Autoimmune Flares: Possible Triggers & Solutions

pain in the usby Karen Frazier

I’m certain I have mentioned it before, but I started eating low-carb paleo out of self-defense. I have Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and celiac disease, both which are autoimmune diseases. Changing the way I eat has been incredibly helpful in managing autoimmune symptoms, but occasionally I have flare-ups. For example, this week, I am experiencing an autoimmune flare, and I know I’ve done it to myself.

What Does a Flare Feel Like?

Autoimmune flares may feel different for different people, depending on the type of autoimmune disease they have. In my case, an autoimmune flare includes some, all, or a combination of the following symptoms of varying intensity (ranging from mild to debilitating) depending on the severity of the flare.

  • Consistent pain – both systemic (throughout my body) and in specific locations (particularly for me my hips)
  • Headaches
  • Exhaustion
  • Stuffy nose
  • Stomach pain
  • Decreased energy
  • Decreased physical stamina
  • Brain fog
  • Swollen glands
  • Fever and chills
  • Lightheadedness
  • Muscle aches, pains, or stiffness

What Causes a Flare?

In general, there is one major cause behind a flare-up of autoimmune symptoms: inflammation.  That’s why an anti-inflammatory paleo diet is so effective in calming symptoms of autoimmune disease – because they help your body naturally decrease inflammation by eliminating substances that trigger it.

Possible Dietary Triggers

I can tell you exactly why I’m experiencing a flare this week. It’s because I consumed some foods and substances that trigger inflammation in my body.

You’ve probably seen me mention the 90/10 principle, that as long as you eat cleanly 90 percent of the time, your body will tolerate the other 10 percent of the time when you slip in an inflammatory substance. For me, however, I notice that I can’t do that entire 10 percent in a single sitting (or over the course of a few days). I have to space it way out. The more triggers I consume, the more likely a flare is. For example, I might be able to slip in a little dairy or have an alcoholic beverage here and there, as long as those things occur in isolation. However, if I do as I did this past week, and I don’t get enough sleep so I have some caffeine (in a base with artificial sweetener), then have a few drinks at a wedding along with a few puffs of a friend’s cigar, spend a late night out dancing, come home and only sleep a few hours before getting up and moving again, try to continue my regular exercise routine, and have some dairy, chances are I’m going to be in trouble.

So what are the possible dietary triggers for autoimmune flares?

  • Dairy products
  • Caffeine
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Sugar alcohols
  • Grains
  • Industrial seed oils (canola, sunflower, safflower, etc.)
  • Conventionally raised meats
  • Non-organic vegetables
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Chemical additives like preservatives, colorings, etc.
  • Sugar
  • Nicotine
  • Gums and thickeners
  • Gluten
  • Too many omega-6 fatty acids

Other Potential Causes of Inflammation

Other things might cause inflammatory flare-ups, as well, including:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress
  • Overexertion/overexercising
  • Injury
  • Hormonal shifts


Look, we all overindulge occasionally. What my body considers going on a debauched bender is very different than how it looks for other people, however. With my body’s tolerances, it’s a huge bender when I’ve had a few drinks, perhaps some artificial sweetener, and a touch of dairy while staying up past midnight one night. For me, that’s all it takes. It’s up to you to learn your body’s tolerances.

While it doesn’t seem fair that when people with autoimmune disease overindulge, they may experience a flare-up of pain and inflammation, the fact remains it happens. Therefore, your best bet is to take care to nature  your body to return to health as quickly as possible.

Return to Clean Eating

While you don’t have to return to a strict elimination diet, you will want to return to your way of clean eating, leaving out any small indulgences that may cause inflammation for the time-being. The time-frame you need to do this varies – for me it takes a week or two, although I start to feel better after a few days. If you haven’t done an elimination diet yet to determine what your food triggers are, I strongly recommend it.

Drink Plenty of Water

Water can help you flush out all of the stuff your body doesn’t like more quickly, so keep drinking lots of water as you work to decrease your body’s inflammatory response.


When your body is inflamed, it needs rest. I get pretty tired when I experience a flare-up of inflammation, and I take the time to nurture my body’s needs by going to bed earlier and getting up later. I even indulge in a nap from time to time when this happens – I listen to my body’s sleep needs and do my very best to meet them.

Choose Gentle Physical Activity

Now is not the time to tell yourself pain is just weakness leaving the body. Your pain is telling you something, and it’s encouraging you to be gentle with yourself. Listen to your body as you exercise, and engage in gentle exercises like taking short walks or doing yoga. When you do exercise, pay attention to your body’s signals and adapt the exercise accordingly. During very severe flares, I have to skip exercise altogether for a few days. This week, I’ve been doing my regular Nia classes, but I’ve been adapting them to a less strenuous level. I’ve also skipped running altogether because my body just can’t tolerate it right now. Your body will tell you as you exercise whether it can handle more, or if you need to tone it down. Listen and respond accordingly.

Try Anti-Inflammatory Foods and Substances

There are foods and supplements that can help decrease inflammation and re-balance your body. These include the following:

  • Turmeric (I take supplements)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (found in seafood, fish, flaxseed, and chia seeds)
  • Tomatoes
  • Leafy greens
  • Berries
  • Cherries
  • Ginger
  • Cloves
  • Green tea
  • Fermented foods

Heal Your Gut

If your 10 percent crept back up to being a majority of the way you ate over a sustained period, you may also want to work on healing your gut and encouraging healthy bacterial formation. Licorice (I use DGL) or marshmallow (the root, not the candy) can help to soothe the gut while probiotics and fermented foods can help re-colonize it in a healthier way.

Bust Stress

Stress contributes to inflammatory responses, so soothing your stress is essential. Along with getting adequate rest and sleep, choose activities that can help relieve stress, such as deep breathing exercises, yoga or tai chi, mindfulness, and meditation.

The Road to Health

Autoimmune flares can be frustrating, especially when you’ve been doing well. In my case, I’m almost always the cause of my flare, typically because I get in the mindset that a little bit of something isn’t going to hurt me. Then I have a little of this and a little of that until BAM – inflammation.

Different people have different tolerances to activities and substances that cause inflammation – and it can vary from time to time depending on other health factors, as well. That’s why it’s so important when you have autoimmune disease to tune into your body and listen to the signals it gives you. Then, it’s important to react quickly to those signals to honor your body’s needs in order to remain as vital and healthy as you possibly can.



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