To stay as healthy as possible with ankylosing spondylitis, certain triggers should be avoided. Learn how to fix lifestyle habits that can make your condition worse.
Ankylosing spondylitis, or AS, is a form of arthritis that causes joint damage primarily in the spine. AS can not only lead to severe chronic pain, but also problems with mobility, according to the Spondylitis Association of America. But there are plenty of steps you can take to make your everyday life more healthy and productive.
“Lifestyle habits are one of the most important factors that can contribute to and modify outcome in people with inflammatory disorders like ankylosing spondylitis,” says Susan Goodman, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. A lot of what you do — or don’t do — can affect the course of your disease.
In fact, these seven lifestyle habits can actually make AS worse:
1. Avoiding exercise. “A sedentary lifestyle will worsen the stiffness and decreased mobility and flexibility that accompany ankylosing spondylitis,” saysWaseem Mir, MD, founder of New York Integrative Rheumatology and a rheumatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “Regular exercise that incorporates stretching will help reduce these symptoms, and you’ll feel better.” In fact, according to a study published in 2014 in the journal BioMed Research International, people with AS who practiced an exercise routine that included strength training, stretching, and cardiovascular exercises felt better.
2. Lighting up. “Smoking is one of the worst things you can do for just about anything, including ankylosing spondylitis,” Dr. Goodman says. “People with a genetic susceptibility to ankylosing spondylitis need an environmental insult to trigger it, and smoking is one of those insults. Smoking also causes a poorer response to medications for ankylosing spondylitis.” What’s more, people with AS are at increased risk for cardiovascular disease, and smoking further increases that risk, according to a study published in the journal BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders in April 2015.
3. Indulging in alcohol. “There are a few reasons alcohol is bad for people with ankylosing spondylitis,” Dr. Mir says. “For one, it disrupts the ratio of good to bad bacteria in the gut, and a lot of autoimmune diseases tend to be related to gut health.” Second, many alcoholic beverages contain gluten, “and many people with ankylosing spondylitis are sensitive to gluten,” he says. A good alternative is green tea, which has anti-inflammatory properties, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
4. Staying up too late. Ankylosing spondylitis can interfere with sleep in a number of ways, including disturbed sleep due to the pain and sometimes depression that often accompany the disease, Goodman says. But it’s vital that you get enough rest. “Sleep has a restoration effect on the body, so people who are sleep-deprived tend to do worse and flare more with ankylosing spondylitis,” Mir says. He recommends getting seven to eight hours of sleep every night.
5. Stressing out. “When people with autoimmune diseases such as ankylosing spondylitis are under stress, they’re more likely to suffer a flare,” Mir says. To help keep stress and anxiety at bay, he suggests yoga, tai chi, relaxation breathing, and meditation. “Acupuncture may also help lower stress in people with ankylosing spondylitis,” he says. In a Chinese study published in 2014, researchers found that people with AS saw decreases in inflammatory cytokines after treatment with acupuncture.
6. Eating too much sugar. “Sugar disrupts insulin levels, which are connected to the hormone activity that affects flares in people with ankylosing spondylitis,” Mir says. “Processed and canned foods contribute to our overall inflammation levels as well.” Instead, he recommends eating plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and taking fish oil supplements, all of which haveanti-inflammatory effects on the body. “Probiotics to help heal the guts of people with ankylosing spondylitis,” he says. You can get probiotics in yogurt and other dairy products, juices, powders, and capsules, according to the American Gastroenterological Association. Talk with your doctor about choosing the right probiotics for you.
7. Not sticking to your treatment plan. “Unfortunately, ankylosing spondylitis is a progressive disease, and once damage from the disease has been done, it’s impossible to reverse it,” Mir says. “If you don’t take your medication as directed, your disease will progress faster.” It’s also important to take medications as prescribed to avoid drug resistance, which is much more likely in people who are inconsistent with their treatment regimen, Goodman says.
By taking steps to avoid these lifestyle habits, you can help improve your AS — as well as your overall health.