When Dan Reynolds stepped on stage at Leeds Arena in November of 2015, he was a rock star riding the crest of fame. His band, Imagine Dragons, was in the midst of a world tour to promote their second album, Smoke + Mirrors, which reached the top of the charts in both the United States and the United Kingdom. But on that night, he had a personal and painful secret that he didn’t want to keep from his fans any longer.
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‘I Have Something Called Ankylosing Spondylitis'
“I’ve never said this publicly ever, but I’m just going to say it because it’s part of my life now,” Reynolds told the audience. “Does anyone out there suffer from any kind of disease? No one ever wants to raise their hands. I have something called ankylosing spondylitis. It’s an autoimmune disease, and I’ve never spoken about it because, frankly, I’ve been embarrassed. And tonight I’m going to share it, because there are probably other people out there who suffer from it too. Basically your immune system thinks that your joints are a disease and so it attacks your joints and you get arthritis. … You basically turn into an older person with arthritis at a young age and your joints can fuse together, and it’s a pretty scary thing. So if anyone is out there suffering from depression or suffering from disease, here’s to you, because life goes on.”
Life has gone on for Reynolds. Married with three daughters and a baby boy on the way, his band continues to reach new heights. But between being a dad and husband, recording, and touring, Reynolds has had to adapt his unique rock-and-roll lifestyle to living with ankylosing spondylitis and ulcerative colitis — two chronic inflammatory diseases that can make life extremely difficult when not treated early. “When it’s raining, when it’s storming, you can either hide or you can take action,” Reynolds says. “The No. 1 thing I needed to do was to take action. So I went to see a rheumatologist.”
Life Before Imagine Dragons, and Before an AS Diagnosis
Before Reynolds reached stardom in music, his upbringing wasn’t that of a typical rock star. One of nine siblings, he grew up in Nevada as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon church). As a Boy Scout, he even achieved the highest rank of Eagle Scout.
A Crushing Blow Right Before College Leads to Trouble
The week before Reynolds was to start at Brigham Young University (BYU), a prestigious school affiliated with his church, he hit a major obstacle. “One week before I was supposed to go, I met with a bishop and told him I had sex with my girlfriend of four years, and got kicked out of BYU,” Reynolds told All Things Considered host Michele Martin in February 2018. “And that was a trigger point in my life. It was the first time that I kind of spiraled into depression. I was told that I had to stay home and all my friends went off to college and my roommate had to find someone else and I felt like a whole community was judging me.”
Reynolds began college at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas before eventually being able to transfer to Brigham Young University. It was at BYU that Reynolds formed Imagine Dragons, winning a battle of the bands competition and gaining more positive momentum. But behind the scenes, he was battling chronic pain symptoms that he was suffering without knowing why.
Inflammation and Other Symptoms May Have Started in High School
In hindsight, Reynolds thinks that his AS may have begun as early as high school. “The way I describe the pain is when you go to the dentist and they drill, you feel that deep nerve pain,” Reynolds says. “I really felt it in my lower back, my SI [sacroiliac] joints, my hips, in my foot — the inflammation was there and wouldn’t go away.”
As an adult, Reynolds went from doctor to doctor, hoping to find an answer for the pain he was feeling every day. “They would say it’s sciatica,” Reynolds says. “Or maybe it’s a slipped disc, (you need) X-rays, all these things. I was a broke musician at the time. I had no health insurance. I was in a ton of pain, and I went through that process for a year. I didn’t get diagnosed until I was 24.”
While Reynolds was trying to find the right diagnosis, he was still in agony as he would play shows with record company executives in the audience in the hopes that Imagine Dragons would get signed to a music label.
Symptoms Got Severe Just When the Band Gets Industry Attention
“When I would wake up, I would be extremely stiff for hours and hours. I couldn’t touch my toes in the mornings,” Reynolds says. “It would be terrible at night. I couldn’t sleep. In excruciating pain, I would roll over to try to find another position where it wouldn’t be hurting. Even sitting for long periods could really hurt. Right before the band was signed, we played in clubs around LA and Las Vegas. We had one of those airport shuttle buses that we traveled in. Labels started coming to our shows, and I knew I was not putting on the shows I could put on. I remember doing a show in San Diego where I was as stiff as a board, and I stood perfectly still, straight up for the entire time. They probably thought that was my thing (laughs). ‘He has really good posture!’ Even the motion of singing was causing this spasm-y nerve pain.”
Finally, Reynolds Finds the Right Doctor
Having already been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, a type of inflammatory bowel disease, Reynolds saw a rheumatologist who diagnosed him with ankylosing spondylitis. “I went to Susan Baker, MD, in Los Angeles and she was amazing,” Reynolds says. “She went through my diet, exercise, and daily routine. She did blood testing and asked me a lot of questions. She took the time and she cared. We tried different foods. If this didn’t work, we tried that. If this treatment didn’t work, we’d try that. It was a lot of trial and error, but that was 10 times better then ‘let’s take another X-ray.’"
Reynolds and his rheumatologist put together a medical treatment plan to help him deal with his autoimmune disease, which meant being more careful with what he ate, including his lifelong devotion to breakfast cereals. “I would have cereal multiple times a day, especially right before bed,” Reynolds says, laughing at the thought. “I still have a real affinity for these things, but I don’t eat it all day, every day. My old diet was pizza, processed foods, burgers, bread, bread, and more bread. As much bread as I can shove in my mouth,” he says.
Embracing an Anti-Inflammation Diet
Part of his treatment was an inflammation-fighting dietary approach. “I went on an anti-inflammatory diet. Everyone is different,” he explains. “What works for me is a lot of fish, chicken, rice, vegetables. I’ll avoid bread, dairy, and sugar. I eat fruit and get natural sugar, but I avoid anything that’s processed.”
In 2011, finally understanding the health issues he was facing and treating them, Reynolds and Imagine Dragons started to find success. The band signed with Interscope Records, and they launched their debut album, Night Visions, in 2012. Their single, "Radioactive," would become one of the breakout hits of the year. In just a few short years, Reynolds and his band were ubiquitous on radios around the world.
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Making Health and Wellness a Priority Every Day
Now touring the world, Reynolds began to prioritize his health. In addition to removing many of the foods in his diet that may cause inflammation, he developed a new devotion to fitness, one that led to him being featured in the pages of Men’s Health magazine in January 2019. When his condition would flare up, he would take a biologic medication to help manage the symptoms and try to drive them into remission.
Stretching and Yoga Helps Prevent AS Stiffness and Pain
Despite his skepticism about yoga, Reynolds says his wife convinced him to give it a try. “When my wife said, ‘Why don’t you try yoga?’ I said, 'Over. My. Dead. Body.' (laughs) I’m 6 foot 4, and I wasn’t limber at all. The last thing I wanted to do was go to this class where people were doing handstands and crab walks. … But now yoga is a big component of my exercise.”
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In 2018, Reynolds posted a photo of himself shirtless and muscular on Instagram. Liberated from the secret of his invisible disease, he began sharing more and more of his health journey with his fan base. In the post, he thanked his trainer Ben Feinberg for helping him keep the symptoms of the diseases at bay. "I’ve spent a decade fighting an autoimmune disease that inflamed all my joints (AS). I now live pain-free, am in full remission, and am the healthiest I’ve ever been. Correct diet, vitamins, and exercise. It’s been life-changing for me."
Pursuing Good Health Isn’t Always Easy — or Affordable
Reynolds has managed the disease — so successfully that he doesn’t use medication unless he has a flare — yet he knows he is fortunate to be in a position to achieve good health. Despite being a rock star, Reynolds isn’t so far removed from everyday life that he can’t remember what it was like to battle AS without the resources he has today. He can remember it as vividly as he remembers the pain.
“When I’m on the road now, even before the band was successful, I always prioritized food. Eating well is expensive, but I was consistent. If I couldn’t do that, then I couldn’t perform. The same with exercise. You can do it cheap. Get yourself a yoga mat, go on YouTube, and there are plenty of free instructors there.”
Related: Arthritis, Ankylosing Spondylitis and Autoimmune Diseases: Your Questions, Answered
Stress Management, Self-Care Is Key to Thriving With Chronic Disease
What does Reynolds recommend the most for someone struggling with AS or another autoimmune disease? Be kind to yourself and remove the stressors in your life, he urges.
Whether you are a rock star or not, stress is always lurking in life as a catalyst for flare-ups. “Do things every day that will de-stress your life. Treat yourself to whatever shuts your mind off. If I need to listen to my true-crime podcasts, or go to the gym, or read my book, that’s what I’m going to do. My priority in life is my health. If my health isn’t there, I can’t do anything — I can’t be a good dad, a good musician, a good husband. I can’t stress the need to de-stress enough.”
Dan Reynolds is a paid spokesperson for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, sponsor of the ankylosing spondylitis awareness campaign #MonsterPainInTheAS. Does your back hurt? Go to Monster Pain In The AS website for a quiz about different types, and possible causes, of back pain.