Low energy is one of the top complaints for many with autoimmune. In fact, 98% of autoimmune patients say they experience fatigue, 78% said it impacts work or their romantic relationships and 59% say fatigue is “probably the most debilitating symptom of having an autoimmune disease” (according to a 2015 online study conducted by the American Autoimmune Related Disease Association with 7838 autoimmune patients).
As a mom of an autoimmune teen with a rare rheumatic auto-inflammatory disease called CRMO, I’ve witnessed this first hand. There are days when my daughter collapses into bed after school and sleeps 12+ hours. I also see this with autoimmune adults who push themselves to get through the day despite feeling physically and emotionally drained because they don’t want to let others down.
I’ve noticed that when my clients follow AIP, one of the first major shifts they experience is an improvement in their overall energy and outlook. And this typically happens quite quickly … usually the first month or two. That’s because AIP is more than just a list of foods to avoid. It includes recommendations on food, digestive wellness and lifestyle strategies to support living well with autoimmune.
In this article, I’m going to explain what it is about autoimmune disease that contributes to low energy, and how you can use AIP to help replenish your physical, emotional and spiritual energy reserves. Let’s start by exploring the root causes of chronic low energy.
Why does autoimmune disease lead to low energy?
AIP uniquely addresses various imbalances that feed into inflammation — it’s this inflammation that ultimately contributes to the fatigue most people complain about. Imbalances can include nutrition, lifestyle, hormones and digestive imbalances. For instance, there are some specific nutritional deficiencies and excesses that are tied with an overactive immune response and a system that is unable to turn itself off.
Over time, chronic inflammation can feed into hormonal imbalances which then sets us up for even more challenges.
With autoimmune, we also have additional life stressors like doctors, medications, and all the emotions that come with managing a chronic illness. These stressors place additional burden on the immune system and “stress” can cause people to burn through antioxidants at a higher rate.
Digestive function and optimal absorption of food is another consideration with low energy. The digestive tract is the gateway to every single cell in the body. If we’re not digesting food properly, we aren’t getting the maximum value of our nutrition plan. Stress, medications like antacids and bacterial imbalances can all impact digestive function.
And what about sleep, movement and connections to people and nature? You can have the “perfect” diet, but if you’re ignoring these nourishing aspects of life, you might still struggle with low energy.
So, let’s dive into how AIP can help you feed and fuel your energy reserves (body, mind and soul), and what you can apply at home.
Which micronutrients are important for energy?
If you’re struggling with fatigue, you may be lacking some important micronutrients in your nutrition plan that are essential for immune regulation and energy metabolism. Here, nutrient density matters.
For veterans and beginners alike, it’s easy to get caught up in “foods to avoid” versus “foods to add in”, so let’s make sure you’re getting what you need.
Research shows there are some key nutritional insufficiencies related to fatigue. Interesting enough, some are the same nutritional insufficiencies common with autoimmune, which AIP food guidelines address.
Key nutrients for a balanced immune response include omega 3s, D, iron, B vitamins, magnesium, zinc, selenium and antioxidants (2). For building energy, those key nutrients are B vitamins, iron, antioxidants, magnesium, zinc and a few others (3).
See the crossover?
The good news is these micronutrients are naturally built into the nutrient-dense foods that are encouraged when following AIP! This is by no means a complete AIP list of nutrient dense foods or a complete nutritional profile, but this list will give you an idea of important foods and their benefits as they relate to both the immune system AND our energy needs:
- Organ meat: vitamin A, B vitamins, D, K, folate, iron, selenium, zinc
- Grass-fed beef: iron and B12
- Oily fish and shellfish: omega 3s, vitamin D, selenium, zinc, iodine
- Leafy greens: vitamin K, folate, magnesium, insoluble fibre, antioxidants, calcium
- Mushrooms: B vitamins, antioxidants and beta glucan (which can help with blood sugar… more on that below)
- Sea vegetables: vitamin A, C, iron, zinc, some B vitamins, iodine
- Fermented foods: probiotics for immune and digestive health (more on digestion below)
- Colorful fruits and vegetables: vitamin C, antioxidants and fibre
In addition to foods to add to your plate, AIP guidelines recommend that you temporarily avoid certain foods that can trigger unnecessary inflammation. In case you’re not familiar, those foods are: grains; dairy; refined sugar; processed oils and food chemicals; nightshades; nuts; seeds; eggs and all products that contain these ingredients.
I won’t get into the why behind each and every one of these foods other than to say that some are common food allergens or sensitivities, some contain compounds that are disruptive to the digestive tract or interfere with digestion and some are completely void of nutritional value (refined sugar, processed oils and food chemicals, for example).
When it comes to energy, some of these foods are also high on the glycemic index which can influence insulin and cortisol, which can then further feed into fatigue.
Refined sugars and flour products are good examples. How many loaves of bread, boxes of crackers, cereals and pastas are consumed in the average home? Quite a few. Simply by reducing or removing these refined foods when following AIP has a tremendous impact on energy levels for reasons I’ll explain.
How to eat to restore energy
When following AIP food guidelines to help address imbalances and inflammation, it’s helpful to use the AIP Plate template. In fact, I call this an Anti-Inflammatory Plate with my clients because truly, it’s a template that we can apply to any anti-inflammatory diet.
A balanced AIP plate looks like this:
- ¼ – ⅓ your plate is nutrient-dense protein
- ½ your plate is non-starchy vegetables
- The remainder is a starchy vegetable
- Top the meal with some healthy fats
- Add a Tablespoon or two of fermented vegetables (if you tolerate) and a side of fruit
This profile helps ensure we are getting enough of the key nutrients (in the right combination) to support not only immune health, but also hormones, digestive wellness and energy requirements throughout the day.
This is important for a few reasons.
First, most people don’t eat nearly enough of nutrient-dense protein and healthy fats to help the body repair, grow new cells and support neurotransmitter development, brain health, mood and stress resilience, among other things. And so, when I meal plan, I always start with protein first and from there, I select what vegetables will work best based on season, variety and family likes/dislikes.
Many people don’t realize that “carbs” or starchy foods help with the production of melatonin for a good night’s sleep which is important for repair and recovery. Starches also support the adrenal and thyroid glands (key players in stress response and metabolism). So, while starches in excess can make fatigue worse, when following an AIP Plate and food guidelines, they are essential in restoring energy. AIP starchy vegetables include carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, turnip, parsnips, radishes (and more).
And here’s a fun fact you might not know…
All fruits and vegetables are actually considered “carbohydrates”! There is no reason to fear “carbs”… they are our friends! When you eat the produce rainbow, they deliver vitamins, antioxidants, fiber and micronutrients to help nourish the entire body and digestive system, not just our immune and energy pathways.
The final bonus of following an AIP or Autoimmune Plate?
An AIP Plate supports balanced blood sugar because it provides adequate protein, fat and fiber while being naturally lower in sugar. This combination helps avoid the ups/downs of an insulin rollercoaster ride, which is important because imbalanced blood sugar (hypoglycemia, insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes) are common co-conditions with many autoimmune conditions and can place additional, unnecessary stress on the body, further taxing our energy stores.
How you eat is as just as important as what you eat
Our energy levels and immune system also depend on the body’s ability to optimally break down the food we are eating so they are absorbed and delivered to the cells in the body.
Many people don’t realize that many common medications like antacids and painkillers impact digestion. So can food sensitivities, chemicals, mental and physical stress and bacterial imbalances.
For example, stress can impact the production of stomach acid, which we need to break down protein. Antacids can also deplete B12, which is an important vitamin for the development of red blood cells (red blood cells deliver oxygen to cells for cellular energy). Bacterial imbalances and intestinal inflammation or damage can contribute to low levels of iron, another important mineral for the development of red blood cells and oxygen delivery, along with other roles.
Signs that the digestive system needs some attention includes gas, bloating, acid reflux, constipation, diarrhea.
The reasons for these imbalances vary from person to person and sometimes require a trained professional, however, there are some simple strategies you can start right away to help maximize your digestive juices and enhance all the benefits of AIP nutrient dense foods.
First, consider your mental or emotional state when you’re eating. Are you rushed? Listening to the news? Grabbing a few bites in between helping your kids? Eating at your desk? (I’m guilty of that one!)
When you eat in a calm manner and take a moment to appreciate the food that you’re putting in your body, it helps reduce nervous tension and primes your digestive tract for all the goodness you’re about to receive. This starts by simply carving out a quiet moment to sit and eat, and starting the process with a few deep cleansing breaths to help put your body into a state of “rest and digest.”
Next, focus on CHEWING your food until the consistency of peanut butter. Some people say “30 chews” but I like the visual of peanut butter … we all know what that feels like in the mouth. This will increase the surface matter of what you’re eating which takes a load off your digestive tract further down the line.
When I have clients focus on these two things (breathe and chew), they are always shocked by the immediate difference it can make in their digestive discomfort.
Living an AIP lifestyle
As I mentioned earlier, AIP is more than just food. Stress management, movement and connections strategies are a key part of living well with autoimmune.
How do these relate to energy? Well, the obvious one is movement. It can either drain or restore your system.
High intensity exercise and endurance sports place additional physical stress and nutritional requirements. While we may feel good with a short term endorphin release, the body ultimately requires more antioxidants and other nutrients for repair and recovery. With autoimmune, there are potential nutritional imbalances … tapping into those insufficient reserves without taking time to first rebuild and replace can keep us stuck in a cycle of exhaustion.
At the same time, not enough movement is physically draining. Movement promotes blood flow to the brain and muscles, as well as promoting lymphatic circulation (a key part of your immune system, fat soluble vitamin delivery to cells and detoxification) and digestive wellness.
What’s the ideal movement? That depends on you. Walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, swimming, biking and strength training are all low impact and supportive movements for immune and energy requirements. I advise my clients to go slow and pay attention to energy levels the next day.
If movement is not an option for you, what about breath work? Not only does it support the cardiovascular system, it is proven to support the nervous system (i.e., stress). A simple breathwork practice for as little as five minutes daily can deliver multiple benefits like improving heart rate variability, lowering cortisol levels, reducing fatigue, brain fog and chronic pain, and calming anxiety and a racing mind. This is a practice I’m asking more and more of my clients to follow as it fits into their schedules, can be done anywhere, and is accessible to people with a wide range of physical abilities.
Beyond movement and breath, there are multiple ways to fuel the soul and body:
- Connecting with positive or like-minded people with similar interests and goals
- Getting into nature … a walk or bench sit in a local park or forest
- Exploring a hobby … even as simple as reading something non-health related
- Getting a daily dose of morning sunlight in the eyes to help regulate stress and sleep hormones
- Stepping back from electronics (the blue light can disrupt sleep patterns)
- Working on a consistent bedtime routine to enhance a sounder, deep sleep
Putting your AIP energy toolkit together
Low energy is a common complaint for many with autoimmune, and there is a lot you can do to address this issue. Here is a checklist to help you assess where you can focus your efforts:
- Are you getting enough of specific nutrient-dense foods to support immune and energy needs?
- Are you eating foods that may be draining energy?
- Are you following the AIP Plate template when you build your meals?
- Are you experiencing digestive upset (gas, burping, bloating, acid, diarrhea, constipation)?
- Do you have some key lifestyle practices in place to help restore energy (breathwork, low intensity movement, sleep, stress management support)?
If you’ve answered “No” or “I’m not sure” to any of these questions, this is an opportunity to explore. If it’s outside of your know-how, reach out for help. That’s what the AIP community and coaching network is all about.
I know first hand when you follow these guidelines, you will start to create nourishing nutrition and lifestyle habits that feed the body in the right way for better energy metabolism, immune regulation and digestive wellness.
That’s when you learn to thrive with autoimmune… with a focus on quality habits that will serve you for a lifetime.