In the summer of 2007, I was unexpectedly diagnosed with two autoimmune diseases: Celiac Disease and Hashimoto’s. I wasn’t sure how to navigate the waters of my new life with the dietary restriction of eating gluten free and I made many mistakes! Thankfully over the last decade, I’ve learned a great deal from those mistakes and from the rising community of people with autoimmune diseases.
While managing autoimmunity well generally encompasses an entire holistic lifestyle approach, I found the hardest seasons with autoimmunity tended to be around the holidays!
The holiday parties, the ever so tempting gluten laden foods, the “cold and flu” sickies that often overwhelmed my immune system and the general stress that can come from a season of hustle and bustle would often take me down! I’m going to share with you some of the things I’ve learned over the years on how to remain well with autoimmune disease during the holiday season!
#1 Focus Your Mindset on Thankfulness
The holidays can be a time of great joy! Gathering with friends and family, traditions, traveling and buying gifts for the ones you love. It can also be a time of stress, anxiety, loneliness and wishing you “had more.” I’ve been in both places at numerous times of my life.
One thing that I have made a concentrated effort in doing lately is practicing gratitude and thankfulness.
It makes a world of difference, especially for the person with autoimmune diseases. We tend to deal with things (pain, food sensitivities, disrupted sleep, decreased ability to cope with stress and anxiety) that most people don’t have to think about.
For instance, my husband has no autoimmune issues. He can eat freely wherever he chooses without ever having to worry if the cooks will accidentally cross-contaminate his food with gluten and make him sick. Sometimes I look at him and think “I wish I could live without that kind of fear!” It is something we have to deal with but it does not have to define us!
We cannot choose the things that happen to us but we can choose our reaction!
It can be DIFFICULT to feel thankful when you’re overwhelmed with feeling like your health is not where you want it to be. Gratitude and thankfulness won’t cure you overnight but it can help you heal! In Dr Deborah Anderson’s article on gratitude and autoimmunity, she states the science shows that practicing gratitude:
1) Lowers inflammation in the body
2) Improves your sleep
3) Lowers your stress levels
4) Improves your mood
5) Helps you overcome trauma
That’s a powerful tool in your arsenal for taming autoimmunity! This is something you can do very easily at any time or place in your day. It lifts your spirits and helps you focus on all the things going right in your life even if it’s something little.
Try this practical tip during the holiday season and see if it doesn’t carry you over into the new year with some added cheer!
Practical Application for Thankfulness
Start each day with a thankful list! I like to start with a list of 5 things I’m thankful for that happened the day before or in a general sense. I also like to let myself feel the emotion of how what I am thankful for makes me feel!
I have two sons and a wonderful husband. Lately my three year old son likes to tell me I’m his best friend. That has been on my thankful list over and over recently! It makes me feel so good!
I have even written down in the past how I am thankful for all that my autoimmune diseases have taught me about health and the amazing friends I have made through connecting with the autoimmunity community.
Start with 5 things and watch that list grow! It’s easy to find the good in life when you’re keeping your eyes open for it.
#2 Get Rid of the Stress!
The holidays seem to be an extra time for stress! Stress is a huge trigger for autoimmune disease to wreck havoc on your body. It’s a vicious cycle since stress can activate disease and disease can cause stress on the body.
When we stress out or are under stressful and tense situations, our body releases cortisol. When we are chronically stressed, cortisol is constantly elevated which can lead to “cortisol resistance.”
This is particularly important because autoimmune disease is an inflammatory disease and that cortisol resistance inhibits the body’s ability to control inflammation. I tend to be a worrier and stresser about anything and everything. So this is something I have to work on constantly.
Sometimes we can’t control the stressful situations we find ourselves in but we can have a plan to regularly minimize the effects of stress on our bodies. Stress can be physical, mental and emotional. So it’s good to have a plan to cover several aspects of decompressing stress in the body.
I have learned that the type of exercise I do can help reduce my stress levels. It helps release endorphins and I usually feel like I can conquer the world after a lifting session.
Now, while I love to workout my adrenals don’t like it so much when I’m having an autoimmune attack in particular. I know that when my adrenals are extra taxed from an attack or from prolonged bad sleep that I need gentle exercise. Yoga or walking and plenty of rest days in between my workout sessions with weights are usually my go-to’s to help get in some movement without burdening my immune system.
Emotional stress can also affect your health. This is also where a thankful mindset can be a big help in minimizing stress in our mind.
Our very thoughts can add stress! Working through hard situations with a wise friend or professional counselor can be extremely liberating for our hearts and minds.
While you’re loving and serving friends and family during the holidays make sure you take some time to find some “calm time” for yourself. A few moments of peace or doing things you enjoy can really help reduce stress and alleviate tension.
Practical Application for Reducing Stress
Everyone de-stresses differently so find what works best for you! Take a scenic walk around a park with a cup of your favorite hot tea, soak in an epsom salt bath at night before bed or exercise in a way that makes you feel great. That may be a high intensity workout or a peaceful yoga flow or even just a walk during your lunch break at work to get some sunshine (and a bonus of vitamin D production from sun exposure.)
I like to diffuse some calming essential oils to help support my mood during an epsom salt bath a couple nights a week while listening to some of my favorite music. There are some great essential oils out there that can have a calming effect that may help you feel less stressed. Lavender is one of my absolute favorites!
#3 Respect Your Food Allergies
This one is huge! Most of us with autoimmunity issues have some sort of food allergies or sensitivities. I was the queen of “cheating” and eating things I knew caused a reaction in my body for a long time. The holidays seem to be a hard time to respect food sensitivities.
With all the holiday parties and get togethers centered around eating, it can get pretty tempting to eat things you know you cannot tolerate. Don’t do it!
I personally cannot eat nightshades without having my joints ignite in pain. I avoided them like the plague once I knew they were the source of my pain! When I arrived at a healthier place in my healing journey it was SO tempting to give them a try again and see what happened.
Well, I did and found they still gave me joint pain although to a much lesser degree. I decided even though the reaction was less severe it was still a reaction and something I needed to avoid.
To help keep myself on track, I wrote myself an encouragement! I made a list of all the reasons I wanted to be well and put that list in the notes section of my phone and wrote out all the things that didn’t align with that path.
I wrote down all my food sensitivities and then I wrote affirmations underneath them to help remind me that it would be worth it! The holidays can be enjoyed while still respecting your food sensitivities! Let me share some effective ways you can do that…
Practical Tips for Respecting Your Food Allergies
Plan ahead and have an accountability buddy! One thing I do twice a week is batch cook food. This has saved me so many times! We will get invited out to dinner and it’s a place where I know I cannot find anything on the menu that is “safe” for me to consume.
I will absolutely either eat before I go out or bring my own food with me and still enjoy eating out with my friends.
I will also call ahead to the restaurant and ask if they can cook my food in coconut oil or olive oil and grill my chicken plain and steam veggies for me. This helps the kitchen know I’m coming and helps me know that I can eat there rather safely. Sugar is also a huge trigger for people with autoimmunity.
I like to make single serving desserts with minimal added sweetness and bring them to a place I know I’ll want a treat but won’t be able to eat anything there.
For instance, for Thanksgiving dinner at a families house I’ll bring a homemade single serving apple crisp that I know is safe for my food sensitivities.
And having an accountability buddy was super helpful in keeping me from falling back into old habits as well. I had a friend ask me everyday when I was trying to stop drinking coffee on the autoimmune protocol diet how I did that day!
She encouraged me with my goals and I would message her when I wanted coffee so badly after a night of rough sleep with my baby. Knowing I had someone who was going to check up on me AND encourage me was so helpful!
I didn’t feel like I was being policed but let your accountability buddy know what you need! If you need someone to be firm with you then ask them to be firm! If you need someone to tell you your “why” and build your confidence in sticking to what you can and cannot eat, then tell them that! Accountability can be a glorious and helpful tool to keeping you well with autoimmunity while trying to respect your food boundaries, especially around the holidays.
I hope these tips assist you during this holiday season and I hope you are able to incorporate them into your life throughout the year. The holidays don’t have to be a time filled with stress, lack and the guilt of eating things we know our immune systems can’t handle. With a little planning, some positivity and thankfulness while carving out some time to care for ourselves we can embrace the holiday season well with autoimmunity.
I want to hear from you! What tips do you have for enjoying the holidays with autoimmune disease? If you have any strategies that have worked well for you, please share in the comments below!