In poet Mary Oliver’s “The Summer Day,” she asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Whether you choose to explore nature like Oliver, take up a new artistic hobby, or spend more time with friends and family, you don’t want your autoimmune symptoms to get in the way of living the one wild and precious life you deserve.
Living with an autoimmune disorder can be frustrating and painful, with symptoms such as joint pain and muscle aches that make it hard to do the things you love. It doesn’t have to be that way though! As a functional medicine practitioner and a chiropractor who’s helped patients for over 30 years, I empower many people suffering with autoimmune disorders to take control of their health and increase their happiness.
Applying a Whole Body Approach
When speaking to patients, many who live with psoriatic arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or lupus, they share that it is sometimes difficult to manage all of the autoimmune disorder symptoms. There’s swollen fingers, tiredness, joint stiffness, dry eyes, and more. It’s overwhelming to tackle each of these symptoms individually: a pill for this and an exercise for that starts to take up a lot of time in your day and can be confusing to navigate. Instead of tackling each symptom individually, I recommend applying a whole body, or holistic, approach to symptom management.
A whole body approach centers on the idea that everything in our bodies is connected. Instead of focusing on one symptom, doctors like me who use this approach look at many factors, such as diet, manual therapy, and exercise, to manage the effects of autoimmune disorders. We look at how our body’s systems interact with each other and how we can improve each system. A whole body approach also focuses on addressing the root cause of the symptom instead of just muting the pain. By working on what the core cause of the symptom is, we can try to decrease both current pain and the pain patients may feel in the future.
Sometimes, it is helpful to think of your body as a machine. Though human beings are way more complex and interesting than a car or a coffee maker, we do share the similarity that the fuel we put into our systems and the way we treat our machinery affects what we can do. For people with autoimmune disorders, your “machinery” is struggling to work well because the immune, muscular, digestive, and other systems are not working together the way they should.
For example, the types of foods we eat can inflame our joints, which affects how our muscles can move and how much they can accomplish. To improve the connection between these two systems, autoimmune disorder patients may go on a special diet planned by a nutrition/health coach that consists of foods that specifically decrease inflammation. In this way, patients are improving the fuel they use to properly run their machines.
With the whole body approach, I am able to improve the overall quality of life of each patient who comes into my office. Though each patient is unique and receives personalized care, I find that my whole body approach to decreasing autoimmune disorder symptoms typically follows a three step system.
Here is my three step system to decreasing autoimmune disorder symptoms that changes my patient’s lives. I am happy to share them with you!
Step One: Eat Foods that Decrease Inflammation
Many autoimmune disorder patients benefit from eating an autoimmune-specific paleo diet. This diet features a lot of protein, such as chicken, beef, fish and bison. It also recommends using plant-based dairy products like coconut milk and using maple syrup or honey instead of processed sugar.
When patients come to our office, I work with a talented nutrition coach to create a month of weekly menus, shopping lists, and recipes to address the root causes of the patient’s symptoms. It can be overwhelming to start a new diet when the only information you receive is a list of foods you can’t eat! Instead of working from a negative mindset, I find it helpful to start with a list of foods you can eat and a bunch of new, fun recipes to try that make sticking with the autoimmune paleo-specific diet fun.
For example, I may recommend to a patient to eat additional protein because it helps increase their amino acids, which many autoimmune disorder patients lack; and is important for growth and maintenance of our cells and tissues.. A great recipe I frequently recommend is a Lemon and Asparagus Chicken Skillet dish. One patient shared with me that it’s so easy that she now makes that dish for her family every Monday night!
I’ve started incorporating a bunch of these autoimmune paleo-specific recipes into my own weekly menus because they are so delicious. The Autoimmune Wellness blog also has several delicious recipes to try.
Step Two: Receive Manual Therapy
My chiropractic expertise lies in manual therapy. Manual therapy is a hands-on technique that focuses on relieving pain in your joints, tendons, ligaments and muscles. What makes manual therapy unique is that I address the root cause of the pain by directly stretching and soothing trigger points, resulting in joints and muscles that can function properly. I use the phrase “trigger points” as a way to describe the knots of hard, painful muscle cramps you may get in your back, shoulders, hips, arms or legs.
Manual therapy is an umbrella term for several types of muscle manipulation techniques, including muscle energy technique, Active Release Technique, soft-tissue mobilization, and Instrument Assisted Soft tissue technique. If your doctor recommends any of these techniques, you are off to a great start!
One manual therapy technique that really resonates with autoimmune disorder patients is myofascial release technique. “Myofascial” is a medical term for your muscles and connective tissue. The myofascial release technique is a hands-on way that doctors directly push and stretch tight areas of the body. This technique reduces muscle, joint, tendon and ligament pain or dysfunction by addressing trigger points and easing muscle and tissue pain.
The myofascial release technique I use doesn’t require long treatment sessions or a lot of painful pressure. In this case, pain isn’t gain! I want patients to feel like they are comfortably stretching the limits of their muscles to improve their ability to move in the future, not that they are going to leave the office in pain. Using the whole-body approach, I apply the myofascial release technique to a patient’s shoulder, back, arms, and any other part of the body that can affect the swollen or painful area.
For example, when I work on a patient with an autoimmune disorder who is experiencing wrist and hand pain, I use manual therapy on not only their wrist and hand but also their shoulder and upper back. After three to four visits, patients start to feel better and are able to do more activities, such as playing with their children, in their daily lives. This whole body approach will reduce pain and improve movement throughout the wrist and beyond.
When researching a doctor to provide manual therapy, look for either chiropractors who hold a postgraduate degree in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation or someone who studied the manual therapy Active Release Technique. Use this directory as a starting point for finding a practitioner who works well for you.
Step Three: Exercise to Your Strengths
Just like how people with autoimmune disorders can benefit from specific diet changes, you may also feel a decrease of symptoms by incorporating specific types of exercise into your routine. When it comes to exercise, we want to practice soothing motions that will limber up previously aggravated muscles, ligaments, tendons and joints. Think less Jane Fonda’s workout tapes and more yoga class! Some studies, including “New Insights in Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation in Psoriatic Arthritis: A Review,” say that rehabilitative exercise may prevent or improve joint impairment, improve pain management, and increase quality of life.
While in the past, those with autoimmune disorders might have participated in vigorous exercise like playing flag football with friends or going on long distance runs, they might now find these types of exercises hurt them instead of help them. That’s when I recommend adapting their workouts to focus on the five following components: core, strength, cardio, balance, and flexibility. I recommend doing a little bit of work on one category a day so by the end of the week you’ve increased your skills in each category.
Additionally, I swear by the rule “Three to five keeps you alive.” This is my way of saying that each movement from any of the exercise categories should be done three to five times each to complete one set. Then, do each set three to five times. If you’re doing a stretching movement, hold the stretch for three to five seconds. This pattern helps you protect your muscles and joints from further inflammation.
Here’s example exercise for each of the five components below:
- Balance: Stand on one leg for 20 seconds with either a straight leg or a bent knee for a few times a day. If you are having trouble balancing, try staring at one spot in the wall in front of you.
- Cardio: Walk a few minutes more each week. Start by walking 10 minutes a day for a week, then increase that number to 15 minutes a day for a week. Soon, you’ll be walking around your hometown park!
- Core: To build your core, lean against a wall by holding yourself in a standing push-up position. If this feels easy for you, try leaning against a table with your arms in the same push-up position instead.
- Flexibility: Stand up and touch one of your hands to your opposite shoulder. Bring the arm touching your shoulder out away from your body so your arm is parallel to the ground. Then, flex your hand back, creating tension in the wrist. Hold for three to five seconds then repeat the motion with the other arm.
- Strength: Place a resistance band around your hands so the top of your hands are holding up the band. Then slowly stretch your hands apart, like you are opening your hands to begin clapping, and bring them back together.
Living Life to the Fullest with an Autoimmune Disorder
My favorite comment to hear from a patient after helping them address their autoimmune disorder symptoms is “I feel like I’m getting my life back!” I’m so happy to hear that my three step system of eating foods that decrease inflammation, receiving manual therapy, and exercising to their strengths helps patients gain control over the lives they deserve.
I hope that this three step system will be helpful for you as well!
Perrotta FM, Scriffignano S, Benfaremo D, Ronga M, Luchetti MM, Lubrano E. New Insights in Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation in Psoriatic Arthritis: A Review. Rheumatol Ther. 2021 Jun;8(2):639-649. doi: 10.1007/s40744-021-00298-9. Epub 2021 Mar 12. PMID: 33710586; PMCID: PMC8217348.