At this point in the autoimmune series, you can understand why I was reluctant to write an article in the first place! It is so complex, complicated, and multifaceted. So, if I were going to touch on another lifestyle change someone can easily implement, it would be exercise. Unfortunately, exercise is one category where you can have too much of a good thing, especially if you suffer from autoimmunity. There is a point where movement is healthy, beneficial, and will IMPROVE your immune system. On the flip side, if someone’s system is under extreme demand, their adrenals are shot, and they are often stressed, you can easily overdo it. Then the question becomes, what types of exercise are best, and how much.
Exercise is very closely related to your adrenals and the production of cortisol. Cortisol is a steroidal hormone that helps you keep up with stress and is important in the fight or flight response. These spikes in cortisol production should be short-lived and not chronic by any means. However, many of us live stressful, hectic lives and some add tons of exercise on top of it. This is a recipe for adrenal fatigue, and if you want to read more on that, click here. The more intense you exercise, the more cortisol you release. This disrupts something we call the HPA axis, which is important in regulating hormones and the immune system. The types of exercise that stimulate the HPA Axis disruption the most are chronic cardio and and high intensity exercise. That means that if you have an autoimmune disease, you may be doing more damage than good if you try to run marathons (or any long distance) or Crossfit. It doesn’t mean you can’t participate in these workouts, but it does mean you need to be smart about it! Resistance training does not have the same effect on cortisol if it is practiced alone. This means that weight lifting or body weight movements at lower intensities may be a great option for those with autoimmunity or adrenal fatigue! If you decide to participate in physical activity that is too strenuous for your body to keep up with the cortisol production, guess what, you can CAUSE LEAKY GUT. We talked about how leaky gut is how this whole thing got started in the first place! It’s a classic case of too much of a good thing. Balance is key and more doesn’t always mean better.
As far as how exercise affects the immune system, it can cause a huge inflammatory response. Any exercise someone does at more intensity that usual for longer than usual, is mobilizing neutrophils and natural killer cells. This type of exercise also stimulates phagocytosis and increases the production of inflammatory compounds. In studies, we see that following acute exercise, the number of T and B cells (immune cells) drop below the levels they were BEFORE every working out. This quickly recovers if someone has adequate recovery time. However, if there isn’t sufficient days between these types of workouts, then it is common for athletes to get sick!
Now we understand that we may need to back off the intensity, how often should we be working out if we have an autoimmune condition? I like to say High Intensity work should not be done more than 2 times a week. That would include intervals, Crossfit, intense cardio. You should leave at least 2 days between those sessions for proper cellular repair and recovery. In between, yoga, walking, leisurely biking are all amazing, repairing options. You can also add some resistance training like weight lifting or body weight movements like squats, push ups, pull ups, etc to the mix. The key here is to keep your heart rate down when you are avoiding high intensity. This may mean doing less initially which seems counter-intuitive because we all want to look good naked. However, chronic cardio and too much high intensity activity are driving your adrenals into the ground. Once that happens, your body will begin taking building blocks from hormone production in order to try to keep up with cortisol production. It doesn’t care how fertile you are, heavy your periods are, or how horny you are if it is trying to survive a flight or flight experience! As far as our genetics are concerned, stressful situations are life and death. That is why de-stressing is so important.
If you have cut out gluten, upped your fat soluble vitamins, addressed you stomach acid, and quit taking miscellaneous medications, this could be your next step in the equation. Exercise should be a positive challenge to the body. If overdone, it most definitely acts in the opposite direction. Choose something FUN. I like group classes because community makes every second fun for me. I really enjoy sports. Join a sports club. Take family walks. Movement does not have to be a dreaded to-do on the endless list. It should and could be something you ENJOY and LOOK FORWARD TO! If you haven’t found that type of movement yet, then keep searching. Different strokes for different folks. The more you can do outside, the better, too.