Unfortunately, depression is often a common companion of chronic health conditions, especially autoimmunity and lupus.
To begin with, the diagnosis of a lifelong condition can be devastating.
Lupus is viewed and labeled as a chronic, progressive, degenerative disease – often only expected to get worse with time. Many patients look to their doctors for hope only to find disappointment when their only solution is a life of multiple medications accompanied by complications and side effects.
It’s no surprise that it can inspire emotional hardship. But just like pain, inflammation, and fatigue, depression is a symptom. It is the way your body is communicating that something isn’t right.
There ARE protocols and modalities to help though. One of the biggest brings us to the gut.
Your gut produces most of your neurotransmitters, or brain chemicals, like serotonin, that make us feel good. Surprised?
Producing these neurotransmitters requires the right building blocks, the right nutrients, and good bacteria. In a poor gut environment, nutrients are not being absorbed and the good bacteria are not being fed. This creates an imbalance in our microbiome.
The Microbiome plays a critical role in determining our health, including your mental health. By eating a wide variety of plant foods in our diet and by minimizing stress in our lifestyle, we help create a good foundation for a healthy microbiome.
And then there’s the ever-spiraling circle of stress and health. Many people with autoimmunity deal with emotional stress stemming from their health struggles. This continual stress impacts your health further, both emotionally and physically.
A certain level of stress is healthy, but it becomes unhealthy when it is chronic. When stress doesn’t go away after the threat is gone, those stress hormones that can save your life can also wreak havoc on it.
Excess cortisol, a hormone caused by stress, can cause further issues. Stress management is a powerful tool to help you learn how to deal with the stress in your life and also how to protect your body from the harmful effects of excess stress.
Lifestyle for Maintaining Immune Balance
“We are what we repeatedly do.
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
~ Will Durant
What CAN You Change? As we’ve discussed in the previous sections, creating a healthy lifestyle revolves around identifying and modifying the things we do daily that are sabotaging our health and further perpetuating chronic disease.
Get plenty of sleep – sleep and naps boost brain health. Even mild sleep deprivation can elevate inflammatory markers. You need to develop good sleep habits, which means more than just not watching TV in bed. Because timing is key when addressing the adrenals, it is important to keep consistent sleep and wake times. Timing your exercise can also play an important role in helping your adrenals work more optimally.
There is a strong correlation between exercise, fitness and your brain. By incorporating a simple five-to-ten-minute high-intensity-interval workout to your morning routine, you can help support your adrenals and what’s called the cortisol awakening response. The cortisol awakening response is what helps wake you up and get your energy going for the rest of the day. This also helps those who struggle to get out of bed in the morning. It’s like fuel in your engine: Do you want to run on a full tank or an empty one? By getting your heart rate up first thing in the morning, you help proper cortisol production, and therefore, a proper cortisol awakening response.
While the timing of exercise is important, the amount of exercise is also something to take into account. Exercise increases endorphins, improves mood, reduces anxiety, and improves sleep. But too much of a good thing isn’t necessarily better. Exercise is also a catabolic activity. So, adding more stress to an already stressed-out state isn’t necessarily helpful and could potentially make you worse.
A good rule of thumb is, do it, but don’t overdo it. You just need to find your exercise “tolerance.” If you feel worse after exercise (beyond normal exhaustion, physical pain besides normal soreness, or a longer than typical recovery period), then you may be doing too much. While it is okay to feel tired or sore after a workout, you shouldn’t be recovering in bed for the next couple of days. To find your level of exercise tolerance, simply cut back on the intensity and duration or frequency of your workouts. Instead of working out an hour a day, try twenty to thirty minutes four to five times per week. It is important that you are feeling good about the amount and type of activity you are doing.
Smoking or vaping nicotine is toxic and an immune system irritant leading to increased inflammation and oxidative stress. Nicotine increases cortisol levels and blood pressure and can increase the risk of a heart attack. Do not sabotage your health by smoking.
Exercise. Exercise. Exercise. However, make sure not to overdo it as strenuous exercise can perpetuate leaky gut and contribute to stress in the body.
First, start with identifying what stresses your body is dealing with. What are your sources of stress, and which ones do you have control over? Which ones do you not? By identifying which stresses you have control over, you can start to make changes in your daily life to combat those, and for the stresses that are out of your control. Incorporate daily stress management techniques to help your body cope and to negate the negative impact they have on your body.
When it comes to supporting the immune system, we cannot stress enough the importance of stress management in not only healing, but also maintaining remission. Remember, chronic stress is pro-inflammatory, meaning it contributes to immune system overactivation and leads to flares of the disease. Thus, you should make it a priority to learn ways to cope with stress and avoid as many external stressors as possible.
Restorative “Me Time” Activities
Here are a few simple things you can do to better manage stress and take some much-needed “me time.” Check off the practices you already use or mark the ones you want to try!
- Practice mindfulness
- Breathing techniques such as 4-7-8
- Listen to music
- Participate in social activities, visit a friend
- Laughter (the best medicine!)
- Guided imagery
- Gratitude journal (take a daily inventory of all the good things in your life)
- Physical, mental, and emotional rest
- Limit electronic device use
- Epson salt baths
- Get a massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic treatment
- Nap – remember that sleep and naps boost brain health
Photosensitivity and Vitamin D
Sensitivity to the sun can be devastating as you have to plan your day around avoiding the sun or suffer the consequences. The sun’s UV rays can cause skin damage and trigger immune flare-up and symptoms. In sun-sensitive individuals, sun exposure can mean painful sunburns, rashes, aches and pains, and fatigue even after short stints in the sun.
So how can you avoid/minimize UV exposure?
- Cover up! Wear a hat, long sleeves, an umbrella, and gloves.
- Avoid the sun between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. as this is when the sun’s rays are strongest.
- Use a natural broad-spectrum sunscreen daily.
- Be aware of the effects of indoor lighting as indoor fluorescent lights can also create problems in some sensitive people. Don’t be afraid to discuss with your employer, etc.
- Be aware of things that may increase your sensitivity to the sun:
- Certain drugs can contribute to or increase photosensitivity, such as certain antifungal drugs, antihistamines, oral contraceptives, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs like ibuprofen and naproxen), antibiotics, oral diabetes drugs, diuretics, and tricyclic antidepressants. The same is true of the herbal remedy St. John’s wort, which is taken for depression, anxiety, and PMS.
- Consuming foods such as celery, dill, fennel, figs, lime, parsley, and wild carrots can increase sun sensitivity.
- Topical scents and essential oils like bergamot, bitter orange, lavender, lemon verbena, musk, rosemary, and sandalwood can make your skin more reactive to the sun.
- Check skincare products for ingredients such as glycolic acid, salicylic acid, and Retin-A. Each of these agents strips the outer layer of the skin, making the skin more sensitive to the sun. Plus, the chemical benzoyl peroxide, which is in many over-the-counter acne products, can cause photosensitivity.
The supplemental herb Polypodium leucotomos may help with skin protection to reduce symptoms or flares with sun exposure. This plant extract has been shown to protect against free radical damage in the skin like what can occur from UV exposure.
It is really important for sun-sensitive people to supplement with oral vitamin D to ensure adequate amounts for immune support. Vitamin D is so important to overall health and warding off depression. Our best source of vitamin D is from the sun but for some individuals that may be sensitive to sun exposure, making sure to take precaution is important as it can flare up symptoms. These individuals also need to make sure to supplement with adequate amounts of vitamin D to avoid deficiency.
Healing through Breathing
The autonomic nervous systems are composed of sympathetic and parasympathetic. Both of these systems play a crucial role in keeping us alive daily, without us even being aware of it. The sympathetic system is commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” nervous system, and the parasympathetic system is known as “rest and digest.” The sympathetic nervous system controls functions like keeping your heart beating and maintaining your breathing, while the parasympathetic system controls functions, such as restorative sleep and gut motility. The sympathetic dominant state is more active when our bodies are under stress. One of the simplest and most effective tools for controlling this stress response and switching from sympathetic to parasympathetic is how you breathe.
Here’s a simple exercise to help. It’s called the “4-7-8 Breathing”
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three or more times until you start to feel a little more relaxed. You may also notice your heart rate slowing down. This is also a great tool for anxiety. Doing this exercise when you first start to notice anxiety can help stop it in its tracks and prevent an anxiety attack.
Finally, Get a Health Buddy
Finding a “health buddy” or someone you can partner with can make your lifestyle changes much easier and more successful. Whether it’s an ear to listen, understanding, or someone to keep you accountable, a health partner can be very effective in helping you stick to necessary lifestyle changes. Exercise is often difficult for people to stay committed to. Having a health buddy can keep you accountable to stay active and maintain the connection between exercise, fitness and your brain.
If you don’t have a loved one or friend to partner with and need additional support, there are several online support groups for others dealing with lupus. Connecting with other people who are experiencing similar challenges with their health can be very healing in itself.
Human connection, understanding, and empathy play a major role in the emotional, mental, and spiritual aspects of healing. Seek out groups of people who are optimistic and surround yourself with people who inspire you to be better. Learn from those who have done what you want to do.
Avoid negativity and don’t be afraid to walk away from toxic people. Negativity, including negative self-talk, only holds you back from achieving your goals, whatever they may be. Having a supporting team to back you up only makes you stronger.
And remember, we are here for you. Our community is here. Feel free to join our Facebook Group and lean in to US. You are not alone.