how to live, eat, and exercise through the struggles of an autoimmune disease
I rarely open up about how much I suffer throughout my days. I like to spend my time happy with who I am and what I can do, rather than dwell on the day-to-day trials and tribulations. Because of this, it is rare that I speak about what I deal with in regards to my illness. However, I want to inspire and motivate others who may be sick to continue seeking answers and to never give up hope on what they can achieve to move closer to better health and ultimately a better life. After all, if we can fill our own cups, then we have much more to give to make this world a better place.
In short, autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks itself. Essentially your body will release antibodies to attack your healthy cells, which it thinks are invaders (bacteria or viruses). As for me, I have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is quite common. Some of what I have experienced includes excruciating stomach aches, GI issues, skin issues, joint pain, fatigue, weight loss, and irritability. Additionally, colon cancer and Crohn’s Disease have significantly altered lives in my family, so these types of issues are not new to my world. In hopes to save my day-to-day life and improve my longevity, I have been forced to transition my lifestyle, eat a bit differently than everyone else, and prioritize health and wellness.
Dealing with physical pain is only one part of the problem, though. For many autoimmune sufferers, the mental and social side effects are much worse.
Imagine you are getting ready to go to work. You hop in your car and start driving and suddenly five minutes in, you have to turn around and go home because you need to use the restroom. You’re then stressed because you’re now not only late, but you also need to come up with an excuse for your boss because you do not want to make it seem like you are irresponsible. Then when lunch time rolls around, you start feeling stressed again. Why? Because everyone else chooses the restaurant, and even though you know there are limited things on the menu to eat, you humbly oblige and join anyway. You convince yourself that eating just a little bit with a group is better than staying behind and eating alone, leaving you stressed, starving, and constantly forced to put on a smile to make it seem like you are enjoying your day and your job. You keep brainwashing yourself that you’re a positive person, but you just want it all to end.
That was my everyday life.
It does not just affect work though, it affects everything. From vacations being cut short or extended, to having to choose afternoon or late night flights because mornings are too stressful, to having to pack precautionary Charmin products for road trips, I have always had to prep and plan my days to prepare for the unexpected. It wasn’t until it started to alter my relationships with the people I love most—specifically my then fiancé, now wife, Erin—that I finally considered things to be at their worst.
The end of 2016 was my breaking point. I unintentionally lost 20lbs, could no longer fit into my suit and was constantly arguing with Erin out of irritability, which in turn put a lot of tension on our relationship. This lead to my internal ultimatum: Should I keep my job and continue suffering, or should I reduce my spending, resign, find an alternate and more flexible career path, and focus on my health? On January 1st, 2017 I finally looked at myself in the mirror and realized I was the problem, but I was also the solution. The next day I resigned from my job and set out on a pursuit to cure myself while helping others on their own personal health journeys.
While these hardships have been difficult to deal with, I do want to point out that there are ways to eat, exercise, live, and THRIVE while enduring the complications that arise with these types of health issues.
Here are some of those ways.
1. Life: Honesty and Self Awareness
Whether it is eating, working out, or life in general, we always have control over two things: 1) Our attitude towards ourselves and those around us, and 2) our work ethic. When I finally became honest with myself, I was able to be honest with others, and I no longer felt the need to pretend that everything was okay if it truly wasn’t. Today I accept that if others do not understand my struggle and cannot make slight exceptions for me, I will remain positive and just “keep it moving”. This allows me to pour all my hard work into people and projects that reciprocate and charge my battery, rather than drain it.
Tips to follow:
- Choose to hang around people “who get it”. This doesn’t mean only people who struggle with autoimmune diseases, but people who can be empathetic to your struggles and support you in them.
- Be open and transparent with any significant others and friends/family when not feeling well.
- Stand up for ourselves at restaurants to order what YOU know is best rather than choosing NOT to go.
Meal prepping is critical for anyone with my disease or many other autoimmune diseases. It can be overwhelming, time-consuming, and at times, downright exhausting. To combat this, try to focus on simplicity. I try to eat a healthy ratio of natural/organic carbs, fats, and proteins in every meal that I have. To anyone suffering, I recommend listing out all “allowable” foods. Then create your meals to mix and match these foods together. While physically meal prepping is important, the mental factor of doing it and executing is the critical step to positively changing your life. I broke out of my fear of being judged and I started to bring my home-cooked food to work, restaurants and other social gatherings. I started to speak up about the issues I have to make it known to coworkers and restaurant managers that “no I cannot just have a bite”. All in all, I took ownership of my nutritional health and stopped allowing others to dictate why or how I would or should do certain things.
Tips to follow:
- As a starting point, use a notebook to write out when / what you are eating and then document how each food makes you feel.
- Purchase a bag that is specific to carrying prepped food. This will help keep food hot or cold when you are on the go.
- Clear out your kitchen of all foods that might throw you off track. It is rare that we will go out of our way to purchase detrimental food, but if it is in our closet we risk consuming it.
Exercise in itself has changed the course of my life for the better. When I started to exercise more frequently in college, I witnessed a new sense of self with a new boost of confidence and lower anxiety and depressive states. Little did I know then that my love for the gym was actually due to it being my personal painkiller. When we exercise, the body releases endorphins that help reduce pain and inflammation. While this occurs in everyone, it is a game-changer for anyone dealing with autoimmune issues. Because of this, I make sure to get in 30-60 minutes of movement each day. When it comes to exercise regimens, I always come back to one word, consistency. Whatever you will do consistently should be your main choice of exercise. Whether you like to walk, run, jump, lift, go to group classes…just do what makes you happy and ultimately you will have a consistent routine that will improve your overall well-being.
Tips to follow:
- Make it convenient! Consistency is key, so pick a gym or workout area close to work/home so it is not stressful to get to.
- Find a workout buddy. It is easier to stay consistent when we have a friend or family member who is on the same journey and can hold us accountable. It is also way more fun!
- KISS: Keep it stupid simple. Workouts do not need to be a crazy routine to be effective. Focus on small progressions over time rather than trying things that may look cool, but could end up in an unnecessary injury.
For those dealing with any type of autoimmune disease or struggles similar to them, I want to be the reassurance to never lose hope. While certain things may be more challenging, it only makes us stronger and life a bit more colorful. If this story resonated with you, please never hesitate to reach out to me. I’d love to have a conversation and continue to inspire others to have a voice and help them fight back against their struggles.
To learn more about CJ’s journey, follow him on Instagram: @thriveonlife