Whenever we embark on a healing journey to troubleshoot autoimmune symptoms or improve how we feel, food is often the first thing we focus on. Food is tangible. It’s right there in front of us and we feel like modifying our diet is something we can clearly “do” to begin to manage our symptoms. And it is! Food provides us with the fuel our bodies need to thrive and can help support a healthy immune response. Finding the right diet for my body has been immensely helpful on my 15-year journey with autoimmune disease!
While the power of food to heal our bodies is undeniable and a critically important pillar of healing, it isn’t the only thing that matters. Yes, even as a Functional Nutrition Coach who believes wholeheartedly in the power of food, I’m the first to say that food isn’t everything.
Sometimes we can get ourselves into a stressful, rigid and even scary place when we focus on food as the only pillar of health. Healing is a multidimensional process that requires us to look at not just what we are eating, but more importantly, who we are as the person eating that food.
If we are eating all the “right” foods but are feeling disconnected from what’s actually going on in our body, totally stressed out and socially isolated by our symptoms and restrictive diet, no amount of kale or bone broth is going to completely pull us out of that.
I often describe food as “the tip of the iceberg” to my clients. It’s a great entry point into healing and all of the other primary foods that lie under the iceberg. Primary foods are non-food source of nourishment that fuel us in our lives and contribute to optimal health. Primary foods are things like meaningful relationships, physical activity, spirituality and fulfilling work. There are three specific non-food sources of nourishment I want to highlight today: stress reduction, community and joy.
Non-Food Nourishment #1: Stress Reduction
When our stress response is activated and our stress hormone cortisol is released from our adrenal glands it leads to elevated blood sugar, shuts down “non-essential” functions such as digestion, and stimulates an inflammatory response. Long-term chronic stress can lead to immune system dysfunction, microbial imbalances, hormone imbalances, impaired digestion, poor sleep quality, and inflammation in the joints and mucosal lining of the gut. Stress can have very real, physiological effects on our bodies, especially in the development of autoimmune disease. (1)
Historically, activation of our stress response might have been in reaction to seeing a bear in the woods! In today’s world it’s much more likely that our nervous system is activated due to daily stressors like deadlines at work, a growing to-do list, or a fight with a partner. Our body isn’t able to tell the difference between these different stimuli and produces the same stress response. Ideally we want this stress response to turn on and then turn off when we are longer in imminent danger. What happens in the case of long-term, chronic stress it that our body’s stress response is constantly being stimulated and we’re stuck in this “fight or flight” mode.
Up to 80% of those with autoimmune issues report that diagnosis came after a period of significant stress in their life, whether emotional or physical (2). Personally, stress is one of the biggest mediators for my symptoms and flareups and something I actively manage daily!
In order to truly support our bodies to heal, we must look at our relationship with stress. If the stress of pursuing health or implementing an elimination diet for a period of time outweighs the potential benefits, it’s a sign that it’s not right for you at this moment in time. The best place to start is to take inventory of where you are at right now and determine what feels possible and empowering.
If you are currently eating a lot of packaged foods for convenience and working to kick a sugar addiction, the first step would be to crowd out with nutrient dense fruits and veggies and good quality proteins and fats to give your body the fuel it needs. If you are energized and excited about how an AIP elimination diet might support you but are feeling overwhelmed, go slowly, get some support, and set yourself up for success! Remember that when it comes to our health, it’s always about progress not perfection.
No matter where you are at, prioritizing stress-management in your day is one of the most important things you can do for autoimmune health. Some of my favorite stress management techniques are:
- Resting when you are tired (I know, revolutionary!)
- Implementing deep breathing techniques to get yourself into the “rest and digest” state
- Setting technology boundaries!
Non-Food Nourishment #2: Community
Dealing with a chronic illness can be really isolating. We feel like no one understands what we are really going through and our symptoms like fatigue and pain might prevent us from engaging in social activities we want to. We all thrive with strong social relationships, and studies have confirmed that these relationships foster physical and emotional wellbeing. Meaningful social activity is a really important pillar of health, even for us introverts (3)!
One of the hallmarks of the famous “Blue Zones,” the regions around the world where people are living significantly longer and healthier lives, is the prioritization of community and social interaction. Research has shown that supportive social interactions enhance health in part through their positive impact on immune and endocrine regulation (4). Just a single, good-quality social interaction can set off a chemical cascade in the body, increasing oxytocin and decreasing stress, and giving a sense of meaning and connection (5).
A 2010 meta-analysis found that the influence of social relationships on the risk of mortality are comparable with well-established risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity (6)! Although it might not be the first thing we think of when it comes to our health, we can see the importance of community and meaningful social interaction as a deeply nourishing primary food!
Even if we have intentions to be social, however, having a chronic illness can sometimes make it hard to keep commitments or plans with others due to the variability of how we feel. A great way to keep connections while honoring where you are at is to have candid conversations with those close to you about your reality. Explain that your symptoms are variable and sometimes you need to cancel plans at the last minute in order to take care of yourself. Assure them you value their relationship and spending time with them is important to you.
Furthermore, if the pursuit of health has caused you to feel even more isolated and afraid of engaging in social activities due to fear of “falling off the wagon” or not being able to stick to your routines, that’s a sign that these other primary foods may have gotten out of balance for you.
Although we all go through different phases of modifying what we’re eating, avoiding alcohol, or needing more rest and alone time, our health shouldn’t come at the cost of enjoying our lives. Rather, enjoying our lives to the fullest should be an integral part of our healing process.
If you’ve found yourself isolated socially while managing chronic illness, can you allow yourself some meaningful social time with supportive friends or family? If you don’t have a supportive community, can you join a meetup group in your area of others who are on a similar path as you? Surrounding yourself with people passionate about living a full and healthy life has the power to nourish us in so many profound ways.
Non-Food Nourishment #3: Joy
Yes, joy! One of the questions in my initial intake form for clients is, “How much joy do you have in your life right now?” We tend to think of joy as an afterthought contingent on many other external factors in our lives.
If we’re dealing with chronic illness, family drama, a stressful work environment, and financial issues, joy can feel pretty inaccessible. We often have the mentality that once I heal, once I find a better job, once my marriage improves then I will feel joy. So we work really, really hard to accomplish all of these things to arrive in that far off place.
One common belief I hear from clients (and one I’ve had myself) is, “If I work hard and get good results in school, at work, and at home, I should be able to apply this to my health and get good results there as well.” So when health isn’t improving in the way we want, we begin to diet harder, exercise harder, heal harder in hopes of seeing results. This pursuit of health starts to feel exhausting, frustrating and doesn’t allow much room for freedom and joy until we reach an endpoint of being “healed.”
When we allow ourselves to actively prioritize and feel joy, right now, just as we are, without conditions, everything begins to shift.
There are many studies out there about the science of happiness and the plethora of health benefits happy people enjoy. While I don’t think it’s realistic or even healthy to all be little rays of sunshine all the time, it’s pretty remarkable what experiencing joy can do to our physiology. A number of studies demonstrate that cortisol levels tend to be lower when people are happier (7). This in and of itself is a great reason to prioritize moments of joy in our days!
Doing something every day that makes you happy for the sheer sake of being happy (and preferably many things!) is one of the best things you can do for your health. I know when we’re in the thick of it managing autoimmune disease it can sometimes feel hard to find joy. I’ve been there. Some of my favorite activities that bring instant joy no matter how I’m feeling are:
- Writing down a list of everything I’m appreciative of (even if I have to start small with things like the sun, my bed, or my breakfast)
- Talking to a good friend
- Turning on a song I can’t help but dance to (or if in the middle of a very bad flare tap my foot to)
- Watching funny cat videos (I know)
What will you do to bring some joy into your life today?
When we look at healing from this lens, we can see the powerful impact our non-food sources of nourishment have on our wellbeing. Asking ourselves, “Who am I as the person eating this food?” is a powerful way to understand how to support ourselves as a whole person seeking health and happiness.
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11752480/, https://academic.oup.com/ppar/article/27/4/127/4782506
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9695136, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15992570, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17916595