Is exercise bad for autoimmune disease?
The benefits of exercise
Exercise is paramount as part of lifestyle strategies to managing an autoimmune condition, but balance is key. Exercise produces anti-inflammatory compounds, such as endorphins and endothelial nitric oxide. It improves circulation allowing delivery of nutrients to tissues and facilitates detoxification. For some individuals with autoimmunity, although beneficial in many ways, exercise could be the reason for their symptoms worsening after physical activity. This is known as exercise intolerance.
What is exercise intolerance and why does it happen in autoimmunity?
It may be expected to feel slight achiness after an exercise session, however, for individuals who suffer from exercise intolerance, any exercise may cause more severe and unusual pain, fatigue, or a flare up of their autoimmune symptoms. Some “crash” for a day or more with flu-like symptoms, feeling unable to get out of bed or function normally. Exercise intolerance is considered to be due to compromised mitochondria. The mitochondria are “power generators” found in each cell and are responsible for energy production. Exercise and the mitochondria are closely related. Contracting muscles need energy in the form of ATP created by the mitochondria. Mitochondria are also essential for muscle performance and oxygen distribution. However, exercise is also a stressor. The body releases fight or flight hormones like epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol to help keep your body moving. The stress from the exercise may also impact the mitochondria.
A common denominator in all autoimmune conditions is inflammation. Mitochondria are also sensitive to inflammation. Chronic inflammation will hinder their ability to produce energy.
Factors to overcome exercise intolerance
It is incredibly important to listen to your body. There are four factors to take into consideration when trying to overcome exercise intolerance.
Short, low impact, daily workouts are extremely effective at maintaining strength and endurance while keeping exercise induced symptom flare-ups at bay.
A less intense workout will actually have more impact if you can do it consistently overtime. Low to moderate exercise will still get you sweating, but it won’t trigger as much stress on the body.
Shorter workouts might be more effective and less of a drain on the mitochondria allowing for faster recovery.
For individuals with autoimmunity, high intensity workouts like spinning, HIIT training and long-distance endurance training can spike cortisol levels which may contribute to a flare-up. Walking, swimming and yoga may be a good start to encourage exercise tolerance.
Which nutrients can help with exercise intolerance?
Besides incorporating the above recommendations, certain nutrients may be beneficial to help tolerate exercise better.
- Sufficient protein
Diets low in protein can impact mitochondrial function. The amino acids are necessary for the production of antioxidant enzymes. Incorporate some protein into every meal to help replenish those amino acids.
- B vitamins
B vitamins play a major role in energy production and mitochondrial health. The best sources of B vitamins are from green leafy vegetables, animal protein, and organ meat.
The best sources of food derived antioxidants is colourful vegetables. In addition, alpha-lipoic acid (ALA) has been shown to increase glutathione production. Glutathione is the major antioxidant in the body. Foods that contain ALA include beetroot, carrots, organ meat and brussel sprouts. ALA can also be found as oral supplements.
Exercise is extremely important for autoimmune healing, but it is essential to take the time to really listen to your body and provide it with the correct type and intensity of exercise. Along with exercise, stress management and good nutrition emphasising on mitochondrial support all go a long way to beating exercise intolerance.