Last month, I talked about how HIV attacks a person’s immune system. But, what happens when rather than a virus, your own body attacks its immune system? Welcome to the day in the life of someone with an autoimmune disorder.
What is an autoimmune disorder?
Our bodies have a natural defense mechanism to fight off infections. Sometimes external toxins (like bacteria, allergens, and viruses) enter our bodies. These foreign invaders are not from our own “self,” or not from our bodies, hence they are called “non-self” cells. When our bodies sense the presence of non-self cells, it triggers our immune defenses. Cells within our bodies are called “self-cells.” Non-self and self-cells are externally marked so that our immune system can recognize whether or not it needs to attack and rid our bodies of the contaminant. In some situations, immune systems mistakenly recognize self-cells as non-self cells, launching an unnecessary attack on a person’s own body. This is called an autoimmune disorder.
Obviously, a person’s body attacking itself is extremely serious. Not only can this manifest in different ways from destroying body tissue to changing organ function, but individuals diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder tend to acquire multiple autoimmune diseases because of their compromised immune system. Such diseases include Psoriasis, Ulcerative Colitis, Type I Diabetes, and Celiac’s Disease, to name a few. Because there are so many different diseases that classify as autoimmune diseases, an accurate estimate of the total number of people diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder is unknown. Autoimmune diseases cannot be cured, but they can be managed and controlled through medicine, diet, and PROPER exercise.
- A disorder is an abnormality in a body’s function.
- A disease can result from a disorder, has a distinguishing set of symptoms, and can affect the body as a whole or in parts.
Exercise and Stress
Everyone knows that exercise is necessary for healthy living, but exercise can exacerbate the symptoms of autoimmune diseases. Flare-ups of symptoms from various diseases can be induced by environmental and physiological stressors. When we exercise, our bodies undergo an intense amount of physical and chemical changes. For example, the heart’s blood flow increases approximately 5x the resting rate blood flow, the muscles’ blood vessels dilate, blood is re-routed to the muscles, the body heats up (especially the skin), the hypothalamus stimulates our sweat glands, skin blood flow increases, and hormone levels (insulin, glucagon, cortisol, growth hormone, epinephrine, and norepinephrine) change significantly. For most individuals, these changes do not adversely affect their bodies. In fact, exercise is typically known as a great stress reliever. However, for individuals with an autoimmune disorder, these stressors can worsen symptoms or cause so much pain rendering the act of exercising nearly impossibly. However, there are certain tips these individuals can follow and exercises they can do to prevent this from occurring.
Exercise Tips for those with an Autoimmune Disorder
- Avoid high intensity workouts: Switch to low and moderate intensity workouts at least during flare-up periods. You can try gradually increasing the vigor to reach a high intensity workout when symptoms are under control.
- Know when to take it easy: You know your body better than anyone. If you start feeling fatigued or you start seeing a slight increase in symptoms…take a break, or switch to an extremely low-impact workout until you feel ready to begin again. There is no shame is stopping a workout if your health is at risk.
- Experiment with time length: There may be a chance that a 35 minute moderately intense workout is not right for you; however, a 20 minute workout is perfectly okay! Giving yourself the time to figure out the best length of a workout will reap its benefit in the long run. Keep in mind that during flare-ups, this time length may shorten.
- Don’t compare yourself to others: What works for someone else may or may not work for you. It is important for you to remember that symptoms and diseases manifest differently in every person diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder. Even two people with the exact same disease may not have the same amount of pain or same type of symptoms, so their workout schedule and activities may differ from each other’s. Design a workout plan that is exclusive for your body.
- Consult with your doctor: Ask them for suggestions on the types of exercises you should be doing as well as the frequency and length of the workout. Also, it might help to ask them if there are specific activities to avoid. For example, although cross-fit is a high intensity workout and some people really enjoy it, your doctor may feel that it is an inappropriate activity for you to participate in.
- Keep track of your symptoms: When you are planning your new workout schedule, track your symptoms so you can align which activities, durations, and frequencies worsened your symptoms, which ones had no effect, and which ones improved your symptoms.
Examples of Low to Moderate Intensity Workouts
- Step Climbing
- Yoga/Pilates/Tai Chi
- Group dance classes
- Climbing wall
Have a Happy Workout!
Check out the UNC Campus Rec website for more information on group classes, gym hours, cycling schedules, and the climbing wall.