Fibromyalgia- Tips on Managing Pain & Flare-ups from Julie Ryan

I had the pleasure of chatting with Julie Ryan, the author behind the blog Counting My Spoons. Her blog is inspired by The Spoon Theory- an incredibly accurate description of what it feels like to be living with chronic pain and other invisible illnesses.  When I was first diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I felt such relief when someone shared this spoon theory with me- I felt that finally, someone described the struggle that I go through each day, just to get through my day, dealing with pain and exhaustion. This spoon theory had put into words something I was never able to articulate before. Click here to read it. 

Julie and I talked about the struggles of living with fibromyalgia (since we both have it!) and she shared with me her story and some tips on how she manages her pain using food and movement. Here is Julie's story (as summarized from our conversation): 

Andrea: Tell me about the first time you got sick, and your journey to feeling better. 

Julie: In 2010, I found myself sick for several months. Of course, some of the symptoms had been with me before, but they all came to a head during that time in 2010. I was in school and I had a week where I felt like I had an awful flu- and then it never went away. It got so bad I had to drop a class, and eventually stop going to school all together. I fell into a deep depression and even considered suicide. Finally, I realized I needed help and reached out to family members, doctors, and then started therapy. The doctors and therapists all put me on so many prescriptions- which had their own awful side effects- and I wasn't feeling any better. The medicines made me feel like I was stuck in a cocoon, trapped inside my own head and body in a fog. And eventually, I was put on so many prescriptions that I ended up in the ER due to complications from the interactions of all the many drugs. I hit my breaking point- I knew that I could not continue this way. 

Andrea: So what did you do? 

Julie: I stumbled upon the documentary Fat Sick & Nearly Dead. He had spent 60 days juicing and reversed an autoimmune condition. I thought if he could do that for 60 days, maybe I could do it for six. What's the worst that could happen? So, I did an elimination diet- starting with juicing (fruits and mostly veggies)- and after 6 days, I already felt better. I added whole fruits and vegetables back in, and then I re-introduced meat. By the end of the third week of the elimination diet, I went from being couch bound to making an 8h drive on my own. I drove the 8 hours to go see a friend who was gluten free, and who promised to teach me how to cook and live a gluten free lifestyle. Since then, I have remained gluten free, and I feel like that’s a huge part of why I feel better.  

Andrea: Could you share some of your other tips for managing your fibromylagia? 

Julie: First, control your stress. This is very important. When I feel stressed, I try to remember to stop and breathe, to take a break and rest. I give myself the freedom and allowance to listen to my body. I also recognize how I’m feeling each day. Some days my body is working but my brain is off, and other days my brain is working and my body is off. I try to make choice to support this- using my body more when it is feeling good, and using my brain more when my brain is feeling good. I try not to push either my brain or my body too hard; I try to recognize when they each need a break. And, yes, there are days when neither my brain or my body is working, and on those days I just rest.

Andrea: What role does exercise and movement play in your life? 

Julie: Movement is a big part of my life, and it certainly helps me manage my pain. I have to make sure that I have a balance of moving enough but not too much. I choose things that I enjoy- like walking on my treadmill while listening to a podcast, or using the Just Dance program on the Wii. I try to make movement fun for myself. I use a Fitbit to keep myself in check- I have learned that if I walk more than 6,000 steps, my pain or fatigue may flare. So, I pay attention to where I am in the day, and if I hit 5,000 steps before lunch, I try to rest for the rest of the day. 

Andrea: Thanks for sharing these tips, Julie. Autoimmune Strong is a program designed to help people struggling with chronic pain issues like fibromyalgia exercise in a way that you just precisely described: daily movement, but in a way that doesn't overwork or overtax the body. But you have touched on an important tip for movement- make it fun! Playing great music, or listening to a podcast, or doing it with a friend- all of these things can help you enjoy your workout, which makes you more likely to continue. Thank you again for sharing your story, and giving such helpful advice!!!

To learn more about Julie, go to her website



5 Ways to Find Time for Exercise During Your Day

I am a busy busy person. I run my own business, I have two children, a husband, a fish, and a household to care for. I have friends and family and did I say I run my own business? Well, all of those things take time and energy to manage them, and make sure they run smoothly. 

I imagine that you are busy too! It's just how it this world works. We have a lot of demands for our time, and free time to relax and take care of ourselves is hard to find. 

However, it is SUPER IMPORTANT that we take time to care for ourselves throughout our day. Otherwise, we spin ourselves in circles trying to do all the other things in our lives that keep us busy. 

I try to focus on exercise every day, and although it's hard to find the time, somehow I do. Here, I am going to share with you the ways I sneak in some movement during my busy day. 

1. Planning: I find that it helps to plan ahead. Every Sunday night, I make an exercise plan for the week, and I block off time for it in my schedule. Then, I make sure I get the extra help in place to make sure I can take that time. My husband usually takes the kids to school 3 mornings a week so I can exercise before work. Or sometimes, I can find play dates for them after school and I can squeeze in a workout then. Or many times, I just workout in my house or at a playground, and they join me! (More about that below)

2. Accountability: I think it's important to have someone be accountable to when it comes to exercise. My schedule keeps me accountable (I am the type of person who gets obsessed about sticking to the schedule). But I find that talking to friends and family about the exercise you are doing helps to keep you accountable. Even better if you can find a "buddy" to do it with you, or at least be there for check-in support. The Autoimmune Strong Facebook group is a great place to find a buddy to keep you accountable to your Autoimmune Strong videos!

3. Priorities: We spend our time doing the things we think are important, right? So, if you consider exercise to be important to your health management, then you will make sure to do it. Set exercise as your priority for at least 3 days per week, and you will be more likely to squeeze it in.

4. Make it Fun:  Find a yoga class you like, or go for a walk with a friend. Personally, I like to take my kids to the playground and play chase- they think it's fun, and I get a workout in. I have even been known to do my Autoimmune Strong exercises at night in front of the TV- that way I can catch up on my shows while moving my body. You may need to try a few different things to see what you like best. Maybe rock climbing is your sport and you didn't even know it!

5. A Little Goes a Long Way: For those of us with little to no time, or extreme pain and fatigue- this one is for you. You don't have to "hit the gym" to get fit. Stand on one leg while you are in line at the deli counter. Take breaks and practice your abdominal bracing in your office. Get a standing desk. Practice a few sun salutations when you wake up, or before bed. Plank 1x a day. These are all examples of useful movements you can squeeze in during the day. 

I believe in movement every day, anywhere! Click HERE to follow me on Facebook to see all the random places I do my Autoimmune Strong moves to keep my body healthy- and check out my post on abdominal bracing at my son's soccer practice. 


10 Important Tips for Managing a Flare-Up

Even though I consider myself Autoimmune Strong, there are still a few days where I struggle. My flare-ups are usually kicked off by lack of sleep- which is hard to control while living with small children. This week, my kids have been sick and needing me often throughout the night. So instead of my typical 8 hours of sleep, I am getting about 5, broken up throughout the night. Every time I go back to sleep, I am called upon to soothe a nightmare, stop a bloody nose, or change a sweaty t-shirt. When Matt travels for work, this becomes especially tough on my body, as there is nobody else to give me some respite.  

I love being a mom, and taking care of my kiddos is something I relish. However, I recognize that this extra level of responsibility makes it extra tough to take care of myself.  And since there is a direct correlation between my self-care and my ability to care for my kids, I know that it is imperative to take extra good care of myself when they are sick.

But, it’s not easy. While they are sick and can stay home from school and take lots of naps, I can’t do the same. My responsibilities don’t end. I still have to wake up, make breakfast, go to work, do the laundry, and still take care of the sick kids. So… this lack of sleep without time to recover typically results in a flare-up. 

And my flare-ups are no joke. My body feels like it's on fire. I have aches and pains everywhere, especially in my neck and back. I feel swollen and bloated, and even my teeth hurt. I am more anxious and crabby than usual, and I have lots of headaches in my temples. I don't like to be touched- even a hug can be aggravating to my pain. I am lethargic, having lost my typical energy, and all I want to do is sit on the couch and watch TV and wallow. But, I have learned that wallowing only makes things worse.  

So what do I do instead? Well, I have a typical routine that helps me manage my flare-up, and keep it from being too intense or painful. Today, as I am working through my self-care routine, I am inspired to share these tips with you.

1.       Drink a lot of water. Like, a LOT of water, more than you think you might need. I like to add a little sea salt or a splash of coconut water to my water to help balance my electrolytes during this time.

2.       Eat extra good fat. Fat is important for coating the myelin sheath, which is the outer wrapping of our nerve endings. When we have a flare-up, our nerve endings are extra sensitive, so we need extra fat to protect them. I like to chow on avocado and chicken skin (my husband makes the best roast chicken!). I also like to cook with extra olive oil and grass-fed butter during this time.

3.       Load up on veggies for detox. During a flare-up, our bodies need extra help pushing toxins out of the body. Veggies that are full of water are my favorite during this time, like cucumbers, romaine lettuce, and celery.

4.       This is not the time for sugar. For me, this is the hardest rule- when I am having a flare-up, my body actually craves sugar in a super intense way. However, the sugar only increases the body’s inflammation, making the flare-up worse. So, when I am fighting a sugar craving, I try to keep extra fatty items around (like that chicken skin) and eat that instead. And when I really can’t help it, I will eat a bit of 80% dark chocolate, a teaspoon of raw honey, or drink a Kombucha. All of these items curb the sweet craving while giving you nutrients.  

5.       Get sweaty. When I am in the middle of a flare-up, I like to go to a hot yoga class, but that might be too intense for your stage of healing. So see if you can find a sauna- perhaps at the local gym or yoga studio? Getting sweaty helps with that detoxification process.

6.       Roll it out. Spend some extra time with your foam roller. It will hurt more during a flare-up, but I promise it’s worth it. It will decrease the pain and inflammation, while helping move all those important fluids through your body.

7.       Meditate. Meditation has been proven to decrease inflammation and decrease pain. Do it even for a short time, even sitting still and quiet for 3 minutes is better than nothing.  

8.       Sleep! Whenever you can. Your body needs rest and recovery. Even if you have 10 minutes to rest- lie down and take a snooze. It will help.

9.       Daily movement. When we are in the middle of a flare-up, the last thing we want to do is to exercise. Our mind tells us to be careful, and to just lay on the couch. But I have realized that the more movement you give your body, the more quickly the flare-up will pass. Just be cautious- do gentle exercise during this time- don’t push your body too hard. Autoimmune Strong is perfectly designed for this scenario- it's the right mix between stretching & strengthening, without overstimulating the immune system.   

10.   Trust that this will pass! Flare-ups do not last forever. Take care of yourself, and think positive thoughts. The flare-up will pass and you will feel better.

So, this week, I will be focusing on these 10 steps to pull myself out of this flare-up. Hopefully, these tips will help you too!!!

4 Easy Exercises to Reduce Stiffness & Pain

We all have been told over and over again that daily exercise is good for us. And yes- it is indeed true. And it stands true even more for people with autoimmune disorders, as daily movement has been shown to have a major impact on the reduction of physical and metal symptoms of autoimmune disease and other chronic pain disorders such as fibromyalgia and lyme disease. (click here to read more on this topic)   

However, all us of suffering from these chronic pain disorders know that we DO perform daily exercise, and that it doesn't always feel good. In fact, daily activities that require movement, like walking, climbing stairs, carrying groceries, all of these activities can cause pain. During my times of my most heightened symptoms, I learned that these daily exercise activities were hurting me, rather than helping me. 

But the question is why? If daily exercise is good for us, why did I dread having to climb up the stairs to go to bed every night? 

Well, the answer is that not all exercise is created equal. It is not just daily exercise that can make us better, it's the proper daily exercise that can make us better.

You see, we all have postural misalignment. It's inevitable in today's modern society- we sit at desks all day staring at computers, we look at our phones, we drive our cars- and all of these positions reinforce some muscles to be tight and others to be weaker. Eventually, the tight/weak muscles imbalance becomes one that is chronic and difficult to undo. And every time we move, we compound this tight/weak muscle relationship instead of undoing it. So, even going for a walk could cause or aggravate pain. This holds true for all people, but for autoimmune and chronic pain sufferers, the pain is greater, making even a gentle exercise like walking feel impossible. 

So, while daily exercise is important, it is more important to use exercise to correct these imbalances. Once the imbalances aren't so major, the basic daily activities discussed above won't hurt so much.

There are many ways to work on correcting these imbalances. Stretching is the best place to start. You could get a deep tissue massage, which would release some of your tight muscles, or you could try a yoga class.   

Here, I am going to give you my 4 favorite exercises to start bringing your body back into balance. Three are stretches, to work on the tight neck, shoulders, back and hips. The last is a butt booster- since our glutes and hamstrings- are often the weakest part of a person's body. 

1. Neck Stretch: Sit or stand with a straight back. Place your right hand on your head, and use that hand to gently pull your neck towards your shoulder while you keep facing forward. Hold for 30 seconds, and then repeat on the left side.

2. Forward Fold: Standing straight up, feet hip width or wider, pull your belly button in, and raise your arms to the ceiling. Then start bending your body at the hips, folding forward. Bend your knees, let your arms neck and head fall forward and release. Hang for as long as feels good, and then slowly, pulling your belly button in, squeeze your bum and lift your body back up. 

3. Hip Flexor Stretch: Kneeling on the floor (or on a yoga mat or towel for more padding), place the right foot out on the floor in front of you, knee bent. Sit up all, and lean forward toward the bent knee, and you should feel the stretch in your left groin and upper thigh area. Hold for 30 seconds and then switch legs. 

4. Glute Bridge: Lie on your back on the floor, rug or a mat, with your feet on the floor and your knees bent, pointing to the ceiling. Lift you bum off the ground, pressing your feet into the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.   

Here is the thing about these exercises: doing them once in awhile probably won't help. Your muscle imbalances have been there for a long time, and so it will take some time to undo their tension. However, if you commit to these three stretches every day, you should see, and most importantly, feel some change in your body. Stiffness and pain should dissipate, and ease of motion should return. And that is a good thing. :)  

And for those of you who want video instruction on these exercises, sign up for the free trial here, and you will find these exercises (and many many more!) in the Autoimmune Strong program. 

Autoimmune Strong Tips on How to Manage Stress & Anxiety

Photo by SIphotography/iStock / Getty Images

Autoimmune Strong is, at it's core, an exercise and physical fitness program. However, for me, the idea of being "Autoimmune Strong" is a metaphor for life in general. You see, there are two ways people typically exercise, and these represent two very distinct ways of living our lives.  

1. People who don't exercise at all. These people find exercise scary, painful, and overwhelming. The idea of sweating, being in pain, or sometimes even just going to the gym fills them with dread. So, even though they know that exercise is good for them, they avoid it. OR...

2. There are the people who work at intense levels of exercise at all times. They push themselves harder and faster, working their bodies to the limit. They feel that failure means not working hard enough. They push through the pain and exhaustion, and they try to accomplish what they think needs to be done to stay healthy and fit.

These two examples are both different ways to deal with the same thing- stress and anxiety. And in life, these metaphors hold true. For some, the anxiety is paralyzing, for others the need to "overcome" the anxiety is so strong that they push far beyond their physical and metal limits. I have lived at both extremes, and I can tell you personally, neither is healthy.

So, for people living at both ends of the spectrum, I challenge you with this-

Get Comfortable Being Uncomfortable 

For those who relate to the feeling of paralysis, this is a time a time to push through. Challenge yourself. Try something you thought was scary or intimidating. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "You must do the things you think you cannot do". This will feel uncomfortable, your brain and body might resist. Push yourself forward a little bit despite that discomfort, and you will find that you are stronger and more capable than you think.  

For those on the other extreme, this is a time to slow down. Press pause. Listen to your body, and take a rest. Take some time for yourself, relax your mind, take deep breaths. Do something fun and silly. Let yourself go for a few days. Don't hold yourself up to such a high standard all the time. This will also feel uncomfortable. Breathe into the discomfort, and push yourself to find a space to unwind. You will find that when you return to the things you are passionate about, you will be better focused and more capable of handling the pressure that comes at you.     

Both types of people can most certainly participate in Autoimmune Strong's fitness program. For some, they will feel that these exercises are challenging. For others, they might find the exercises too slow. I encourage both groups to give it a try- I promise you will learn something about yourself through the process.

Either path you choose, no matter what, requires hard work. But I promise you, it is worth it. I designed Autoimmune Strong's exercises as a progression- it is a slow buildup of foundational strength over time. This too is the metaphor for life. Build proper foundations, go slow but keep moving forward, take rest days when you need them, and soon enough, you will find yourself at the crossroads between strength and security- at peace with yourself. 

Strengthening the Core: Pelvic Floor

The pelvic floor is totally underestimated.

Photo by edenexposed/iStock / Getty Images


In this kick-off post for the Autoimmune Strong blog, I wanted to talk more about the core. Get it? An apple core? Ok, but seriously, I wanted to give you more information about one of my most essential foundations, Abdominal Bracing. And you don’t even need to be a member to learn how to do this Abdominal Bracing Technique- just download my free video by scrolling to the bottom of the homepage (click here) and you can follow along while I teach this important technique.

I talk in the video a little bit about why the Abdominal Bracing technique is important, but I want to expand upon that topic here. You see, most of us have poor posture from spending our days sitting in our chairs (I know I did!). For the general population of people, poor posture can cause a number of problems, such as back pain, shoulder pain, hip pain, sciatica, bursitis, etc. However, this is magnified for people with chronic pain issues caused by Autoimmune Disease, Fibromyalgia, Lyme, and other such conditions. This Autoimmune Strong population often has a higher sensation of pain due to our malfunctioning organs, nervous system and immune system. So, for us, poor posture can cause a cascade of extremely painful physical problems.  

How do we fix poor posture? Well, we start with strengthening the core. But not in the old school, traditional way.  Most people think that the way to strengthen the core is through sit-ups or crunches. Well, I am here to dispel that myth right now. Sit-ups and crunches only exacerbate the problem. You see, sit-ups and crunches work the rectus abdominis, which is the muscle down the front of the core that connects the lower rib cage to the hips. I consider this muscle to be a “glamour” muscle- as it really contributes most to the appearance of a 6 pack, not to the actual strength and support needed by the core. And more over, we are not 1 dimensional beings. Our front muscles are not the only muscles that need to be worked in our core. Our sides and our back matter too- otherwise we will just end up with a super imbalanced core instead of a strong healthy well rounded core. Plus, when beginning an exercise regime, sit-ups and crunches can be too aggressive for people with immune and nerve problems- they can be overtaxing and put us at risk for flare-up.

So, for us to have complete core strength in a way that won’t overwork our system, all the core muscles need to work in harmony in a gentle but firm way. This includes:

  • the rectus abdominis: located down the front of your core, connecting your lower ribs to the hip bone
  • the transverse abdominis: the deepest core muscle, wraps around the entire core, front to back, like a corset, and holds all of your organs in place
  • the internal and external obliques: responsible for all your side movements, important for twisting and turning safely
  • the multifidus and the erector spinae: both are spinal support muscles and are critical for the strengthening our core muscles in our backs
  • the pelvic floor: located at the base of the core, holding all our organs snugly inside our core

This is why the abdominal bracing technique is essential- it activates all of these core muscles at one time, strengthening the deepest core muscles all the way around the entire body, in a gentle way that won’t overwork the body. So, I encourage you to really consider practicing this exercise- it can really impact your posture, which can impact your experience of pain.

For those of you who are working on the practice of abdominal bracing already, I want throw in a new exercise to help you along.  This is an exercise to isolate the pelvic floor- the “squeeze” part of the abdominal bracing “tuck, suck & squeeze”. This “squeeze” is essential for the abdominal brace to be most effective, and for many of us, it is the hardest part.  (Watch the video if you don’t know what I mean by “squeeze”!)

What is the pelvic floor? It’s a muscle located at the base of your core, in between your legs. In women, it connects from the pelvic bone in the front to the coccyx bone at the base of your spine. It’s shaped like a hammock and its job is to hold your pelvic organs in place- the uterus, vagina, bladder and bowels.

We hear about the pelvic floor for women all the time, especially before and after childbirth. But I want to shout from the rooftops- men have pelvic floors too! And they are just as important.  In men, the pelvic floor supports the bladder and bowels and forms the bottom of the core, holding all of the organs up and supported.

The exercise I am about to present is a pelvic floor exercise for both men and women. It’s called the Kegel. That’s right, folks! Men can do Kegels too.

So, here is how you do it. It’s really quite simple, you can do it anywhere, and it’s very effective.

Step 1: “Squeeze” your pelvic floor muscle, like you are holding in your pee.

Step 2: Release.

Step 3. Rest.

Step 4. Repeat. As often as you can.  

See? Very simple. You can do this while sitting in your office chair, or driving your car. The best part is- nobody will know that you are exercising your pelvic floor! It’s like your own little secret.

As this gets easier, you can experiment with making the Kegels harder. It is most easily accomplished while sitting down, so you can start there. Then you can progress to do it while standing up. This puts more pressure on the muscle, requiring it to work a little harder to contract. You can also hold for longer periods of time (I recommend starting with a 5 second hold, and when that gets easy, move to a 10 second hold, and onwards). You can also experiment with holding your Kegels while in motion. Try it while walking, doing the dishes, cooking dinner, walking through the market- really you can do it anywhere! It is harder to maintain the “squeeze” while in motion, but getting good at that is our ultimate goal.

So, start doing your Kegels. Have fun. Your core will thank you.

And please- let me know how it goes!

Share your funny Kegel stories below.

Or, join the Autoimmune Strong Facebook Group and let's chat about your Kegels there!