Is your exercise regime preventing you from healing?
I love running. All through primary school and until year 9 of secondary school I was a super speedy 100-metre sprinter and simultaneously a cross-country runner. These regular after school activities came to a sudden end when I was 14 and underage drinking, smoking and rock clubs were clearly way more fun. Oh yeah, this meditating yogi used to have facial piercings and a multi-coloured mohican. As I slipped out of this phase at 17 years old running made a renewed occurrence in my life but this time as freeing jog in the park, not a regimented training programme. I would run as much as five times a week in the summer and in the winter I would aim for at least twice. If I didn’t run I would notice a considerable difference in my mood and temperament. My Mars-in-Aries energy needed an outlet!
Last year I took a turn for the worst with Crohn’s disease. The flare was so bad I developed symptomatic arthritis in my knees and ankles that prevented me from walking let alone running. I hung up my new Nike 3.0s and didn’t leave the bathroom for months. When I finally ‘recovered’ (for the most part) with the help of steroids and the autoimmune protocol, the first thing I did was grab those bright purple and green trainers, ramp up the volume of my old Metal playlist and bolt my way to the park.
I was sorely, SORELY disappointed.
I didn’t have the strength or the stamina to complete even a fraction of what I was used to. I was experiencing big energy dips in the afternoon while my body was still adapting to the paleo diet and desperately trying to heal both of my autoimmune diseases so the only time I could run was first thing in the morning. I figured it wouldn’t take too long to rebuild my ability so I kept at it, running a little further or faster each day. Sure, I improved, but my overall health didn’t. I couldn’t say that I felt well, in actual fact I was drained and I could see that the improvement in my autoimmune disorders had plateaued. I then began to hate my skinny reflection (we’ll get to that in a moment) and came to a conclusive decision that enough was enough, the running had to stop.
There are three reasons why I quit running and I’ll cover each below. I’ll also share my experience of practising yoga, how you can learn how to do it for FREE, and why you don’t need to be a super-spiritual, tree-hugging vegan to appreciate it! No exclusions here.
1) High cortisol levels
Strenuous exercise such as long duration aerobic ‘cardio’ and high-intensity interval training are understood to be counterproductive for autoimmune disease. They can slow your healing or even exacerbate the problem further. 
The problem is cortisol – ‘the stress hormone’. Within the correct limit cortisol isn’t such a baddie; it regulates inflammation and metabolism and works with adrenaline to ensure your survival in a dangerous situation. But there goes a saying, “too much of a good thing…” Unfortunately chronically elevated cortisol levels caused by repeated modern-day stress puts the body into a constant ‘fight or flight’ state and neglects regular ‘non-essential’ processes such as the digestive system in favour of raising glucose levels so that you can run away from a saber-tooth tiger! This chronic state of raised cortisol levels can in turn lead to a dysfunctional immune system, contributing to a leaky gut and systemic inflammation. Autoimmune sufferers – you’ve heard these words before!! Yep, cortisol has the ability to loosen those tight junctions in the gut and expose your immune system to food, pathogens and bacteria for attack and thus raises levels of non-specific inflammation. I won’t go into too much detail here – if you want a bit more you can read my earlier blog post on how AIP works or if you’re interested in all the juicy science I urge you to read The Paleo Approach by Dr Sarah Ballantyne.
The takeaway point is this: physical activity itself is a source of stress. So do the maths. Psychological stress + physical stress = SUPER STRESSED (with highly damaging cortisol levels). Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying “don’t exercise”. Physical activity is integral to healing and can actually regulate cortisol levels. Many people who exercise have a lowered level of cortisol in response to psychological stress that makes them better equipped to handle day-to-day madness. However, it’s the type of exercise that plays an integral part in cortisol regulation. I’m talking about both the level of intensity and the quantity here. There is some indication that cortisol levels are more greatly increased by aerobic and endurance exercise than in resistance training. Again, please read The Paleo Approach.
So here it goes:
No exercise is bad
Low-moderate regular exercise is good
Excessive exercise is bad
2) Weight loss
A very real aspect of the autoimmune protocol is weight loss and I don’t speak of it lightly. For many people it is a welcomed change but as a naturally slim person who had just been through months of chronic diarrhoea, a smaller circumference was not on my wish list. I’ve written about five things to expect on the autoimmune protocol in this previous blog post and in it I mention weight loss. Let me be clear – I’m not fear mongering, just stating some truths that affected me. In all I lost over a stone (7 kilos). I don’t like being skinny. I used to have a lovely big perky bum and it made me feel attractive. Without it I believed that resembled a child; which brings me to my final reason – you’ll notice there’s a bit of a domino effect going on here.
This is defined quite literally as ‘the absence of periods’ – no menstrual cycle. It’s classified into 2 groups: primary and secondary. The first relates to girls whose period never starts, the latter is when your regular period stops for at least six months and is recognised as a symptom of another problem.
I have secondary amenorrhea. It can be caused by a number of factors such as Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS), coming off the pill, high prolactin levels and premature menopause but I want to focus here on 3 factors that apply to myself and have been known to affect a number of women suffering with autoimmunity: weight, exercise and stress.
Weight – Hormone balance is dependant on having a suitable weight/height ratio (your BMI). The body is incredibly smart and has innumerable defence mechanisms in place to protect it. It knows which organs to prioritise for survival in an emergency (the brain and the heart!) and has a highly sensitive feedback system in place to detect imbalance. The reproductive system is the only system of the body that isn’t required to keep you alive. In times of famine, distress and trauma energy levels must be reserved for priority organs and metabolic processes – not for making a baby! The reproductive system therefore shuts down to allow the body to concentrate its resources on keeping you alive. In addition, losing 10-15% of your body weight in a short space of time can lead the body to believe there is a famine and thus potentially not enough food for you and a baby.
Exercise – Body fat is essential to reproduction. Frequent or intense exercise can of course reduce the body fat ratio to a level that is too low and thus creates an inhospitable environment for pregnancy. As I mentioned above, excessive exercise can cause cortisol levels to remain high in that ‘flight or fight response’, shutting down the function of the reproductive system.
Stress – As above, any stress, physical or psychological = high cortisol. If you’re stressed, you certainly can’t cope with a pregnancy so you’re prevented from having a period! What a clever defence mechanism!
I think those are three pretty good reasons to rethink my exercise regime and I was so right to. Since I’ve stopped running my rate of recovery has excelled ten-fold. My problem of afternoon drops in energy and aching joints has gone, my general sense of feeling a bit ‘feeble’ has completely evaporated, I can tolerate food reintroductions much better, I have less allergic reactions, no anxiety or mood swings and most importantly, my gut NEVER complains. It’s like Crohn’s never existed for me. And baldness? What baldness? My patches are racing to catch up with the rest.
I quit running for yoga
While all of this is true, I haven’t stopped exercising. Exercise is INCREDIBLY important and conducive to healing. You just need to find a form that is less taxing. For some people that’s a long walk or hike, for others it’s weight training, for me it’s yoga. I have honestly never felt better than I do since practising yoga every day and it is solving more than one problem for me. Not only has it reduced physical and emotional stress, it requires enough strength training to actually help me BUILD muscle! I’m burning less fat and simultaneously building every muscle in my body – enough that I appear to be gaining weight and filling out my clothes again! WIN!
I’m definitely much happier with the appearance of my body now than I was four months ago and I can only imagine my weight will increase with time. I’m on a mission to gain weight not only for my physical appearance but also to get that period back. I’m considering using an old ayurvedic herbal remedy called Shatavari – I’ll post about this once I’ve given it a try but if you have any experience with it, let me know!
My best friend introduced me to a wonder woman named Erin Motz. She’s a yoga teacher that she discovered through doyouyoga.com – a brilliant website for free yoga lessons as well as general tips and advice. Since then Erin has gone on to develop a very cool brand for herself, Bad Yogi, which strives to redefine yoga culture. Many people are put-off or feel excluded by the yoga community that is often represented by vegans and self-righteous hippies, feeling that they cannot conform to this culture and the point Erin makes is that you don’t have to. Yoga as a form of exercise should be open to everyone. Wine-drinkers, meat-munchers and cake-scoffers are all welcome and there is no pressure to open up to divinity.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not laughing at or hating on yogis, I’m actually a very zany meditator with an Astrologer for a mother and I carry the nickname ‘hempy’ because my friends think I’m a hippy, but I get that it’s not for everyone. Plus, it makes me feel less bad about eating paleo 😉
Anyway, check out her free 30-day yoga playlist from DoYouYoga:
So remember, AIP is not all about diet and it’s not about supplements either; your day-to-day habits play a HUGE role.
Enjoy the yoga!