Hold on tight because this is going to be a long one. Autoimmunity was the start of all my medical issues. Well, wait…maybe not. You see I’m not sure it has been confirmed whether the autoimmune disease caused the gut issues that led to the additional medical problems or if the gut issues caused the autoimmune disease. Was it the chicken or the egg? At this point all I can do is walk you through my experience and let you be the judge.
At 6 months old I began my first round of antibiotics due to pneumonia. I had several other common issues over the years in which I was prescribed antibiotics. I also took a decent amount of ibuprofen for aches, pains and headaches. Extended use of antibiotics and ibuprofen have been shown to cause damage to the gut and that may have contributed to my issues.
Other than the common medical ailments, I didn’t really experience any medical issues. In 2009 I ended up in ICU with a pulmonary embolism which was a result of a hereditary blood clotting disorder. The blood thinners and pain medications resulted in more gut damage and the pulmonary embolism itself caused physical stress on my body. That situation definitely came as a shock, but again, the treatment was fairly manageable and short term.
It wasn’t until 2011 that I could feel myself declining. I had been under a decent amount of emotional stress for a year and that stress continued on for another year. I was fatigued, experienced flu-like symptoms and had a nagging stomach ache, not to mention I felt like I was getting dumber by the minute (brain fog). I decided to write in a basic daily journal that tracked my eating, stressful situations and sleep patterns. I did this for 2 years, but could never pinpoint a cause or pattern. I had seen my primary care physician several times and was prescribed antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. They didn’t even touch my symptoms.
At that time in my life, I worked part time at a very low-stress job, but I could scarcely handle making it through the day. I happened to have a colleague with similar issues who had recently been diagnosed by a naturopathic physician with an autoimmune disease. She let me read a printout on her condition and I felt I was reading the story of my life. A huge weight was lifted. There could actually be a name to explain my symptoms. I immediately scheduled an appointment with a naturopath. Once the first blood test was in, I was informed that I had Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease where the body sees the thyroid as foreign invader. I wondered why in the world my body would all of a sudden mistake a part of it as foreign. Here’s what I uncovered. Because of my damaged intestines, the foods I ate passed through their normally secure barrier walls and into my bloodstream. Picture it like a sponge letting the food particles escape through the holes.
So now these food particles are floating within my bloodstream, my body assumes they’re going to cause damage, therefore, it goes into attack mode. Why did it choose to attack the thyroid? Apparently, the molecular structure of gluten closely resembles that of the thyroid. With the diet I was on at that time, there was plenty of gluten to be had. My antibodies were smart enough to have identified gluten as danger, but not smart enough to distinguish the slight difference in chemical makeup from my thyroid. Currently my body has been on a 6 year mission to kill my thyroid, but I refuse to allow it to succeed! I’ll tell you how a little further down.
The thyroid is the epicenter for regulating metabolism by producing, storing and releasing hormones into the bloodstream. These hormones regulate body temperature, heart rate, sleep and mood, to name a few. When the hormones go haywire these are some of the symptoms that may be experienced:
- Brain fog (forgetfullness and unclear thoughts)
- Frequent cold feeling
- Weight gain
So when the thyroid isn’t functioning properly the effects can be quite disruptive.
Once I received my diagnosis I was given thyroid and adrenal gland support supplements along with an herbal remedy to help with my stomach pain. My naturopath also wrote down the name of a website called the paleo mom and said there was a specific nutritional protocol that could help decrease my symptoms. She was referring to the paleo diet. That website became my answer hub for everything autoimmune related. I read through that site countless times and discovered something new every time.
What I learned was that by following a few key practices there was a chance for remission. That word “remission” was what I clung to and what motivated me to make some drastic lifestyle changes. I desperately needed something to cling to because the treatment seemed too overwhelming to bare. There were 3 crucial elements that attributed to a decrease in my symptoms; adequate sleep, decreased stress and paleo nutrition.
I think the far too busy American lifestyle leads to neglected sleep. I’m pretty sure most people don’t understand how important sleep is in order to maintain good health. If there is a lot going on, proper sleep may be the most acceptable of the three to put on the back burner. For example, eating healthy and managing stress are a bit more well defined in our society as contributors to better health, good sleep…not so much. Lack of sleep has also been linked to a myriad of health issues. You see, during sleep the body repairs itself. On top of that, good sleep actually improves our immune function. And boy do we need that improvement.
I’ve always been one to need a lot of sleep. Although, before my diagnosis if I didn’t get enough sleep one night I didn’t really suffer ill effects the next day. After my diagnosis it was a different story. One poor night’s sleep would completely ruin the following day or two. I’d have an increase in fatigue, flu-like symptoms and brain fog. I referred to that phenomenon as sleepy sick. I hated feeling that crappy so I had to make sleep a priority. For me, that meant no late nights, no activities that required getting up too early in the morning, no engaging in any evening stressors (TV shows, checking emails or texting) and avoiding blue lights from the TV and electronic devices. Just those few changes made a big difference in my sleep.
Stress is one of those things where I knew I didn’t want it, but how in the heck do I get rid of it? A pill can’t take away stressful situations so I needed to find tools to help me deal with them as they intersected with my life. Here are a few things that helped me:
- Daily meditation and relaxation exercises
- Eliminate or decrease interaction with stressful people and situations
- Practice healthy boundaries
Meditation can appear hokey. I always thought it was something only new-agers engaged in. I didn’t understand how to do it either. It was something that required inner work and concentration and I wasn’t sure I could harness it, so I put it off. Several months later my mother had gone to the library and checked out a DVD. She thought it was interesting so she passed it on to me. It was a documentary called The Connection and it helped me to see how powerful meditation can be in healing the body. That documentary lit the fire beneath me that caused me to give it a try.
Where to start. Someone recommended I take a restorative yoga class. That specific class focused only on breathing and floor stretches so I knew it was something I could handle. The instructor gave me a few breathing techniques and although I wasn’t the best meditator, I told myself it would just take practice. I was right. A few weeks later I had my first real meditation experience. Within 30 mins I went from feeling stressed to feeling like I was just given some type of natural Valium. I was in shock with the lasting effects of it that day and knew I had to make it a part of my daily life.
With regards to getting rid of stress inducing people and situations, I realize it’s easier said than done. A specific situation for me was I had committed to some things that were fine until I got sick, it then became a chore, but I knew people were relying on me. I tormented myself about why I couldn’t quit. I dreaded appearing flakey. I finally realized that the way to approach it is from a health standpoint. Just be honest with those people and tell them what’s happening and that you need to take a step back for a while to concentrate on getting better.
Setting boundaries just piggybacks on the above. There may be a person or two in your life that requires extra care and upkeep, but sometimes you can’t cut them out of your life. In that case you really need to think about how much you can realistically contribute to the relationship. Then you need to have the discussion. Hopefully the person will have compassion for your situation and will be understanding.
The importance of exercise is something we all know about. Getting motivated for this can be a challenge. What worked for me was how I approached exercise. I decided I would only do what I enjoyed. I hated going to the gym, but I enjoyed being out in nature, so hiking and biking became my mainstays. And going for a walk, even if just around the block is something. Go easy on yourself. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t have what it takes that day or even for a stretch of time. You don’t need any added pressure. Your body may be telling you it needs to rest.
Okay, diet is a biggie. Food is such a huge part of our lives and can bring a lot of joy to it. There are addictions, rituals and habits that have food at the center. If you have an autoimmune condition and are considering a diet change, I have two words for you “I’m sorry”. I’m so sorry you have to go through this. I understand how difficult it is from a psychological standpoint. And, one more time…I’m sorry.
Now that I got that off my chest, let me share why I recommend paleo nutrition at a minimum and the slightly more restrictive autoimmune autoimmune protocol (AIP) if needed. A quick overview with paleo nutrition is that it’s mainly meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. What’s not allowed are; grains (i.e. oats, wheat, rice, corn, quinoa, buckwheat, barley, rye and more), legumes (beans, chickpeas, peanuts, lentils etc.), refined sugar, dairy, soy, refined oils (canola and safflower) and processed foods. The autoimmune protocol has the same restrictions as paleo, but with the additional exclusions of eggs, nuts, seeds, spices that come from seeds (chili, paprika, cumin, nutmeg) and nightshade vegetables (peppers, chilis, eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes). I’ve done the AIP diet for 4 years, other than off and on periods of nuts & seeds.
One reason paleo nutrition is important is because it includes only non-inflammatory and anti inflammatory foods. The root of all illnesses is inflammation. We want to remove anything contributing to inflammation and to add in foods with anti inflammatory properties is an added benefit. The other reason it’s so great is that it includes foods that are nutrient dense. As a general rule, with autoimmunity comes nutrient and vitamin deficiencies. The typical western diet has lost its nutrients over the years, but this way of eating allows for us to once again allow those fabulous nutrients to nourish our bodies.
So, now onto some positives to help encourage you to start and remain with paleo nutrition. The first positive is that word I mentioned earlier. Remission. How great would it be to be symptom free! That’s all I need to say on that.
The second positive is the actual diet. If you are anything like me, you will be getting rid of every single morsel in your current diet only to replace it with foods you don’t care for let alone have even heard of. I went from eating legumes, grains, sugar and dairy to root vegetables, plantain chips, red meat and fish. In the beginning I would literally gag when I ate salmon or apples for example, but I was determined to keep trying them in different recipes. Here’s the good news on that score, after eating those foods, and many others like it, I actually started to crave those foods. Never in a million years did I think I’d ever enjoy consuming bone broth, rudabega and beets. Sounds gross to you now, right? And it’s not just me. I’ve heard testimonials from other people with the same experience. The truth is our bodies crave what we eat and you will eventually enjoy your new foods.
The last positive is that there are a grip of paleo and autoimmune paleo cookbooks out there as well as recipes available on Pinterest. I find it can be fun to create and try new things, but if you’re not much into cooking, try to look for simple recipes to start. I wouldn’t want you to spend a lot of time and money just to be disappointed with the end result. That situation could very well discourage you from continuing. If interested in more insight and recommendations regarding the nutrition portion my Nutrition page goes into more detail.
Taking charge of my health was really something my husband encouraged me to do. I had a tendency to follow a doctor’s instruction even when I wasn’t improving. I ended up letting issues go on far too long without discussing it with my doctor. You see, I don’t like to be a nuisance and my doctor knows best. Right? The thing is, you know your body best and it’s your health that is at stake. If symptoms aren’t changing your doctor needs to know. Once the doctor knows what you’re going through and has concrete evidence then the plan can be adjusted accordingly. For example, I told my doctor I had a lot of back pain so she referred me to a fabulous chiropractor. What ended up being a pinched nerve went away with adjustments, but I was still in quite a bit of pain. I just continued on with chiropractic care 2-3 times a week for 75 visits! Once I verbalized this to my doctor she adjusted my plan to better help me. Come to find out something else altogether was contributing to the pain. Another example was when I wasn’t making progress with my naturopath. I continued feeling sick for at least 6 months longer than I should have. So when someone recommended a functional medicine doctor I realized that is what I really needed. If things don’t change, it’s time for you to make that change.
I really want this to be a more positive experience for you. Seeing a drastic improvement in symptoms is possible for you and has been for me and countless others. So, now that you’ve heard my story what is your conclusion with autoimmunity and the gut–the chicken or the egg?