Well hello there! So nice to see you here, and so nice to be back after one super crazy summer. So much has happened over the last few months. We are in the home-stretch of a major kitchen remodel, which has taken up every single extra minute we have. We’ve been at the “two more weeks” phase for about five weeks now, but that’s how these things go. I’ll post pictures once it’s all finished up.
What I really want to tell you about is the healing journey I embarked upon this summer. I learned so much about Hashimoto’s and my overall health, and am so excited to share some news with you:
I feel better. I FEEL BETTER! I. Feel. Better.
Do I feel all better? No. And the healing work is not done, but I feel like I am on the right track. I didn’t know it was possible to feel like myself again, but I do, most of the time these days, which feels like a pretty huge victory. I have gotten back so much of my energy, which in turn has helped with EVERYTHING– my mood, my brain fog, my recovery time, my ability to dodge viruses and not be knocked down by them for abnormally long periods of time. I can exercise and play hard again without feeling wrecked for 2-3 days afterward. My joint pain and inflammation have lessened, which is aided by the fact that I can stay active and therefore strong. I used to feel like I was living in a body 10-15 years older than my own. Now, I feel like a normal almost-40 year old.
I made progress because I got the RIGHT kind of help. And it’s working.
Want to know how I did it? I’m happy to tell you. But please remember, there is no one-size-fits-all treatment for hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s. We all have unique hypothyroid triggers and sensitivities. I’m neither doctor nor nutritionist, and this isn’t meant to be taken as medical advice. I’m just a mom, writer, and chef on a quest to feel better. I hope that sharing my quest will inform and inspire your own.
Okay, here are the 10 steps I took to reclaim my health:
Step 1: I stopped pretending I was fine
In other words, I went public with my health struggle and started this blog. It must be mentioned, this critical, and in some ways, most difficult first step. The decision I made to start this blog was partly for you, my fellow hypothyroid people, and partly for me. I wanted to know and understand more about this thing that was having a definite albeit nebulous impact on my health, and my life. It’s been SO interesting to witness people’s reactions. Many if not most of them are supportive of my health quest, but some of them squirm.
“You’re going to name your new recipe blog that?” or “When can you eat and drink like a normal person again?”
Why the discomfort? Well, I think that when we decide to try and heal our bodies (or minds, or souls for that matter), it makes a statement of acknowledgment, and that takes courage. It also takes a commitment to self-care, sometimes radical self-care, and some of us mistakenly associate that with selfishness. In order to heal, one must first acknowledge the wound, the disease, the so-called imperfection inside us. There is an undercurrent of shame in aging and the disease that comes with it that our culture doesn’t like to discuss. So we take our synthetic thyroid hormone and try to pretend we’re not tired all damn day. We try to be good little patients who do what our doctors tell us to do, even if that little voice inside disagrees.
The problem is that healing does not happen with that approach (without a stroke of serious coincidental luck). More medication happens. And further damage to the thyroid. And as we go down the conventional pathway, our risk for worsening thyroid issues, like nodules, or cancer, goes up [read the study here], as does our risk of developing additional autoimmune conditions, many of which are severely debilitating.
Learning those things got my attention. And I guess I just reached a point where I was so sick of feeling tired and sick, that I was done trying to pretend I didn’t. So yes, in order to start this blog, I had to throw insecurity to the wind and go public with the whole world that I had this “imperfection,” and then I had to love and accept myself enough to believe I was worthy of making my health a priority.
That’s big stuff guys. That’s like, Oprah stuff.
If you’re here and you’re seeking better health, kudos to you. I know it takes courage, determination, and the unshakable belief that you’re worth it. You are SO worth it. If you don’t believe me, let the queen of worthiness, Brené Brown, convince you:
The quest to improve and PROTECT your health is worth it. Even if it means your friends and family are sometimes disappointed or inconvenienced by what that entails. Trust. Take deep breaths, do the personal inner work, and then take the leap. This quest has its challenges, but for me, it’s been a profoundly positive thing, not only personally, but for every person I care about, especially my 5-year-old son…love him so.
Step 2: I began educating myself
I’ve learned so much from every book in my growing hypothyroid library, as well as online resources like Chris Kresser, Marcelle Pick., and Dana Trentini’s website, Hypothyroid Mom (just to name a few of the many). For me, Izabella Wentz, also known as the Thyroid Pharmacist, has been the #1 most helpful Hashimoto’s expert on my healing journey. She created a road map for this journey and it’s laid out in her book, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause.
You can see all my flags and tags poking out the top, and practically every page within is aglow with highlighter. Wentz brings such insight, intelligence, and encouragement to her work on the topic because she’s been there, she’s lived through the health struggles, she’s learned the science, she’s made the diet and lifestyle changes, and she has healed herself (and countless others at this point). If you haven’t already, read her book, visit her website, subscribe to her emails. By doing this, I started down the right track to solving the mystery of my Hashimoto’s triggers.
Step 3: I Created a health timeline
One of the first suggestions I put into practice from Wentz’s book was to create a health timeline.
She talks about it in this article, and if you scroll down to the end of the post, you’ll see a green box you can click to download a sample timeline (sweet!).
I opened a word document and started at the very beginning: a childhood home along the banks of a polluted river, a fluoridated water supply, an increasingly industrialized food supply, antibiotic use galore, the standard American diet– you know, a typical American 1980’s childhood. Later there was an incident that required surgery and a hospital stay: an ectopic pregnancy that ruptured. In the aftermath followed shingles, anxiety, and a noticeable increase in hair loss. One year later, there was chronic and sometimes debilitating stomach pain, investigated with endoscopy (among other diagnostic tests), and treated as acid reflux, but never diagnosed with certainty. In 2011, there was the birth of my son via c-section, including a 4-day hospital stay, and soon after, a post-partum hypothyroidism diagnosis.
In the five most recent years, my energy declined, slowly but noticeably, in spite of normal TSH numbers with Levothyroxine treatment. Paralleling my increasing fatigue was an increase in viruses and infections, which warranted multiple courses of antibiotics. My diet required more and more (and still more) attention to maintain a healthy weight. My overall health profile was at odds with the demands of my life as an active mom with goals and dreams to accomplish. It was taking a toll on my entire existence, including my mood.
Once I put it all down on paper, the story of my health was laid out in undeniable clarity. I added a section for my health goals and challenges, and I began tracking the interventions I was implementing, like going gluten-free or taking probiotics. This way I could review results and side effects, both positive and negative, and notice patterns I may have missed without this review. It took some time, but having a health timeline has been one of the most powerful tools in my arsenal. I continue to update it regularly.
Now it was time to find someone to help me unravel the mystery of my health.
Step 4: I Hired A Detective
Not really, but that’s essentially what my naturopathic physician (ND) is: a healing detective. Once I learned that my regular doc suspected Hashimoto’s, yet never tested me for or educated me about it, I let go of any hope of her helping me HEAL. Her hypothyroidism plan and protocol for me was pharmaceutical treatment of symptoms. Period. She never taught me about or tested me for Hashimoto’s, because it didn’t change her course of treatment: synthetic thyroid hormone indefinitely, and most likely in increasing dosages as my body quietly destroyed my thyroid, unbeknownst to me. She was okay with that plan. She was okay with me not knowing that my hypothyroidism was probably autoimmune.
It was not an easy decision to spend money out of pocket to see a naturopath. But after hearing time and again from experts and from my growing hypothyroid community that functional MD’s, integrative MD’s, and naturopaths are typically more helpful at healing Hashimoto’s, I decided to suck it up and go for it.
From here, I can tell you it has been absolutely worth it. Getting multiple referrals to a good alternative health practitioner, waiting six weeks for an appointment, spending the money to see the investigation through, taking the tests, interpreting the results, taking the supplements, and implementing diet and lifestyle interventions, have all been 100% worth it. And p.s.- my ND was thrilled to have my health timeline.
Step 5: I Took the Tests
I had already done the full panel of thyroid tests, which confirmed that my hypothyroidism was Hashimoto’s (autoimmune thyroiditis).
- You can read about that preliminary part of my journey here.
- You can read about the 6 key thyroid tests you should have done here (from Hypothyroid Mom).
- 90% to 95% of people with hypothyroidism, in fact have autoimmune thyroiditis, otherwise known as Hashimoto’s.
Now, it was time to look deeper in search of the root cause. My ND was willing to work within a budget by prioritizing which tests were most important to our investigation, which I appreciated; but, I wanted to leave no stone unturned, so I chose to do the whole battery. Nearly every bodily substance was tested for hormone imbalances, nutrient deficiencies, food allergies, parasites, and bacteria, all of which can be associated with Hashimoto’s. Some of it wasn’t fun, like getting six vials of blood drawn in one sitting, or collecting samples of things we normally flush down the toilet (eew). But the payoff was huge. It gave us a complete picture of what was going on in my body and revealed a number of hidden issues. All those vials and samples provided us with information that may be the key to reversing my Hashimoto’s (keep reading).
Step 6: I Changed My Diet
My ND emailed me right away when the first test results came in for food sensitivities. I had been gluten-free for a while already, which is one of the most common across-the-board recommendations for Hashimoto’s patients. But I had NO IDEA that I was highly sensitive to dairy. ALL dairy. Including goat’s milk, whey, yogurt, all of it. Unfortunately, I had grown accustomed to eating dairy with abandon. It was my favorite protein! And that’s not all. I am highly sensitive to eggs, both chicken and duck. There were plenty of other milder sensitivities, like almonds, and cranberries, but my dairy and egg sensitivities were of the highest severity.
I couldn’t believe it. How was I going to survive without cheese? How was I going to cook without gluten, dairy, or eggs? I am a chef and cooking instructor for Pete’s sake! I felt like the painter who has been told she can only use half of the colors on her palette; stifled, heartbroken, and daunted.
I reached out to the autoimmune community I am now so grateful to be a part of on social media, and asked, “Is it worth it? If you had food sensitivity testing did you implement the changes and see improvement?” The answers I got were the same acros the board: YES. It made a difference, if not THE difference for all of them. One woman told me of her long battle with infertility, and how implementing dietary restrictions based on food sensitivity testing was the key factor in her getting pregnant naturally and having multiple babies, issue free. WOW.
It wasn’t easy to accept the results. I definitely had a pity party for myself, and mourned the loss of so many of my favorite foods. Then, I reminded myself that I was on a healing journey which depended completely on one thing: my willingness to change.
So I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and cut out dairy and eggs 100% (in addition to gluten). Other high-sensitivity items on my labs, like sugar cane, and pineapple, I have reduced. I slip now and again, and sometimes I simply decide it’s worth it to cheat (like when my Italian cousin offers to teach me how to make her sausage and peppers with rigatoni). But when I do go off the wagon, I feel it. I get foggy and tired, and my joints hurt more. I’m sick of that feeling, and I know it too well.
When my husband expresses sympathy as I order a salad (no croutons) at our favorite local pizza joint, I tell him, “I’m not sad. I feel healthy again. I got my life back.”
Nothing tastes as good as that. I’m so glad I implemented the changes. It makes a difference. For now, as I continue on the path toward healing, I’m going to put these foods aside; however, my ND and I are very optimistic that as I continue to heal, these food sensitivities will go away. They often change over time as the body heals, so there is hope that I may once again enjoy my beloved cheese.
Step 7: I Changed My Lifestyle
“I changed my lifestyle.”
That sounds so big and intimidating, especially after saying goodbye to cheese. I mean, it’s not like I became an insect rancher or moved to an ashram in India. I’m still the same person, with the same responsibilities, goals, and dreams.
What feels more accurate to say is that I ENHANCED my lifestyle. How? By re-integrating two of the most powerful life practices I have ever used:
Meditation & Yoga
Stress has never agreed with me, and my body tells me about it. Sometimes it speaks quietly, like when it gently urges me to lay in the hammock for 5 minutes and take a break from the yard work marathon my brain wants me to complete. Other times, my body is louder and more insistent in its response to stress. For example, illnesses that last not weeks but months, insomnia that begins to border on chronic, and injuries that bring a halt to normal activity. Can you relate?
It reminds me of a quote I once read on the wall of a chiropractor’s office:
I started meditating again by using a simple app called Headspace, which has made the process more fun, and helps guide and inspire me when I don’t feel like doing the work alone. And no, they didn’t pay me to say that. I like to use meditation when I get in bed, where my mind has a tendency to churn and ultimately sabotage the rest I need. It’s a conscious way of quieting all that chatter down, and helps me unload the gobbledygook of the day.
Think of meditating as clearing your computer’s cache– everything runs smoother without a bunch of junk cluttering things up. Since I began meditating a couple of months ago, I’ve noticed my self-awareness skyrocketing, my stress decreasing, and my relationships improving across the board. And lately, I keep getting these little moments throughout the day that feel like. . . well, bliss. I’m just noticing this in the past week or so, and it happens more often when I’m able to bring the practice of presence into my daily life while doing things like driving, cooking, or throwing the frisbee for the dog.
For those wiggly days, or the wiggly among us, where sitting still and not thinking is unattainable, there’s the moving form of meditation: Yoga. I love yoga and did it regularly for years, but somehow, I lost touch with it, along with my mindfulness practice, once I became a mom. Ironic, because I need those things now more than ever. I’ve always been fairly good about exercise, but the relaxation part of the path to healing was one I neglected for a long time. Making a point to get back to these habits has been highly beneficial to my overall well-being. The results after just a couple months, already feel huge.
Step 8: We Discovered the Primary Suspect
Examining the results of a GI panel (which is a classy way of saying “poo test”), my ND and I discovered a bacterial infection in my gut. The short of it is that I had (and may still have) a proliferation of dysbiotic gut flora, or a condition known as gut dysbiosis. Allow me to translate:
You’ve heard of probiotic bacteria, right? Those are the good guys. You eat them in your yogurt and drink them in your kombucha. Dysbiotic bacteria, on the other hand, are the bad guys. We all have bad guys that reside in our body’s microbiome— that’s the word of the day and it’s used to describe the microbes that make up our body. Those microbial cells live not just in our guts, but throughout our bodies and are so prolific that they outnumber human cells by about ten to one! We ARE our microbiota, and unless there is an imbalance we live in harmony with them. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
The link between our intestinal bacteria and disease is one of the biggest deals in the world of medical science these days. You probably won’t hear about it from your MD, but studies continue to support the case that we need to take our gut flora seriously. This is why home-fermented sauerkraut has become the hottest revolutionary food trend since raising chickens!
How does this relate to Hashimoto’s specifically, you ask? According to this study, the gut microbiota plays a significant role in autoimmune diseases like Hashi’s. You may have already heard about the link between Hashimoto’s and leaky gut, aka intestinal permeability. In my case, my labs do not show major signs of leaky gut (which I hope means I caught it early), as much as they show another condition linked to intestinal permeability called gut DYSBIOSIS, or in simple terms, an imbalance in good guys vs. bad guys.
My lab results showed a significant level of dysbiotic flora in the Enterobacter cloacae family.
“If your primary doctor saw this, at these levels,” the ND told me, “she would probably want to treat you with antibiotics. Have you ever been hospitalized? Because this is one of those things that people tend to pick up in hospitals, especially neonatal units.”
I had indeed been hospitalized, for four days, in the wing of the hospital which housed the obstetric and neonatal intensive care units. It was when my son was born. He was breech, and I had him via c-section. Two months later I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism.
By gravy! That’s when this whole odyssey began! Picking up my little intestinal hitchhiker might have been one of the biggest straws that contributed to breaking my thyroid’s back (so to speak).
My ND and I reviewed my options for treatment. On the conventional side there were a handful of antibiotics I could take, some of which I am allergic to, some of which the bacteria is resistant to, and all of which tend to wreak havoc on our gut flora. On the alternative side there were a few options, but one stood out in it’s effectiveness against my little GI villain: grapefruit seed extract or GSE, which is a natural antibacterial. I decided to give it a shot.
Within three days of starting the GSE, it was like someone flicked a switch in my body. I got out of bed one morning and went for a run. A run! I have never felt inspired to go for a run in my life, I mean, I’m pretty active but running is NOT my jam. My husband was like, “In the twenty years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you willingly go for a run.”
But yep, I went for a run. And you know what else? I didn’t feel tired upon waking. I felt rested, awake, and alive. And of course along with that, my thinking was clearer and I felt happier. Later that week, when we went mountain biking, I wasn’t tired and dragging for days afterward– something that had begun to happen more frequently after big workouts.
Within a week I was able to cut back on my caffeine by about 50%. Hopefully, I can someday eliminate it altogether, but that might take awhile. Anyway, I was back. I was ME again. I had forgotten what that felt like. I had lost faith that it was possible to have energy and therefore, thrive. What a relief after beginning to believe that the way I felt was what my primary care doctor had chalked up to normal symptoms of “getting older.”
After all that work, and time, and striving, and sacrificing, and researching, and meditating, and trial and error, it happened! It is still happening. It is not over yet, and never truly will be. Taking care of our health is a never-ending process. But I have glimpsed the bright side of health once again, which has been a tremendous affirmation that I am on the right path.
Step 9: Strategic Supplementation
I started taking supplements.
I won’t say I was anti-supplement before, but I was definitely what you might call a reluctant supplementer. I had read too many stories of misguided supplementing doing more harm than good, and of supplement companies putting a bunch of junk into caplets with low biologic value. I also have a tendency to be super sensitive to any “remedy” I put in my body, be it herbal, prescription, or OTC, which makes me perma-leary because I’m like Captain Side Effect. I wasn’t convinced supplementing was necessary and opted towards what I felt comfortable putting into my body, which was the most highly nourishing food I could give myself and my thyroid.
But then I got proper testing. And along with that I had professional guidance, and supplements I know are of the highest quality and cleanliness. While writing this post I discovered that they happen to be made by the company Dr. Izabella Wentz endorses, and as a pharmacist who has both researched and taken them, I feel like her opinion is worth its weight.
So yeah, I started taking supplements. I did have side effects with some, and had to eliminate, reduce, or find alternatives to others. But by working through that and finding the right products to address my specific needs and nutrient deficiencies, I am positive my healing, my energy, and my immunity have been boosted.
My ND says that there is a good chance my deficiencies are related to my imbalance of dysbiotic gut flora. Therefore, once I rebalance things in my GI tract, the need to supplement (as well as my food sensitivities) might go away.
For now, I am so glad to have my zinc, vitamin D, grapefruit seed extract and probiotic caplets. They are like little superheroes in my body, helping me fight the good fight. And with the added immune support, I have now successfully dodged not one but THREE preschool viruses (brought home by my son) since June. After three years of catching every bug that came within a quarter mile radius of my body, and then struggling through abnormally long periods of illness and complications from those viruses– what a relief!
Step 10: Not Resting on my Laurels
The good fight is not yet over. After a month of treatment, I walked into my ND’s office for my follow-up appointment and immediately she said, “You look different. You look better, or more alive or something.”
“I feel better!” I told her. “I think we’re on the right track.” As we sat in her office and talked about the progress we had made, she told me that in considering my overall health picture, and the interventions we were successfully implementing, she felt highly optimistic that I will eventually be able to fully reclaim my health and vitality, and perhaps even reverse my Hashimotos.
After the appointment, and with her blessing, I tried to go off the grapefruit seed extract as an experiment. Unfortunately, it was a bust. Just like the switch had been flicked ON in my body when I started taking it a month prior, again the switch was flicked, but this time to the OFF position. It took but a few days.
“Hello fatigue. Not so happy to see you again.”
Just to be sure it wasn’t some anomaly of extra-tiredness from exercise, stress, hormones, poor sleep, or whatever, I waited a few more days. The feeling was so familiar. It was a feeling I’ve known for YEARS. An all-day-long urge to crawl back in bed and sleep. An all-day-long struggle to be articulate, happy, or friendly. An absence of clarity, like life lived inside a cloud. Ugggh.
After a week I was back on the GSE, and within days, I was back to the ON position. It’s like night and day I tell you! And it’s no huge surprise that it’s going to take time to treat and resolve the issue. If I indeed contracted this Enterobacter imbalance in the hospital after my c-section, I’ve had it for five years. If I picked it up after my ectopic pregnancy surgery, I’ve had it for eight.
The Journey Continues: The Autoimmune Protocol Diet
As you can see, I put a lot of effort towards reclaiming my health this summer. But I know in my gut (pun intended) that I need to do more. I was good all summer, about eliminating gluten, dairy, and eggs. But I did not eliminate sugar, grains, or alcohol. Between not having a kitchen, going out to eat a ton, summer’s busy social calendar, and the trips we took to get away from the construction happening in our home, I knew I couldn’t do all that.
Rather than set myself up for failure, I made a pact with myself to cut out the gluten, dairy, and eggs for the summer, and to take the supplements, do the treatment, and see how far I could get. If I hadn’t made it over the wall in my healing by summer’s end, I would take it a step further.
As you read above, I made a lot of progress over those few months, but after my failed experiment at going off the grapefruit seed extract, I knew it was time to take the plunge. On September 17 I began the Autoimmune Protocol Diet, also referred to as the Autoimmune Paleo Diet. If you’d like to know more about it, and how it’s helping people heal and reverse their autoimmune conditions, I recommend these resources:
I know there are other great AIP recipe blogs and books out there. If you have favorites, please share them with us in the comments section below.
My hope is that eventually my, “adventure in dietary elimination” will translate to you in the form of recipes for those of you who are on diets like AIP, or Paleo.
So, let’s review:
- I stopped pretending I was fine.
- I began educating myself.
- I created a health timeline.
- I hired a detective (i.e. a doc willing to help me figure this out).
- I took the tests.
- I changed my diet.
- I changed my lifestyle.
- We discovered the primary suspect.
- I began taking the right supplements.
- I’m not resting on my laurels.
And now, the journey continues as I embark on the Autoimmune Protocol Diet in hopes of giving my gut the support it needs to right itself.
In time, I will experiment with going off the grapefruit seed extract again. Once I’m able to do that and maintain my energy levels and well-being, I will probably opt for another round of testing to see where I’m at with my food sensitivities, my nutrient deficiencies, and my GI health. I’m guessing that will happen next summer. These things take an investment of time, money, and dietary discipline. But it has already been SO worth it. The old cliché is true: you cannot put a price on your health.
My holy grail in terms of health, is to reverse my Hashimoto’s diagnosis altogether, eliminate my thyroid antibodies, and get off synthetic thyroid hormone forever. And in so doing, preventing further autoimmune illness and thyroid complications. Diet is a good start. For me, it wasn’t enough, but it also wasn’t enough without it. My belief that diet plays a key role in treating and reversing Hashimoto’s is as strong as ever. One week into the AIP diet, I had so much energy, I almost made an appointment to have my TSH tested. I eliminated an energy-boosting B-vitamin complex I was taking because I didn’t feel like I needed it anymore, and exchanged it for supplemental Magnesium, which has a calming effect and is often recommended for those of us with thyroid issues. For more on signs of Magnesium deficiency and how to take it safely with hypothyroidism, click here. Now all is good under the hood once again–I feel better and better and BETTER! These are such good signs that I am on the right track.
I hope this has been helpful and informative to you. If you’ve been on the fence about finding a reputable alternative health practitioner willing to do the work of unraveling the mystery of your unique symptoms and challenges, I highly encourage you to take the leap. Knowing you are here, reading my posts, was a big motivator for me in taking the leap, so thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for being here. Let’s reclaim our health, deliciously and together!