Tips & Advice

Autoimmune Protocol Series: AIP Lifestyle Factors

Title photo for AIP Lifestyle Factors
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The Autoimmune Protocol isn’t just about your diet. AIP lifestyle factors play a huge role in your healing process. After all, a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory diet won’t matter much if you’re stressed out and lacking sleep all the time. The AIP Lifestyle is just as important for your health as the AIP Diet. So, what is the AIP Lifestyle?

What are the AIP Lifestyle Factors?

  • Meal Management
  • Stress Management
  • Quality Sleep
  • Daily Movement

Meal Management

The first AIP Lifestyle Factor is managing how and when you eat your meals. Some of the most profound improvements in digestion can be achieved through practicing good meal hygiene. Here are some practices you can work on over the course of your AIP journey:

  • Practice “mindful eating”.
    • Sit down to eat and focus on your food and the people you are eating with. Distracted eating (i.e. eating in front of the TV, at your desk, on the road or while playing a video game) hinder digestions, leading to gut dysbiosis. It also makes you more likely to overeat. Distracted eating also leads to less awareness of your body’s hunger and satiety signals, which can lead to overeating in future meals, as well. If you are accustomed to eating while distracted, try making one meal a day your “mindful meal” and work your way up to eating every meal free of distractions.
  • Chew thoroughly and don’t rush through a meal.
    • Thoroughly chewing your food is one of the best ways to improve your digestion. Chewing signals the rest of your digestive tract to prepare for the incoming food. It also breaks down your food into smaller particles, which are easier for your stomach and intestines to process. Chewing also reduces the amount of liquid you need to “wash your food down.” Large amounts of liquid during a meal can dilute your stomach acid, bile salts and digestive enzymes, making them less efficient. Try to limit yourself to no more than one small glass of water with meals, but drink plenty in between meals, and upon waking, to stay hydrated.
    • Likewise, rushing through a meal or running off to your next event immediately afterward hinders digestion. Try to stay relaxed while eating and take some time after a meal to relax a bit and allow your digestive system to do its thing. If you are highly stressed during your regular meal time, it is actually better to delay your meal until your stress is under control. If chronic stress is a problem for you, you may want to use some digestive support supplements until you can get your stress under control.
  • Eat larger, more infrequent meals.
    • Your body needs time in between meals to “rest and digest.” Spacing out your meals actually helps your digestive system and your immune system to function properly. Eating small, frequent meals can contribute to gut dysbiosis. If you are a grazer, or if you eat 4-6 small meals per day, try working your way down to 2-3 larger meals per day. This can be really tough for most grazers, so start slow. Try spacing your meals at least three hours apart and work your way up to larger intervals. Practicing mindful eating and listening to your body’s hunger and satiety signals can help a lot in this transition. Don’t try to do it overnight. If your body is used to six small meals a day, switching to two or three large ones can be quite a shock to your system. It is absolutely okay to work on this transition over the course of a few weeks to a few months.

Stress Management

The second AIP Lifestyle Factor is stress management. Managing stress levels can have huge impacts on your health. I can tell you from personal experience that stress has a more direct impact on my digestion and overall wellness than any other component of the Autoimmune Protocol, including food choices (except gluten, of course, which as someone with celiac, is out of my diet for the rest of my life)!

There are two main components to reducing stress:

1. Decrease the number and severity of stressors in your life.

It is much easier to manage stress if you can limit the occurrence of stressful situations in the first place. Make peace with the fact that you can’t “do it all” and ask for help when you need it. Prioritize what is most important to you and forget the rest.

If constantly cleaning up after your spouse or kids is stressing you out, ask them to help out around the house more. Or hire a cleaning service.

If work is stressing you out, find ways to reduce the stress by either asking for help, asking for fewer responsibilities, or changing jobs. Work is an especially tough stressor to tackle, as it affects us for the vast majority of our days and making changes can be overwhelming. But anything you can do to reduce the amount of stress work causes you will benefit your health in drastic ways.

It’s also OK to say no to certain social obligations, like a party or event you aren’t particularly excited to attend.

Additionally, if you have one or more people in your life who are a negative influence, are not supportive, or cause more stress than they alleviate, you can choose to reduce your contact with those people. Either limit contact or cut them out entirely. The choice is yours, but limiting the presence of negative people in your life will significantly decrease your stress.

2. Increase your stress resilience (minimize the effect stressors have on you).

There are many ways to help increase your stress resilience. Some of the most commonly suggested stress reducers are things like meditation, physical activity and breathing exercises. If you find yourself particularly stressed at any given point in the day, just take 5 minutes to do a breathing exercise or a quick meditation. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

Something that has also been gaining in popularity lately is keeping a gratitude journal. Just writing down the small things that make you happy every day can start to shift your mind to focus on the positive, rather than the negative things in life.

Connecting with nature can also increase your stress resilience. Play in the dirt. Walk barefoot in the grass. Plant a garden. Go for a walk in a park or a hike in the woods. Even if you just get outside and breathe some fresh air for 10 minutes a day, it’s better than sitting inside all day. Getting outside also has the beneficial effect of supporting your circadian rhythms, which support your sleep cycle and relieves stress.

Connection with friends and family can also have a profound effect on your stress resilience. Humans are social creatures. We need friends and family we can call on to provide both emotional and physical support. How many times have you felt overwhelmed and stressed out, then had a good talk with a friend and felt less alone and more able to tackle the problem? How many times has a good, hearty laugh with your partner sent endorphins coursing through your body? I can’t even count how many times, myself.

Also, be sure to incorporate something fun into every single day. So many of us get trapped in the daily grind of work, commuting, chores and errands that we forget to make time for ourselves to do something we enjoy. Pick up a new hobby. Go to happy hour with a friend. Start back up an old hobby you let fall by the wayside because life got too busy. Find joy in the small things. Laugh. Having fun should be something you infuse throughout your day, every day.

Prioritize Quality Sleep

The third AIP Lifestyle Factor is prioritizing sleep. The quality and quantity of sleep you get has a huge impact on your autoimmune disease and your quality of life. Not only does your body heal while it sleeps, but it also helps regulate hormones, lowers inflammation, and is critical for your immune system. If you’re not getting enough quality sleep, your body is less able to heal, which makes following the AIP diet less effective.

Everyone (including those without autoimmune disease) need at least 8-9 hours of sleep every single night, at a bare minimum. Those of us with autoimmune disease often need more. You may be currently operating at a deficit and need even more sleep when you first start following the protocol. Once you start to heal, you may find that you don’t need quite as much as you did when you started out.

Some of my best tips for getting plenty of quality sleep are:

  • Prioritize sleep and stick to a bedtime that allows you at least 8-9 hours of sleep.
    • You may initially feel like you have fewer hours in the day to get things done, but you will soon find that you are much more alert and productive when you are awake, so you can get more done in fewer hours.
    • At first, you may need to eliminate some of your typical daily activities to make time for sleep. Look first at time you often spend that isn’t really benefitting you, such as watching TV, browsing social media, etc. I think we all know how much time seems to mysteriously disappear when we are on social media.
  • Protect your circadian rhythms by:
    • Getting outside every single day, for 15 minutes or more.
      • Natural light not only stimulates vitamin D production; it also improves hormone regulation, boosts your mood and tells your body that it’s daytime, so it’s better able to understand the difference between times to be alert (day) and time to sleep (night).
    • Reducing blue light exposure, especially within 2-3 hours of going to bed.
      • Once the sun goes down, dim the lights in your house, and/or wear blue light blocking glasses. Your skin has photo receptors, as well, so keep the lights dim even if you wear blue light blocking glasses.
      • Reduce screen time, especially within 2-3 hours of going to bed.
    • Setting your bedroom up for the best sleep possible.
      • Keep your bedroom as dark as possible by investing in some good blackout curtains. Use dark duct tape or black electrical tape to cover any electronics that emit light (such as smoke detectors, air purifiers, etc.). Don’t use a clock with a light display, especially if they are blue light displays. Wearing a sleep mask can help reduce light exposure while you sleep, but your skin has photo receptors as well, so if your room is still light, you won’t be getting quality sleep.
      • Leave your cell phone in another room, or turn it on airplane mode while you sleep.
      • Keep your bedroom cool. Temperatures between 60-67ºF are best, but everyone’s needs are different.
      • Sleep in a quiet room. Using white noise machines to block out noise has been a real life-saver in my household. We have two of these white noise machines in each bedroom, and we take them with us when we travel.
  • Eat dinner at least two hours before bedtime, and don’t snack before bed.
  • Set up a relaxing bedtime routine.
    • Some ideas include meditation, diffusing lavender essential oil, taking a hot bath, reading, sipping calming herbal teas, stretching, etc.

Daily Movement

The final AIP Lifestyle Factor is incorporating physical activity into your daily life.

It is so deeply ingrained in our society that we exercise to burn calories, lose weight and build muscle so that we can be lean and fit. But the goal of exercising with autoimmune disease should not be to look like a model. In fact, overexercising can drive up inflammation, knock hormones off balance and exacerbate autoimmune disease.

But low- to moderate-intensity exercise has many health benefits that those of us with autoimmune disease should absolutely take advantage of. Daily low- and moderate-intensity exercise can help relieve stress, balance hormones, regulate inflammation and improve your immune system. It also helps with detoxification processes.

So how can we take advantage of these benefits? If you don’t already, start to incorporate physical activity into your daily life. Go for walks. Take up swimming, yoga, tai chi or pilates. If you’re already fairly active, try more moderate-intensity exercises like hiking, jogging, weight-lifting, bicycling or fitness classes.

You can also start enjoying hobbies that not only help you de-stress, but also get you moving, such as gardening, bowling, slack-lining, doing home improvements, dancing, etc. And of course, sneak extra movement into everyday activities, such as parking in the furthest spot from the entrance, making extra trips to the car for the groceries, or doing squats while you wait for your tea to steep. Try getting a height-adjustable desk or treadmill desk, so you can move while you work. All this movement adds up and reduces the amount of time you spend sitting every day.

Make sure you don’t overdo it, though. High-intensity exercise can increase cortisol, drive up inflammation and potentially cause injury. If you feel you may over-exercise, try cutting back a bit and incorporating more frequent, lower-intensity movement into your day. Walking, yoga and pilates are great alternatives to HIIT workouts or cycling classes. If you do unintentionally overdo it, give your body at least 1-2 days of rest to recuperate. Listen to your body and don’t push yourself too hard.

Baby Steps

It’s important not to get overwhelmed with all these AIP lifestyle changes. If you don’t feel like you have the bandwidth to make all these changes at once, try working on one to two small changes at a time until they become routine. Pick the changes you think will have the biggest impact and start there. Then move onto the next most impactful change. Remember, it’s okay if it takes months for you to incorporate all the changes you’d like to make. Habits can take a minimum of at least 21 days of consistency to become second nature.

If you’re struggling to incorporate these AIP Lifestyle Factors, try setting yourself up for success by making the changes easier and tying them to a routine you already have in place. For example, do 10 push-ups before brushing your teeth every day. Meditate for 5 minutes while you wait for your tea to steep. Set out your yoga clothes at night so they’re ready for you when you wake up in the morning. Or set an alarm to remind yourself to get ready for bed on time each night, so you can get plenty of sleep. And cut yourself some slack if you’re struggling to make changes. Just keep working at it and adjusting your methods. You’ll get there.

Next Up in the Series

If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the first post in this series: What is AIP? You’ll want all the details about how to follow the Autoimmune Protocol so you can finally start feeling healthy and vibrant again!

Next up in the series is AIP Reintroductions. If you’ve seen substantial healing on AIP and are ready to start reintroducing foods, you’ll definitely want to check out that post!

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Medical Disclaimer: None of the ideas presented on this website, programs, or services are intended to replace medical advice of any kind. I am not a doctor, and reading this content does not form a doctor/patient relationship. The information provided here has not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease, condition or illness. For more information, please see the full medical disclaimer, here.

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