People With Chronic Illnesses Are Required To Live A Healthier Lifestyle

If having a chronic condition wasn’t enough, people with chronic illnesses need to subject themselves to a stricter, healthier lifestyle to reach a similar state than able-bodied people…

A woman curled up on a chair looks out the window from what seems to be her living room
Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

It’s been three years since I started having chronic pain. Three years of doubt, questioning, having to learn and adapt to this new condition. Today, I have enough experience to be able to see very clearly that in order for your chronic illness to cohabit with the ableist expectations of the modern world, one must submit one’s self to a strict disciplined lifestyle. The purpose of this article is not just to give tips to fellow bearers of uncurable conditions, but rather to remind able-bodied people of the mental charge we are subject to, specifically in terms of lifestyle: diet, sleep, physical activity, hygiene, and so on.

Pain or medical conditions in a chronic sense — chronos, time — means it happens in time, either regularly or constantly, and in most cases, it constitutes a lifelong affliction simply because there is no cure. What we’re talking about here are illnesses such as Polyarthritys, Spondylitis, Ehler-Danlos Syndrome, Fibromyalgia, Multiple Sclerosis and every other form of sclerosis, Irritable bowel Syndrome and Crohn’s Disease, Cancer. The list goes and, and those not subject to such afflictions may not know how exhausting it can be when your body is put through endless pain: it is not built to endure it so regularly, and there can be quite heavy consequences on one’s mental wellness as well.

Sleep and Rest

Chronic fatigue is a very common co-symptom of many chronic conditions and is even becoming more well known, being one of the many long-lasting symptoms of Covid-19. Whether it’s an actual symptom of a condition or an indirect consequence of your other symptoms, it’s undeniable that most of us are tired, most of the time.

In order to stay in a decent shape, the human body usually requires around eight hours of sleep. This number of hours may vary from one to another, but because of the tiring nature of chronic pain and other chronic medical conditions, people subject to them may require more hours — nine, ten, eleven, and so on! And this is assuming that person doesn’t have sleep troubles like insomnia or issues falling asleep.
Regardless of how much sleep you get, there’s a big chance you won’t be able to get through the day without a nap or at least a little bit of a lie-down, especially when experiencing pain flare-ups. Keeping track of how much sleep you need and when you can still nap without completely disturbing your sleep cycle can also be a heavy mental charge.

With all of this in mind, it’s already clear that one of the biggest issues we’re faced with is time management: all this time spent resting and sleeping required to compensate exhaustion sets us back when compared to able-bodied people, and will render attempts to follow a healthy lifestyle quite challenging.

Exercise and physical activity

“Just do yoga” is a sentence which is unfortunately heard way too often by chronically ill people, not only from their families, friends and coworkers but also sometimes from their doctors and medical practitioners! I’ve personally heard “Just exercise” from the latter quite too often, mostly in a dismissive manner, as if it was a magical solution instead of just a way to maintain your body in a shape. Perhaps this was even harder to hear because I was still in the midst of accepting the fracture between my sportive background and my now inability to achieve the same performances.
Yoga is certainly a soft and healthy form of physical activity — which is proven to be an important aspect of maintaining one’s body in a reasonably functioning state and therefore recommended even for chronically ill people. Still, throwing this crooked advice as if it was an easy fix to one’s incurable, lifetime condition remains inconsiderate, especially when that person is not always in a good-enough state to perform physical activity. Not to mention that in some cases, the process of exercising and recovering from it can take us up to entire days.
In a nutshell, sure, any form of exercise you’re able to do is a good idea, but one should remain indulgent when faced with an impossibility to perform said exercise, even if temporary.

An example of an easy Yoga pose, where a seated woman twists her body towards her left to stretch it.
Photo by Dane Wetton on Unsplash

For those like me who require regular medicalised body maintenance like physical therapy, it’s one more thing to try and make fit to your weekly agenda. While it’s beneficial and even necessary, it is still a tiring process to put your body through. Like any physical activity, this means you need to plan for an opportunity and time to recover straight after the fact.

Diet, Alcohol and Other Substances

As more and more are starting to realise the importance of food quality and diversity for the body, and that your stomach is “your second brain, perhaps even historically the first one to develop”, it becomes easier to accept the influence of a good diet for chronic illnesses. The word diet is here meant in its first sense, the way you eat, when, how, where, and what, and not in the sense of a week’s worth of restricting yourself from eating certain consumables. I think it’s safe to consider the following guidelines before anything else: only eat if and when hungry, at regular times if possible, and make sure to eat diverse foods. With those guidelines out of the way, let’s jump into the matter.

First of all, I think we can all agree about the absolute necessity of hydration: water is vital to us human beings, and one should make sure to always have a filled-up bottle handy. By the way, this might be a good time to take a sip: go ahead, I’ll wait.
Now that we’re all nicely refreshed, this is where things become a little more condition specific: the way one has to adapt one’s diet in detail is greatly tied to one’s diagnosis — if there even is one. Still, there are some general considerations we can think of. Before saying anything, I would like to disclaim that I am in no way a medical professional and recommend that you seek professional advice if you have any doubts about the compatibility of a diet with your condition.

I can only recommend Desiree Nielsen’s Eat More Plants !, because it’s much more than just a recipe book, in that’s it’s a true guide to anti-inflammatory nourishment. The first quarter of the book is a window to the dietitian’s philosophy, where she explains the indispensability of plant-based foods — vegetables, fruits, but also herbs, and so on — within one’s diet. Despite being vegan, she does not enforce the exclusion of any type of foods from our habits and recommends we instead make an effort to include plants and in with more diversity in our eating habits. According to her, doing so will lead to less bloating, less tiring digestion, less drowsiness, less inflammation within the digestive system, but also in the entire body. All of these effects would certainly be welcome to anyone, let alone people with chronic pain: a healthier diet will certainly lead to a healthier management of any medical condition.

This is considering you’ve got enough time and energy to cook, which we’ve established to be precarious for people with chronic illness. As a typical Frenchman, cooking and baking are some of my favourite hobbies. However, my chronic illness sometimes gets in the way of that hobby. Some more often than not might not always have the strength to get up and prepare and cut some vegetables or stand around while they slowly cook in the pan.
Pain can also lead to diet misbehaviour, like stress-eating and hyperphagia, bulimia, etc. For those hard times, I make sure to always have a somewhat healthy snack — although, sometimes, all you’d like is comfort food — on my bedside table, just in case I have a huge pain flare-up around a mealtime. I also make sure when grocery shopping to have a sufficient percentage of easy-to-prepare meals, like frozen food or a can of vegetables, or some soup. These will allow you to eat something nice and healthy without the trouble of time- and energy-consuming process of cooking.

Photo by Mariana Medvedeva on Unsplash

On a personal note, there are a few things I’ve tried that seem to work. Being as active as I was before my condition showed up to my front step, I was used to eating a somewhat large amount of food with little regard to potential consequences on my body, including weight gain, since it was being compensated by frequent physical activity. It took me a good couple of years to adapt my diet quantity-wise since I was no longer able to exercise as intensely. My meals had to contain fewer calories than before… and it’s easier said than done. My advice for anyone who needs or wants to do this is be patient, it won’t happen within a week, and it certainly won’t happen overnight.
To be completely truthful, there was a point where the pain I experienced was so intense it caused regular nausea, to a point where I’d skip a meal, sometimes several, or would eat micro-snacks instead: there is no denying this was a huge help in adapting my body to my new diet. To this day, I still experience an occasional lack of appetite (for which my treatment might be responsible), resulting in smaller meals, like a nice bowl of soup.

After educating myself on what foods might generate inflammation (and yes, according to Desiree Nielsen, inflammation in the digestive system might be linked to chronic pain, or at least it doesn’t help), I tried reducing my consumption of some of them to test things out. It turns out that meat, lactose-based aliments and carbs — especially processed bread — are good candidates for exclusion. Or at least, I ended up heavily reducing their presence in my diet, and I can subjectively say it has had positive effects. Bear in mind I am no doctor or nutrition specialist, but it does seem to help. In any case, I can only encourage you to test things out and see what works for you!

Before moving on, there is a point I’d like to discuss here. It’s about other consumable substances: alcohol, coffee, and other stimulants.

Let’s talk about coffee for instance, because it bears a heavy and somewhat negative reputation. It’s dehydrating, it causes palpitations, and is loosely not recommended when you suffer from chronic illness, especially if your digestive system is on the sensitive side. Despite all that, well… I have to confess that without coffee, I would probably be worse off. You might have read “powered by coffee” in my bio, and let me tell you, that is far away from just a silly joke. Coffee gives me the initial morning buzz I need to get me going. It helps with digesting after a consistent meal, it helps keep me focused if I have to study or work, it motivates me. You might be right if in reading this, you think I am addicted to it. I promise I won’t over-consume it and will try to sometimes substitute it with strong tea.

Alcohol is also a big one, not only because it is undoubtedly bad for anyone’s health, but also for its systematic incompatibility with most painkillers and treatments. While some people with muscle pain (like in fibromyalgia) have reported the immediate muscle-relaxing effects, the hangover is a whole other story. I remember waking up with the worst, numbing pain in my hands and fingers. So, if you decide you’re going to drink alcohol, do so in absolute, unconditional moderation, and make sure to remember to HYDRATE.

We won’t go too far into it, but treatment and medication are also substances to take into account in your way of like and that’s whether they are meant for your condition and otherwise, from the daily treatment to the punctual painkiller, passing through the occasional medication needed for a passing cold. One must always think of the potential side effects, the compatibility between the several pills you take, the tiring effect of some of them, and so on, which adds to the overall mental charge of the chronically ill. And I don’t even have a contraceptive to put into the equation…

“Chronic illness is not about courage, it’s about survival.”

Protecting yourself from the elements

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

The cold, the heat, the wind, the sun, the rain, all of those environmental elements are tough on the body, particularly when it’s been made weak and oversensitive by long-lasting pain. I used to love the cold seasons, but now, it’s just spoiled by pain: because of the human reflex to contract the muscles when we feel cold, it self-inflicts pain. Measures have to be taken to protect one's self from the elements, like remembering to always wear gloves, a scarf, ski leggings under one’s pants, and so on.

Hygiene and Domestic Chores

We’ve seen that time management is an issue, and if you’re living alone, oh boy. It’s a whole mess. Between laundry, the dishes, the cleaning your place, cleaning yourself, it’s a real struggle to keep up. I’ve often found myself having to choose between the one and the other, or having to postpone vacuum-cleaning because I was unwell, leaving my apartment to be dusty and dirty. I often read some people have to skip on taking showers on occasions, simply because they do not have the strength to get up. While there are solutions to clean yourself without a shower, this enters into the long list we’ve established that rests on the shoulders of the chronically ill.

We won’t even go into detail of the vicious cycle of living in an untidy environment for health, but also mostly for mental health: one becomes tied between the imperativeness to rest and recover from the pain and exhaustion on one side, and the necessity to get things done because one’s already out of time… This creates quite a stressful cycle on an already exhausted person. Perhaps this could be a part of the explanation as to why depression and anxiety are so often present as co-symptoms of most chronic illnesses.

So, what have we learned?

In conclusion, as we’ve seen that time and energy are scarce currencies for the chronically ill, we’ve seen the many common things that can quickly become a struggle. While I hope to have given some hopeful solutions to my fellow sufferers of complex conditions, it would love to know if I’ve managed to expose the issues related to the matter to my able-bodied readers. Keeping up with the modern’s world expectations of productivity is already tough as is, and being handicapped by a medical condition certainly finds a way to make it harder. As a thank you for reading me, please enjoy this picture of a bunny:

A soft, ginger bunny with floppy ears looking directly at you!
Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

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Discover a young man’s journey through life with chronic pain and illness: the bad and the ugly, but also around the concept of accessibility.

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Thalassio Briand

Thalassio Briand

Student in linguistics in France. Amateur programmer & avid tv show consumer. Interested by accessibility & chronic illness thematics. Powered by coffee.

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