The Connection Between Autoimmune Disease and Staying FitThe Connection Between Autoimmune Disease and Staying Fit

By Lauren Brown West-Rosenthal

An autoimmune disease is a condition where your immune system mistakenly attacks your body. Normally, your immune system protects your body against germs like bacteria and viruses. When your body senses these foreign invaders, fighter cells are deployed. Now, usually, your immune system can tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells but not when you suffer from an autoimmune disease. Instead, your immune system mistakes part of your body, like your joints or skin, as foreign. It releases proteins called "autoantibodies" that attack healthy cells.

Many studies have shown the positive effect exercise has on those suffering from autoimmune diseases (examples include Hashimoto's disease, Graves disease, Multiple Sclerosis and irritable bowel syndrome). Exercise can increase energy, reduce fatigue, anxiety and depression, improve sleep and reduce pain. But autoimmune disease sufferers canít count on the effects of exercise to last and will often contend with exercise-induced symptom flare-ups.

The reality for those living with autoimmune diseases is theyíre in perpetual limbo, wondering how long "good" days will last before morphing into a "flare-up." Living with an autoimmune disease means the pendulum swings from feeling "okay" to "awful" without warning. Flare-ups bring on exhaustion and muscle aches, heightened anxiety, depression and/or sadness. Triggers include changes in weather/seasons to certain types of foods, stress of any kind and, yes, exercise.

How can something thatís supposed to release stress and feel so good end up causing harm? Well, hereís the issue: exercise, even when conducted by the strongest and healthiest of people is meant to CAUSE your body stress. Typically, your body adapts to that stress, and the health effects of exercise abound. Thatís not the case with auto-immune disease sufferers because exercise causes a temporary increase of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your system. If you have an autoimmune condition, that cortisol increase can be too much on your system and trigger autoimmune symptoms. Thus, exercise-induced symptom flare-ups are born.

When you have an autoimmune condition, there are ways to exercise correctly. You can lessen flare-ups and enjoy the long-term benefits of exercise. Chronic pain and autoimmune conditions get exacerbated by inflammation, so if done properly, exercise reduces inflammation and any pain it causes. And speaking of pain, exercising can teach your body to adapt to pain fueled flare-ups and manage them when they strike.

Truthfully, if autoimmune disease sufferers DONíT exercise, it can put their body into distress too. Itís all about figuring out what works for the individual. Itís imperative to keep in mind the frequency of exercise. Consistency is key, or your body wonít adapt. Pay attention to the duration of exercise and simply stay consistent. You donít have to put in a long workout for results. Shorter ones are ideal, otherwise, you run the risk of overstimulating cortisol. Itís suggested with an autoimmune disease to keep the intensity of workouts from low to moderate and as you build up the intensity over time, youíll notice a difference in how your body reacts and adapts to flare-ups and pain. And, choose the right type of exercise that can easily adapt to your needs. Keep in mind that options like High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), Crossfit and spinning may ramp up cortisol to extreme levels.

Overall, exercise at your own pace and use trial and error to figure out what works best for you as everyoneís autoimmune disease symptoms vary. Start slowly and build up to more robust workouts. Most of all, donít be hard on yourself or give up if a flare-up occurs. Just get back to your routine as soon as possible.

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