by Dr. Bill Rawls
As much as I hate to say it, setbacks are an inevitable part of the process of recovering from chronic illness. Just when you think everything is turning around, your progress stalls – or even reverses – for seemingly no reason. Then comes the fear of slipping back into a cycle of never-ending misery, complete with questions that can fuel a sense of hopelessness: How long will this last? Will it ever get better? Do I have to live this way for the rest of my life?
Know this: It’s just a bump in the road. Sometimes a big bump, but still just a bump — not a mountain. You will get back on track.
Fortunately, with time, setbacks gradually become less common and less intense. As you get better at self-analysis and self-correcting, you’ll get back on track more quickly. When a setback occurs (and it will, many times over), do not become mired in depression and fear — that will only hold you back. It’s time to pull up your bootstraps and become proactive.
If you find your health slipping backwards, the good news is that a thorough self-evaluation can often identify the causes and pinpoint natural solutions. The tools of self-reflection and self-analysis are very important for dealing with setbacks. Get in the habit of going through the list of the five System Disruptors that are super common in modern life and lead to immune system dysfunction to look for causes — generally, you’ll find your answers there.
The 5 Modern System Disruptors
1. Poor Diet
Start with a carbohydrate check: Excessive intake of refined carbs and processed foods can deprive your body of the vital nutrients it needs to power up each day. Additionally, a high-carbohydrate diet can lead to prolonged periods of elevated insulin levels, insulin resistance, a suppressed immune system, and altered hormone function, all of which set the stage for you to feel crummy.
Another factor to consider is how your diet may be impacting your gut health. If the intestinal tract is inflamed and the gut microbiome is imbalanced, reactions to foods are common. Often, it’s related to the food or foods that are consumed most commonly. Top culprits include:
- Lectin-containing foods, including grains, beans, legumes, tree nuts, and nightshade vegetables (such as tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant). Lectins are a type of plant protein that bind to molecules in cell membranes in the intestinal tract, irritate tissues, and can lead to leaky gut syndrome.
- Foods with gluten, another gut-irritating plant protein found in wheat and related grains like rye and barley
- Soy and products containing soy
- Foods high in mycotoxins (mold toxins) like processed meats, peanuts, mushrooms, and all dairy products except cultured dairy.
Typically, food reactions are delayed, so you may not automatically think to connect it to an intensification of your symptoms like brain fog and fatigue. If you think your setback is related to food sensitivity, nix those foods from your diet for a while and see how you feel.
2. Toxic Environment
Have you had higher than usual exposure to toxins? An abundance of toxins leads to systemic inflammation, which further compromises immune function and disrupts homeostasis. For instance, maybe you recently painted a room in your house, or removed mold from your shower using toxic chemicals. Also, consider your radiation exposure: Have you been sitting in front of a computer, or on your cell phone more than average?
As with food sensitivities, the effects of toxin exposure typically don’t show up for several days. So think back on the past few weeks, home in on any potential sources of added toxin exposure, and take steps to try to reduce them.
3. Chronic Stress
Unrelenting stress is frequently the cause of a setback. It affects your body’s immune system and reduces your ability to fight off pathogens. Of course, some stress is normal and unavoidable, but consider whether your stress load been higher than unusual.
Some questions to ask yourself (and answer honestly): Are you getting enough sleep? Have you had to travel recently? Is someone else’s stress causing you angst? Do you have deadlines (self-imposed or real) that are keeping your levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol elevated? If you answered yes – or if any other persistent stressors come to mind – take steps to reduce or eliminate the sources from your life.
4. Sedentary Lifestyle
Prolonged inactivity – such as sitting for extended periods at your desk or in a car – is stressful on the body. It’s associated with decreased blood flow, retention of toxins, immune dysfunction, decreased endorphins, and low energy. Of course, if you’re in the midst of a relapse, moving your body might be the last thing you want to do. But even gentle, restorative exercise (restorative yoga, qigong, taking a stroll, doing leisurely laps in the pool) can help counter the pitfalls of being too sedentary.
5. Microbiome Imbalance
Any of the above System Disruptors can contribute to flare-ups of stealth microbes or microbiome imbalances. It’s also possible you’ve been exposed to a new microbe. Are you coming down with a cold or the flu? Have you had a (new) tick bite? A microbiome imbalance can lay the groundwork for impaired immune function and allow symptoms to reemerge unexpectedly.
Once you’ve done a self-assessment of how all five System Disruptors might be contributing to your relapse and taken the obvious steps to minimize them in your life, focus on what you can do to feel better now. Here are a few tried-and-true strategies to support you as you get back on the road to recovery.
10 Guidelines for Symptom Relief
- Drink plenty of liquids. Warm liquids are best during a setback, especially ginger tea and green tea — caffeine-free if you don’t tolerate caffeine.
- Take adaptogenic herbs. They help normalize your body’s stress response and make you more stress tolerant. Adaptogens also help maintain homeostasis and support immune function, which can contribute to resolving a setback. The adaptogens I recommend most are reishi, cordyceps, and rehmannia.
- Support your joints. Achiness and joint discomfort are common during relapses, so reach for herbs that help promote healthy joint function and comfort. Herbs such as turmeric and boswellia can be especially beneficial for joint care.
- Heat up the body. Far infrared sauna sessions, hot baths, or a thermal mat can be very soothing. They also help your body remove some of the toxins that might be contributing to your relapse.
- Get outside and breathe fresh air. Forests, beaches, and open water are especially beneficial. If you can, take your shoes off and walk barefoot to do some “grounding.” This practice of connecting your bare feet or other bare skin directly with the ground has been linked with reduced pain and inflammation.
- Try meditation and relaxation. Incorporating mind-body practices like meditation and relaxation are important for normalizing the adrenaline-cortisol response.
- Get some shut-eye. Make sure that you are allowing for plenty of sleep.
- Make your world small. Take care of the absolute necessities, and let everything else go until you are back on your feet.
- Treat yourself to a massage and energy healing. These therapeutic modalities can be very beneficial for working through a setback.
- Formulate a plan. Having a roadmap to recovery and being proactive reduces fear, which in itself can help with overcoming a setback. Sometimes, it’s as simple as creating a list of restorative steps; even if you don’t do everything (or anything!) on the list, knowing it’s there as a resource can be reassuring.
I’ve had plenty of setbacks during my own recovery from fibromyalgia and Lyme disease. In the beginning, when I did not understand the causes, it was really scary.
With time, as I learned more, setbacks became more of an inconvenience (they do always seem to show up at the worst times).
Possibly the most important encouragement I can pass along is that as my condition has progressively improved over the years, setbacks are fewer and briefer. Now, even after considering myself recovered, I still occasionally get them, but recovery is usually a matter of days, not weeks.