When we’re young, we’re usually healthy, energetic, and at our physical peak. And, we tend to take it for granted, pushing our bodies to the unforeseeable limit. We do what feels good, eat what tastes good, stay up too late, party too hard, and generally don’t think about consequences because it seems there are none. For some people, they are able to continue down an unhealthy path for quite some time.
For others, an unhealthy lifestyle hits a tipping point, and the body short circuits. Pushing our bodies to this tipping point can trigger something called an autoimmune disease, a class of around 80 different diseases that occur when our immune system gets confused and starts attacking tissues, joints, even our own blood cells. Doctors aren’t quite sure exactly what the cause is, but it’s often triggered by stress on the body, and may possibly be related to a genetic predisposition and even environmental factors like pollution and exposure to chemicals. It’s not known yet why some people get autoimmune diseases and others don’t. What is known is that these diseases are skyrocketing in our country. Some say it's an epidemic.
Ari Meisel is one of the people who triggered an autoimmune disease while living a very unhealthy lifestyle. I interviewed him recently after seeing his TED talk about this experience, and how he was able to cure himself by changing his life drastically. This was particularly fascinating to me because at the moment autoimmune diseases are not considered to have cures, but Meisel was able to turn his illness around through lifestyle changes, and his story can help others to do the same.
In his 20s, Ari was living hard. He was smoking, drinking too much, not sleeping, and in debt. His body could only take so much physical and mental stress, and one day he found himself in the hospital with unbearable stomach pain. As is often the case with autoimmune diseases, Ari went through several different doctors with several different (and wrong) diagnoses until finally, in 2007, he was told he had Crohn’s disease. A debilitating, extremely painful and embarrassing condition, Crohn’s is characterized by such severe intestinal inflammation that patients often end up needing to have parts of their colons removed. He was on 16 different pills a day, including chemo drugs that made him even more ill. In 2009, after a particularly bad night in the hospital, he felt he had no choice but to make a drastic change.
Ari got out of the hospital and after about a week of recovery, he started doing yoga. At first he could only manage around five minutes a day, but he gradually did more and more, careful not to push himself too hard. He changed his diet completely, eating organic leafy greens, low amounts of meat and sugar, no milk, and no processed food.
There is an increasingly strong correlation between gut health and autoimmune diseases. Poor diets and stress kill the good bacteria in our stomachs (70% of your immune system is in your belly!), and when it's unhealthy, we're unhealthy. The key to Ari’s healing was fresh food. As he described it, “Once you heal the gut, you can heal a lot more.” He started taking probiotics, the good bacteria that our guts need to function properly. And now, get ready to have your mind blown with some stats. 10% of the DNA in your body belongs to you. The other 90% is bacteria. Think about that for a minute. Sounds crazy right? Those bacteria are doing a lot of important things in your body, and the medical community is really paying attention to that 90% and their role in keeping us healthy. If you kill off the good bacteria with poor diet, stress or overuse of antibiotics, your body will surely suffer. Adding probiotics is important, but you also need to FEED them the healthy food they need to thrive. Good bacteria need nutrients, like fruits and veggies — not Cheetos. Ari also experimented with supplements, including krill oil, an anti-inflammatory fish oil. He cleaned up his diet and became a dedicated yogi. But there was one more element to tackle: stress.
Often ignored as being connected to our physical health, Ari recognized the stress connection and learned to manage his response to stress (something I’ve talked about before in this column with regard to meditation). We often ignore the connection between our minds and our bodies; you can change your diet and exercise, but without controlling your stress response, Ari believes you can never fully get better.
After about six months of a dedicated diet, yoga, and other lifestyle changes, Ari was recovering. Later that year, he was able to go off of his Crohn’s medicine completely, a huge feat considering the state he was in previously. He became a yoga instructor and then an EMT so he could better understand the way the body works. He started competing in extreme sports events like Tough Mudders and long-distance running, he literally had to shock his body into healing. The important thing to remember is that this took time, he didn’t become a vegan yoga instructor overnight. He took small steps with his diet and lifestyle and made positive change little by little.
I ask Ari something I wonder about a lot — why don’t we listen to our bodies more often? Why do we push ourselves to the limits instead of taking care of the most precious thing we have, our health? “Most people are too busy with other things, and other stresses of life, and just take for granted that their bodies will carry on as they have,” he said. Today, Ari is completely free of any inflammation in his gut, and has started a company that helps others get well, too. As a wellness and productivity coach at LessDoing.com, he identifies the factors in his clients lives that may be causing the problem (stress, bad job, debt, diet, etc.) and works on fixing those problems, whether it be coaching them on improving stress response or helping to find the right nutritional supplements. Diet, he says, is the foundation for everything.
What Ari went through, and how far he has come, is nothing short of inspiring. He is a cautionary tale for those of us burning the candle at both ends, as there are always consequences to the way we treat our bodies. He also says, however, that the body’s capacity to heal is incredible, and that can give anyone hope. Ari has taken what he’s been through and is using it to help others. He believes that anyone can get better. “You have to realize that no matter what anyone has told you about how bad things are and how little can be done, THEY ARE WRONG. You can do something or die trying.” So, if you are still healthy, but perhaps not taking good care of yourself, then making lifestyle changes can mean the difference between wellness and illness. And, if you are one of the people who are struggling with a sickness, Ari’s story offers hope that it’s never too late to turn things around.