might work best for you.
2. Reduce Stress
Stress can trigger autoimmune flares, but saying “just avoid stress” is about as easy as saying “just avoid breathing.” When you have an autoimmune disease, it can even make you more prone to stress and anxiety. So what can you do?
There is no one-size-fits-all way to cut stress from your life, but research shows that ashwagandha, an adaptogenic herb, can help to reduce stress and anxiety. Ashwagandha, when taken daily for a few months, can reduce perceived stress by as much as 44 percent and can decrease cortisol (the stress hormone) levels by as much as 28 percent. (13) When it comes to anxiety, ashwagandha can lower levels in as little as 12 weeks. (14)
Stress can also lead to weight gain, which can worsen autoimmunity symptoms. Ashwagandha can help to manage body weight in people battling chronic stress. (15) Ashwagandha can be taken daily in capsule form, typically with breakfast, in doses ranging from 50 to 500 milligrams.
3. Boost Your Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D functions as both a hormone and vitamin within the body, and low or deficient levels can cause both disease development and flare-ups. (16, 17) Note: Boosting levels with supplementation should only be done under the guidance of a practitioner, since toxicity is possible. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin and is stored in fat, so when excess is consumed via supplements, the body can’t simply eliminate it. While vitamin D toxicity is rare, it can have serious side effects, so it’s essential to have your levels tested and supplement dosage managed by a qualified practitioner.
4. Stay Hydrated and Balance Electrolytes
The cells in the body require proper fluid levels to perform their many tasks. They also require electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, and sodium to transfer fluids in and out of cells.
Simply drinking enough water and taking in electrolytes can be helpful for cutting down on flares. Electrolytes are naturally found in coconut water, Himalayan sea salt, and citrus fruits, so pairing these with daily water intake can provide that needed balance. Tip: Infused-water recipes are an easy and tasty way to stay hydrated.
5. Eat More Fatty Fish
When flare-ups happen in autoimmunity, nerve endings can get more sensitive, which is often what results in greater pain. Omega-3 fatty acids are needed to support the myelin sheath that coats nerves as well as to provide anti-inflammatory support. (18)
Omega-3 fats are found in fatty fish like salmon, anchovies, and sardines. They’re also found in walnuts and chia seeds, although seafood sources provide fats that are more easily utilized by the body.
Fish oil supplements can also be beneficial, as they commonly contain two important forms of fatty acids: EPA and DHA. Both are needed for anti-inflammatory benefits and neurological health, but specific doses should be monitored and recommended by your practitioner.
6. Eat Green Veggies to Help Detox
Having an autoimmune disease can mean that many organ systems are slower to respond than others, since the body’s priorities are out of balance.
Detox is driven by the liver, but the liver also performs many other vital tasks like metabolizing hormones, aiding in digestion, and even making vitamin D. While flares aren’t always caused by a sudden influx of chemicals that need to be detoxed, focusing on nutrients that support organ function during a flare can help to restore balance in the body, even if you can’t target your flare to one specific organ.
The liver requires certain nutrients and antioxidants found in leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables. Eating regular daily servings of broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach, kale, and watercress can calm autoimmunity and promote healthy levels of inflammation.
7. Completely Quit Sugar
Sugar offers no nutritional benefits and when you’re experiencing a flare, it’s the worst thing you can eat. Not only does it promote inflammation, but it takes away from the nutrient-dense foods that you should be eating. Even natural sweeteners like maple syrup and raw honey can lead to inflammatory issues.
While you might be tempted to comfort binge on ice cream or soda during a flare, you’ll only be prolonging your symptoms. Eating a sugarless diet that is still packed with antioxidants from natural fruit and vegetable sources is the best way to decrease inflammation and nourish your body during a flare-up.
8. Gentle Movement
Yoga and other forms of natural, gentle movement can be effective ways to manage chronic pain. (19) Whether you join a studio or focus on your own basic practice at home, the benefits of yoga are documented well, and can help fight ailments such as:
- Stress (20)
- Depression (21)
- Anxiety (22)
- Chronic pain (23)
- Poor mental health (24)
- High inflammation levels (25)
- Fatigue (26)
These benefits aren’t limited to autoimmunity, but can certainly help the body to better cope and recover from an active autoimmune flare.
9. Get a Massage or Try Physical Therapy
For people with pain-driven autoimmunity, the natural instinct is to lie down or sit more. However, gentle physical therapy, foam rolling, or therapeutic massage can help to stimulate blood flow to tissues, which can lead to decreased inflammation and nerve function.
10. Meditate with Deep Breathing
Meditation can help to improve mental health and decrease physical pain. (30) Even just a few minutes each day of focusing on your breathing can help to nourish your tissues and overall body with increased oxygen.
Planning for future autoimmune flares can go a long way. Try these preventative wellness tips when you’re feeling better to get a better handle on your next episode.
1. Anticipate Hormonal Changes
Since pregnancy, postpartum, and menopause are three big triggers for autoimmune disease development, they also remain triggers for flare-ups.
If you have a known autoimmune disease and expect an upcoming hormone shift, take extra steps to support your body. This can mean eliminating foods that aren’t helpful for healing, resting more, focusing on self-care, and preemptively cutting down on stressful aspects of life wherever possible.
It could also mean seeking medical help from your doctor to prevent sudden hormone shifts. While nothing can prevent menopause, some types of natural hormone therapy may be able to take the edge off of sudden transitions, but only your doctor can determine when hormone management may be right for you.
2. Ask for Help
Autoimmunity is humbling because, in many cases, when a flare is strong, it’s not possible to continue life in a business-as-usual mode. Whether you are single or married, parenting or working, busy or retired, flares take you out of the norm and require more just for basic tasks like showering, sleeping, and eating. For some, it’s not possible to get out of bed, while others will find it impossible to be on their feet for food prep.
Asking for help might be difficult, but having a plan in place for when a flare strikes can reduce the energy it takes to ask for help. Maintain a document or written plan, and communicating these with others before the next flare strikes can be hugely beneficial. It might even reduce the stress that causes autoimmune flare-ups in the first place!
3. Focus on the Future
When you’re in the middle of a flare, it can feel all-encompassing. It’s important to remember that flares don’t last forever to help preserve your mental health during an episode.
Find online support groups that can offer perspective and companionship so that you don’t feel isolated. That way, you don’t even need to leave the house when your flare is at its worst. Alternately, if leaving the house and getting out around people is helpful, find a group therapy or support group where you can interact with people who understand what you’re going through. A little empathy goes a long way to reduce the mental burden of autoimmunity.
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