How To Exercise When You Have an Autoimmune Disease

One thing that all autoimmune illnesses have in common is inflammation. This inflammation affects different parts of the body and different people in unique ways. Many people with autoimmune conditions find that they struggle with joint and muscle pain, as well as overwhelming fatigue. An exercise program for someone with autoimmune disease should support healing and health, and prevent further inflammation.

Before beginning any exercise program, you should consult with your doctor or a licensed physical therapist. You need to make sure that you are healthy enough to begin an exercise program.

Benefits of exercising when you have an autoimmune disease: 

  • Exercise can boost energy levels 
  • Endorphins are released when you exercise and they're natural painkillers
  • Exercise can reduce inflammation
  • Anxiety and depression which are often associated with autoimmune disease can be relieved through physical activity (find source)

What are some ways to exercise with an autoimmune condition?

  • Walking on flat surfaces 
  • Yoga
  • Water exercise classes
  • Stationary biking 

Tips for exercising with an autoimmune disease 

1. Use exercise to make you feel your best  
Depending on the autoimmune condition low impact exercise may be the best option. I've found that pushing myself to hard means an extra long recovery and a lot of fatigue. So I've learned that for me it's not about burning a huge amount of calories or building muscle, it's more about keeping my body healthy. Even if light low impact exercise is all you can do, that can still help you feel better and healthier. 

2. Customize your workout plan for you
Some days you may be able to more and some less. If you're experiencing an autoimmune flare and can't exercise then don't force yourself to. Rest and get back to it when you can. 

3. Push yourself slowly
For me I find that very (and I mean very!) small increases in the workouts i'm doing helps me improve my fitness without pushing myself to far and resulting in major burnout. 

4. Find your sweet spot
When I first started working out I was pushing myself way to far. I would get home and immediately fall asleep for a few hours. Not good! You should be able to continue on with you day with energy. Conserve your spoons (as many chronic illness sufferers would say.)

My Workout Routine: 

What's my current exercise routine? (This is 2-3 times a week depending on how I feel)
10 Minutes of light stretching
Walk/ Run (20 minutes) Outside on a flat trail or beach
Walk 2-3 Minutes Run 1 Minute
This yoga routine: Simple Yoga Cool Down

What did my exercise routine look like at the beginning? (2 times a week)
10-15 minute walk
5 minutes of light stretching 

What's my goal? (3 times a week)
Run for 15-20 minutes
20-30 minutes of yoga
increased flexibility

How do you find exercising with your autoimmune condition? 

Top Foods To Eat If You Have An Autoimmune Disease

Foods To Eat To TameYour Autoimmune Disease.png

Science is starting to show more and more that the dietary choices you make when suffering with an autoimmune disease can either help or hinder your health. Food won't cure your autoimmune condition, but it can help put it into remission (like celiac disease) or it can help relieve debilitating symptoms. 

Eating foods that are rich in nutrients and free of contaminants (like pesticides) and correcting nutrient deficiencies will benefit your health. This is especially important in autoimmune disease because many medications that are used deplete the body of nutrients. The focus when choosing helpful foods should be to identify and eliminate inflammatory foods and nourish with real foods that deliver vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. 

So what are some important foods to eat to resolve those nutritional deficiencies, nourish your body and support overall health? 

Healthy Fats
Autoimmune diseases emerge when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells. The exact cause of such physiological slip-ups is still unclear, but researchers are now beginning to learn that dietary fats could influence how these symptoms present themselves. Not all fats are created equal, some are pro inflammatory and others are not. Trans fats result in poor health and inflammation while omega 3 fatty acids can turn down your bodies inflammation. 

Short-chain fatty acids, typically found in fiber-rich diets, are only metabolized by gut bacteria. Omega-3 fatty acids are made of short chain fatty acids like in fish, nut and seeds. Since many autoimmune conditions are thought to originate in the gut and gut health is directly linked to autoimmune symptoms, eating omega 3 fatty acids is very important if you have an autoimmune condition. 

A research team discovered that giving the mice short-chain fatty acids promoted the growth of regulatory T cells, which help keep the immune system in check. They ended up improving the disease in the animals. (1)   

What foods to eat to get healthy fats
Increase your omega-3 intake by eating more wild caught fish (canned salmon and sardines are great inexpensive options), omega-3 eggs, and maybe also using a good quality fish oil supplement. It is also important to reduce your intake of omega-6 fatty acids to the best of your ability (and budget).  This means no modern vegetable oils or products made from them, like mayonnaise or store-bought salad dressings.  Also, be mindful of your nut consumption and try to eat grass-fed meat, free-range poultry, and wild game whenever possible. 

You have probably heard of probiotics, but what are prebiotics and what do they have to do with autoimmune disease? As I touched on earlier the health of your gut is directly correlated to your autoimmune condition. Poor gut health and autoimmune disease (especially digestive autoimmune disease) go hand in hand. So feeding your body foods that support and nourish your gut health is key for transforming your health. 

“Prebiotics” is a catch-all term that refers to all the different kinds of fiber that encourage beneficial species of gut flora to grow. You can’t digest them, but your gut flora can – and more food for the gut flora means more flora. Prebiotics are not the same thing as probiotics:

  • PREbiotics provide food for the bacteria already living in your gut.
  • PRObiotics provide a direct infusion of bacteria that weren’t there before.

Prebiotics are probably already in your diet; you just didn’t realize it.

Some foods high in prebiotic fibers include:

  • Dandelion greens
  • Garlic and onions (and any vegetables in that family, e.g. leeks)
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Chicory (used in coffee substitutes)

It's important to note that probiotics are great but not for everyone. In some prebiotics can sometimes do more harm than good:

  • People with Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO) often find that prebiotics are the exact opposite of what they need (if you already have too many bacteria, feeding them even more is not going to help).
  • Many people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or FODMAPs intolerance find that prebiotics make their symptoms worse.

So if you have or suspect these conditions then avoiding prebiotics is best, but for others these food can be helpful. 

Probiotic Foods
While the research into the role specific bacterial strains play in our body is on-going, we do know that eating fermented foods on a regular basis is beneficial when addressing autoimmune disease. A healing addition to your diet, they are involved in immune modulation; fighting infection; speeding the healing process; have anti-inflammatory effects; and provide digestive benefits such as improving the integrity of the gut wall, and helping to correct gut dysbiosis (an imbalance in gut bacteria).

Not only is it a good idea to eat fermented foods to ensure you get the good microbes into your gut but also so that you keep the bad ones out. Dysbiosis is a microbial imbalance on or within the body or an overgrowth of ‘bad’ microbes which can lead to health issues. I put bad within in commas because we all have a little bit of the ‘bad guys’ in our gut, and that is okay. It becomes a problem only when they get out of control and outnumber the ‘good guys’.

Foods high in probiotics:

Fermented Vegetables

  • Pickles (cucumbers)
  • Sauerkraut (cabbage)
  • Kimchi (cabbage and other veggies)
  • Capers (flower buds of Capparis spinosa, a shrub like bush)
  • Olives

Fermented Dairy

  • Yogurt
  • Kefir


  • Kombucha

If you with a histamine sensitivity you may have problems with many fermented foods, but before you give up, try kombucha which is known to be better tolerated. If you have a yeast sensitivity, you may only use probiotic supplements because while fermented foods are known for their beneficial bacteria, they also contain beneficial yeasts that can cause a reaction.

Fruits and vegetables contain an many antioxidants and other disease-fighting compounds that are very difficult to get anywhere else. Plant chemicals called phytochemicals can reduce inflammation and eliminate carcinogens, while others regulate the rate at which your cells reproduce, get rid of old cells and maintain DNA. 

We know that inflammation goes hand in hand with autoimmune disease. During an immune response, there’s an increase in the production of free radicals, which can result in oxidative stress (a negative shift in the natural balance between oxidants and antioxidants that results in damage to the body. In fact, much of the damage in autoimmune disease can be linked to free radical damage to cell membranes and tissues. Studies have shown that oxidative stress and low antioxidant activity occur in autoimmune disease. 

Foods Highest in Antioxidants

  • Goji berries
  • Wild blueberries
  • Artichoke
  • Elderberries
  • Cranberries
  • Blackberries
  • Cilantro

Focusing on nutrient rich foods that are high quality and organic reduces the toxic load on your body and fills the nutritional gaps needed to lower inflammation and support your health. 

Will Healing Your Gut Relieve Autoimmune Symptoms?

Research is starting to direct attention towards the health of your gut and how it relates to autoimmune disease. A condition called leaky gut has been linked to many autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Crohn's disease and many others. The intestine is lined with single layer of cells that allow the transport of small molecules (vitamins, minerals) into the bloodstream to be used by the body. When this layer of cells is inflamed or damaged, larger molecules (like bacteria, undigested food particles, viruses) that would normally be blocked can enter the bloodstream and interact with the immune system. This is called leaky gut or more formality known as increased intestinal permeability.

For many years it was believed that between these cells were "tight junctions" that never opened. A protein has been discovered called Zonulin. It helps regulate leakiness in the gut by opening and closing the spaces or "tight junctions". Much of the research on leaky gut syndrome is focused on zonulin, that to date is the only thing known to regulate intestinal permeability. (1)

Gut Facts!
Inside the small intestine there are billions of bacteria (as much as 3 1/2 pounds!)

The small intestine is 20 ft long and if you laid it out has the surface area of a tennis court!

Bacteria in our gut outnumber our own cells 10:1.

Is Leaky Gut Real?
Leaky Gut has been proven real but there is a lot of misinformation out there. Dr. Alessio Fassano, someone who has done extensive leaky gut research has said "The term "leaky gut” has for decades been “used and abused” by some alternative medicine practitioners who—without scientific evidence—cited it as the cause of everything from autism to cancer. There is a link to autoimmunity but there is no proof as of now that leaky gut is the cause of any disease. 

How Does Leaky Gut Happen?
Zonulin is believed to be the protein that opens and closes the tight junctions and therefore it may be what triggers leaky gut. Two of the most powerful triggers of the release of zonulin are harmful intestinal bacteria and gluten, via gliadin, a glycoprotein present in wheat, in the small intestine. (2) It's important to note that some diseases like celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome can affect intestinal permeability making it difficult distinguish between cause and effect(3).  Meaning it's impossible to tell if leaky gut caused the disease or was simply a result.

What Causes Leaky Gut?
Chronic stress can lead to a weakened immune system, affecting your ability to fight off invading bacteria and viruses and worsening the symptoms of leaky gut. Medications like aspirin and non-steroidal anti inflammatories (NSAIDs) that can damage the lining of your gut, as well as antibiotics that kill off your essential good bacteria are also associated with increased intestinal permeability. An imbalance between beneficial and harmful species in your gut called dysbiosis is one of the theories about what causes increased intestinal permeability. Excessive alcohol consumption, infection with parasites, radiation and chemotherapy can damage the lining of the intestine and have also been linked to leaky gut.

What Conditions are associated with Leaky Gut?
An increasing number of diseases are recognized as involving changes in intestinal permeability including autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn's disease. High stress levels have been linked to increased intestinal permeability (4).

Will healing your gut relieve autoimmune symptoms? 
It's important to recognize that while leaky gut has been connected with autoimmune disease that doesn't mean it's the cause. That being said many of the proposed solutions to leaky gut are sensible recommendations that can lead to improvements in your overall health, whether or not you have increased intestinal permeability.

While evidence based treatments for leaky gut are limited it's important to remove any potential root causes of the problem. To help improve gut health it's important to remove any potential underlying roots of the problem (eg, gluten, alcohol, and NSAIDs).

  • Get tested for infections to see if they are the root cause of your health symptoms.
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet that eliminates refined sugars, dairy, gluten, alcohol and artificial sweeteners.
  • Consume anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids in fish and nuts, and eat plenty of green leafy vegetables, high-fiber and fermented foods that help to promote the growth of good bacteria.
  • Get tested for Celiac Disease
  • Eliminate any potential food sensitivities via an elimination diet
  • Minimize alcohol intake
  • Avoid NSAIDs if possible
  • Reduce Stress

A lot still needs to be learned about leaky gut but improving your digestive health will only benefit your overall health with or without leaky gut.