Living with an Autoimmune Disease (Hashimoto’s)
Not really, but that’s what it felt like. I didn’t really think there was anything wrong with me when I went in. I’ve always been a really healthy person -- I rarely get sick. But as I chatted with my midwife during the visit, I mentioned how I was still tired all the time despite making an effort to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. I didn’t feel back to my old self even though my baby was almost two years old. It was also a lot harder to lose the baby weight this time around, even though I was trying twice as hard. I was forgetful, and more... But I figured these could all be attributed to the fact that I’m getting older, I have two young children and two businesses. “I’d like to run a little blood work just to see…” she told me.
Now, I'd heard people say that auto-immune diseases are "the new ADD". So many more people are getting diagnosed with them, and it's a bit controversial. Is there really a huge epidemic of these kinds of illnesses? Or is it just a new fad? People who believe that the epidemic is real blame a lot of it to the way food started changing in the 1950's. Pesticides, GMO's, fast food, processed food, etc... It's true that our diets changed drastically at this point in history, and personally, it does make sense to me that it would start affecting our health in unforeseen ways. But I don't claim to be a scientist, a dietician, or any kind of expert. I can only share what my experience is...
WHAT IS HASHIMOTO’S?
A few days later, my midwife called back with the results. I was driving, so I couldn’t write anything down, and as I listened to everything she was telling me, it felt like my mind couldn’t think fast enough or clearly enough to take it all in. I had to call back later to get all the facts straight.
She told me I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s. Having an autoimmune disease in general means that your immune system gets confused and starts attacking a part of your own body. (I didn't know this before my diagnosis.) In the case of Hashimoto’s, it attacks your thyroid, which regulates energy, body temperature, and metabolism and is interwoven with many other areas and functions of the mind and body. Although my thyroid hormone levels tested in the very low levels of “normal”, I tested positive for antibodies, which indicate that my immune system is in fact attacking my thyroid. She prescribed Westhroid, a natural thyroid hormone supplement, and a lifelong gluten-free diet. I started right away.
But it was overwhelming. Not only did I miss bread, but my whole world view shifted! I went from someone who felt almost invincible to someone who had a serious health issue to deal with. As I read more about it, I found out that people with autoimmune diseases are much more likely to develop other autoimmune diseases. They are also at higher risk for heart disease and cancer. That scared me and I decided to do everything I could to get healthy and stay healthy.
I picked up a copy of Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause and began to read. As I started to read about the many symptoms, signs, and circumstances of Hashimoto’s, it all made so much sense. Yes, I have “foggy brain”! Yes, I have trouble sleeping at night even though I’m exhausted! Yes, it seems like the disease came on after childbirth and in the very stressful year that followed! As I read more and more, I realized that in addition to Hashimoto’s, I also have adrenal fatigue (very common in people with Hashimoto’s) and that I’ve probably been slightly hypothyroid since my teens. (Hypothyroidism is often underdiagnosed as it doesn’t always show up in routine blood exams.) And although it had been really overwhelming when I was first diagnosed, the more I read and learned about Hashimoto’s, the more relief I felt. It felt like a relief to know that my extreme exhaustion wasn’t normal, my great difficulties losing weight despite great efforts wasn’t normal, my forgetfulness wasn’t normal, etc… And it especially felt like a relief to know that there were things I could do about it.
HOW I’M DEALING WITH IT
I found out that there are many things you can try to alleviate Hashimoto’s. Unfortunately, there isn’t one cure-all. It’s a subtle and little understood disease, and from what I’ve read and heard, different things seem to work for different people. It ends up being a trial and error kind of process for most. Here’s what I’ve been doing:
- Taking Westhroid. (A natural thyroid hormone supplement. This is more of a “band-aid”. It helps make up for the hormones that my thyroid isn’t putting out enough of, due to the fact that it’s under attack. It doesn’t address the root issue of why my autoimmune system is attacking my thyroid, though. The following lifestyle changes are supposed to help address the root cause.)
- Eating a gluten-free diet. Not only that, but I’m eating fewer grains in general and easing my way towards a paleo diet, which is supposed to be great for people with autoimmune disease. I do feel healthier eating this way, and it’s been great for my family, too. In fact, back in January, my daughter Ingrid had gotten to the point of having stomach aches almost every day, and we didn’t know why. I decided to try having her go gluten free at the same time as me, and the stomach aches went away within a few days. She’s only had a couple since January, and both times we realized that we’d accidentally given her something with gluten.
- Sleeping more. I still have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep sometimes, but overall, I am doing much better about getting to bed at a decent hour. I’ve found that I need 8-9 hours to feel okay. Given the chance, I could easily sleep for 10+ hours. This hopefully won’t be forever, but until I get my health more under control.
- Getting more rest in general. I’ve had to shift my way of thinking. For so long, I’ve worn my hours at work and lack of sleep as a badge of honor. But I don’t think that way anymore. I know I work better and more productively if I not only get enough sleep, but I get enough downtime and unplugged time. I spend Friday through Sunday with my family and don’t answer or even read emails during those days. I also make sure I have time every evening to wind down before bed, whether it’s through watching a show, reading a book, or both.
- Avoiding Stress. I know, this is a really tough one. Of course I still have stress, but I’ve made an effort to identify the biggest triggers for stress in my life and avoid them whenever possible.
- Exercising. I used to be good about exercising 5 days a week or so, until my second baby (Lars) was born. By this past January, when he was almost 2 years old, I still hadn’t started exercising again because I just didn’t have the energy. I kept thinking that as soon as I could get caught up and feel rested again, I would start exercising. Finally, I just forced myself to start walking again, despite my fatigue.
- Testing for food intolerances. Eating foods that your body is allergic to or intolerant of can increase autoimmune symptoms, and cause other issues as well. I got the igG test, which tests for 96 different food intolerances / mild allergies (not anaphylactic allergies). It turns out that I am highly intolerant of eggs and moderately intolerant of whey. I had absolutely NO idea before, but I could feel a marked difference the moment I gave these up. (I ate a lot of eggs before.)
- Vitamin D. At the same time I found out I had Hashimoto’s, I also found out I was severely low in vitamin D. (This is pretty common.) I began taking a liquid supplement, and will continue to do so indefinitely.
- Probiotics. These are supposed to be hugely beneficial in restoring the good kind of bacteria to your gut. (And many people believe that all auto-immunity begins with problems in your gut.) I eat plain greek yogurt sometimes, although I’ve been trying to do less dairy overall (paleo), so I also take supplements sometimes, drink kombucha, or eat lacto-fermented vegetables.
After a few months of implementing all of this, I felt like I had more energy, was a little less forgetful, and I shed about 5 pounds. Overall, I feel much better than I did before. Not 100% -- I still feel like I have a ways to go. But it’s a good start.
Next, I plan on getting my levels tested again to see what that tells me, and then implementing some additional healthy lifestyle changes.
In a way, I feel like my diagnosis was one of the best things that could have happened to me. It’s made me re-evaluate how I was living my life and take serious steps to improving my overall health. All of this has spilled over into my family life, making them healthier as well. The trick now is not only sticking with it, but upping my game so I can feel even better.
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, or are just looking to improve your health in general, here are some books and resources I’ve found to be helpful:
- Hashimoto's Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause by Izabella Wentz PharmD and Marta Nowosadzka MD
- Thrive by Arianna Huffington
- The AutoImmune Paleo Cookbook: An Allergen-Free Approach to Managing Chronic Illness by Mickey Trescott
- Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes to Eat Well & Feel Great by Danielle Walker
- Danielle Walker's Against All Grain: Meals Made Simple: Gluten-Free, Dairy-Free, and Paleo Recipes to Make Anytime
- Deliciously Ella
- Sarah Wilson’s blog
- Cannelle et Vanille
I’d love to hear your tips and resources, too!
Photo: Jessica Peterson