Why is Mindset such a fundamental part of any Autoimmune Protocol?
Everything about Paleo, AIP (and this whole Paleo in the UK website) is about stress: how to engage in appropriate levels of healthy stressors whilst avoiding and eliminating those stressors which directly tax the body. The whole point of this approach is that the body is designed to adapt to a certain amount of stress, but when this system overbalances there are health consequences.
Paleo and Autoimmune Paleo Diets are designed as nutritional strategies to remove physical stressors. So too, the Paleo and AIP Lifestyle recommendations of sleep, appropriate exercise, meditation etc. are all designed to remove excess burdens whilst supporting repair and rejuvenation.
The mindset piece of any healing protocol, therefore, is essential because it can act either as a supportive ally, assisting with the process – or it can be a villain, piling yet more stress into the mix and preventing healing.
In truth, the mindset, attitude and psychology topic is probably the most important of our whole website – it can be the foundations upon which your progress is made or the single point of failure in an otherwise ‘perfect’ AIP regimen. That said, it is also the most difficult to present a précis for on this one page. Mindset and the psychological approach to health is so individual and layered with nuance that it could fill an entire book.
Here we are simply going to illuminate the two main areas in which your mindset and attitude can directly influence your health outcomes:
Your attitude towards yourself, your body, your potential to heal and the ‘internal monologue’ which you run on a daily basis
Your perception of the world around you and the sensitisation of your body that can occur as a direct result of your mindset.
In removing the stressors during an AIP protocol (whether they be food, environment, toxins, work life, even people and relationships) we STOP sending ‘trigger’ messages to the immune system that there is a real and present threat. In so doing, we turn down the heightened alert state of the body, lowering the frequency and intensity of immune responses, slowing and eventually ceasing auto-antibody production, decreasing the autoimmune attack and allowing for remission of autoimmune conditions.
1) YOUR PERCEPTION OF YOURSELF
Sometimes without our conscious awareness, illness can change our perception of who we are, of our self-worth and of our value. Depending on your personality and character, it is common for the development of an illness to create internal monologues, either about your body, yourself or the injustice of the whole situation in which you find yourself.
Sometimes, we fall into the perception that our illness is a personal ‘failure’ and that somehow we have behaved badly or made poor choices or simply not been ‘good enough’.
It is also common to start thinking in a way that separates our identity (and who we identify as ‘self’) from our body, blaming our ‘stupid body’ for ‘failing on us’ or ‘letting us down’.
Both of these attitudes are mindsets which build resentment: either internally directed resentment of yourself as a person, feeling you’ve done something wrong, or externally directed resentment for the situation in which you find yourself.
Similarly, both attitudes are understandable. In fact, they are often essential parts of the acceptance process of any chronic illness.
However, neither of these attitudes are actually conducive to long-term healing. The reason isn’t mystical or even vaguely spiritual. (Though, in truth, there would be huge merit to investigating the psychological senses of self-worth and victim mentality displayed by the mindsets above – but that’s far too detailed for this page).
Instead, the reason that these mindsets and attitudes are damaging is simply biological:
Each thought that you have is not limited to the mind alone. The nature and energy behind your thoughts carries a biological impact. Negative thoughts – whether they be of guilt, feelings of personal failure or a lack of self-worth, whether they are of bitter resentment for your situation or for your ‘stupid body’ – these are all subtly programming your biology, 24-7.
Everything about an Autoimmune approach is meant to limit the stresses we experience. Maintaining the mindset either that you have personally failed and/or the world is unfair is, quite simply adding to the stress burden of your body.
As you will have read in our AIP – The Science Page and our AIP – Reintroductions Page, the science of the AIP diet works by ceasing consumption of the foods that trigger an immune response. These foods aren’t ‘bad’ in and of themselves, but in certain individuals they cause excess stress – and this is what triggers an immune response.
However, your mindset is also capable of triggering your immune system. Stress is the immune trigger, and if you are psychologically, emotionally or socially stressed, or if you are experiencing negativity (whether inwardly or outwardly directed) these are all stress burdens which your body has to contend with.
If you don’t change your mindset and internal dialogues as part of your AIP protocol then you may, instead of using AIP to turn OFF immune triggers, be constantly sending messages to your body that you are still in a state of stress and danger. In this situation your heightened alert state, with its accompanying overzealous immune responses, will be maintained.
2) WORLD PERCEPTIONS: MENTAL SENSITISATION
As we have established above, the mindset we carry around our health situation has the capacity to add stress into our biology and therefore perpetuate any autoimmune condition.
But immune sensitisation and reactivity can also arise out of a more direct biological impact. This occurs through the mechanisms of our nervous systems and the way our perception and our thoughts can shift the way we are receiving the inputs from the world around us.
Our autonomic nervous system is (roughly speaking) divided into two branches, or functions. One is designed to motivate and enervate us, driving us into activity. The other is designed to relax us, allowing us to be passive and receptive. These systems are, respectively, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
On the spectrum of neurological activity, full sympathetic alert is on one side and maximum parasympathetic relaxation is on the other.
This is a true spectrum, in that it is biologically and neurologically impossible to operate from both the parasympathetic and the sympathetic branches at the same time.
What governs which of these branches is active is the stimuli we receive from the outside world. Continually synthesising information we observe, hear, smell and feel, we are, minute-by-minute, gauging whether our landscape is benign or threatening. Our sense of our situation determines which branch of the nervous system is dominating at any given time.
These nervous system states activate entire biological cascades within us.
- In sympathetic dominance, when we feel under threat, our body prepares to attack, to run away or to play dead. Internally, blood is sent to the leg muscles and the heart, preparing our body for exertion. We lose blood and tone from our intestinal tract whilst the chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters which ready us for battle are prioritised. Immunologically, we are on high alert – ready with large supplies of cytokines and ‘fighter’ cells (not specific antibodies, but all of the chemicals that can quickly and un-specifically defend against invaders).
- The counterbalance to this is the parasympathetic nervous system dominance where almost the polar opposite occurs. Known as the ‘rest-and-digest’ system, this is active when we feel safe enough to relax, repair, rebuild and to nourish. Biologically, parasympathetic activity stimulates digestive function and flow, enables detoxification, cellular and structural repair and essential internal cleansing. Immunologically, we are relaxed – without the sense of any dangers on the horizon.
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From the above descriptions it should be clear that everything involved in AIP approaches is designed to switch off the sympathetic dominance and turn up our parasympathetic activity.
We say again though, what determines which branch of our autonomic nervous system is dominant at any given time is our synthesised impression of the world around us.
This has very little to do with fact and everything to do with perception.
A world, or something specific, perceived as threatening will push us into sympathetic alert, whether necessary or not. This is how mindset directly influences our ability to sensitise our immune system and induce the autoimmune over-alertness that we are trying to resolve on AIP.
And yet, in chronic health situations, perception of threat is fundamental to recovery. Continuing to perceive threats perpetuates the sensitisation of the immune system. Conversely your ability to mentally regulate what you interpret as threatening will directly calm the immune response.
In this way, your mindset can become your ally in tackling your autoimmunity.
This works on both the macrocosmic and the microcosmic level:
One of the main criticisms of any AIP or Paleo approach is the focus on food. We have been at pains to state on our website that no food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it is all a question of individual tolerability. The reason we have taken such care to make this clear is because how you think about a food will directly shift your nervous system balance.
Because of the mechanisms described above, you biologically CANNOT absorb and digest nutrition if you are in a state of heightened sympathetic alert.
In a sympathetic state digestive acid and enzyme production is minimised. Effectively breaking down food and receiving nourishment in this state is impossible. In this situation, ingested foods or toxin will create reactions – either digestively or triggering an immune cascade in response. This has everything to do with your mindset and very little to do with the food itself.
Alternatively, entering into a situation or consuming a food when calm and trusting that you are safe places you in a parasympathetic state, priming the digestive and absorptive functions of the body. You will assimilate the nutrition and your immune system will only react if it truly needs to.
Ironically, there isn’t actually any need to be afraid, pre-emptively. If a substance or situation does turn out to be threatening, our sympathetic system will quickly kick in to help us out and mount an effective and appropriate immune response.
Autoimmune conditions are built on inappropriate sensitisation. What we are trying to do using AIP protocols is re-educate and recalibrate the immune system so that overt sensitisation is reduced whilst appropriate immune responses are maintained.
Whilst many factors contribute to the inappropriate sensitisation of the immune system in the first place, we cannot keep sensitising ourselves through the misplaced perception that everything is threatening.
Similarly, one of the most powerful tools when it comes to desensitising and recalibrating the response of the body is cultivating a mindset, attitude and perception built on safety and trust, NOT danger and threat.
This brings us to the macrocosmic expression of this perception of threat vs. perceptions of safety.
Clearly, these mindsets of danger and safety are not just limited to the foods we eat and the chemicals in our personal care products. This is why this topic is much larger than can be covered in a single website page – and we will return to it frequently on our Blog here at Paleo in the UK.
These are life themes, layered with experiential memories and heavily influenced by our history. These are deeply psychologically ingrained and can take time to unravel, understand and accept.
And yet, based on the same principles of food perceptions mentioned above, whether we perceive the world at large – and the people, experiences, relationships and potentials within it – as threatening and overwhelming or safe and secure will directly transform our biology.
This, in turn, will either sensitise or de-sensitise our immune system – inflaming or calming our autoimmune reactivity and exacerbating or healing our chronic health conditions.
This is a large topic, fraught with complexity and nuance. We would like to close by saying that this is neither simple nor easy – and is one of the very important areas in which we would encourage you to seek help.
Recalibrating perspectives is a deep psychological process and this is a major area of interest, research and study for us here at Paleo in the UK. If you would like to ask us for our assistance to help you tackle your mindset and the psychological side of autoimmunity please do reach out to us today.