How I Hacked my Autoimmune Disease
This blog post is special to me, as it relays my story.
I have been so focused on brain health lately, I came to realize that I have neglected to share something very personal about myself and my health. So sit back, grab a cup of herbal tea, and enjoy my story!
My Overweight Childhood
First, as those of you who have been following me already know, I did not grow up with the mindset of a nutritionist, and I certainly did not grow up eating like one!
I was always overweight. From the time I entered grade 3, as my school photos would suggest, I was noticeably overweight. There was good reason for that. I ate what I wanted. I ate toast slathered with Kraft peanut butter and grape jelly - the thicker the layer, the better. I drank orange Kool-aide like it was water. I ate cookies, cakes, pastries, and muffins to my heart’s content. You can also bet that if I was the one slicing a cake or dessert, I’d serve myself the biggest piece - the one with extra icing of course!
Though I was not exposed to fast food restaurants often (thank goodness!), my family did visit KFC or McDonald’s as a rare treat. Looking back, I’m thankful we didn’t live close to one of these establishments - an impossibility today, as fast food is available around every corner.
Back then, no one gave a second thought to what all the rancid oils used for frying, the preservatives, additives, and fake foods were doing, or could do, to our health. No one considered where meat used in these restaurants came from or how healthy the animals. And no one questioned the nutritional makeup of the food being offered.
Not surprisingly, as I began working and eating fast food on a more regular basis, I became even sicker. I seemed to be chronically ill with tonsillitis, strep throat, migraines, and sinusitis. I’d undergo round after round of antibiotics which would help, but only until I became sick again - an inevitable conclusion.
Of course, I was also still overweight and like so many around me, I experimented with many different diets over the years. None were sustainable or resulted in any lasting weight-loss and at the time, I had no idea that I was starving my body of the nutrients and healthy fats it needed to thrive. Over the course of these various diets, I did make some long-lasting changes, though, switching to skim milk, whole grain bread, and fat-free or reduced-fat treats… all “positive changes” as we were told back then.
Regardless of these “healthy” changes, I was still sick, still overweight, and was eventually diagnosed with an autoimmune disease.
What is an Autoimmune Disease?
As discussed last week, the development of an autoimmune disease happens after 3 conditions have been satisfied. One, you must have a genetic predisposition to it. Two, you must be exposed to a trigger which turns on the genes to create the disease. Three, you must have a leaky gut.
In fact, this leaky gut often precedes the development of an autoimmune condition. But what exactly is an autoimmune disease? Basically, it is any number of disease states that happen when healthy cells and tissues are attacked by antibodies from the immune system that sees these cells as foreign.
Autoimmune conditions are too numerous to list here, but do include rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, Crohn’s, colitis, celiac disease, MS, type 1 diabetes, Addison’s disease, endometriosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, juvenile diabetes, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, Narcolepsy, psoriasis, restless leg syndrome and Grave’s disease (the one I eventually developed).
If you do not have an autoimmune disease and would like to prevent one from developing, be mindful of symptoms that may indicate you are in the early stages of an autoimmune disease. These symptoms can include allergies, anxiety, depression, low blood pressure, digestive problems, extreme fatigue, gallbladder disease, memory problems, migraines, muscle weakness, PMS, rashes, weight-loss resistance, sleep disturbances, and recurrent infections - to name but a few.
It’s no surprise to me now that many of these ailments were common in my life.
And if this sounds like you too, don’t panic - presenting any of these symptoms does not mean you will develop an autoimmune disease. However, if you are suffering like I was, please know that you do not have to put up with symptoms or suffer any longer.
If you think health is expensive, you should try illness.
My Autoimmune Diagnosis
Recall that autoimmune diseases are inflammatory disorders that result from chronic inflammation, a leaky gut that allows larger proteins to escape into the blood and lymph systems, and a confused immune system that cannot distinguish between these foreign proteins and healthy body cells, so it attacks both.
What causes this chronic inflammation in the first place?
Basically it boils down to food choices. Choosing to eat fried and fast food. Choosing to eat that second piece of cake or that fourth cookie. Choosing to eat packaged and processed “Frankenfoods”, or any other anti-nutrients.
An anti-nutrient is any substance you eat that interferes with the absorption of nutrients from your food. Some occur naturally while most are manmade or synthetic then added to processed food. Often, these anti-nutrients create free radicals which result in oxidation of tissues and inflammation. Our bodies can handle only so many of these assaults and so much inflammation over time before it reaches its threshold and caves.
When inflammation becomes chronic - when it is present in our bodies and tissues all the time, it causes damage. In the case of autoimmunity, the chronic inflammation begins to be seen as foreign in the body. Immune cells are no longer able to distinguish between normal body cells and foreign entities, which results in the eventual attack of immune cells on one's own body tissues.
This happened to me. I became so inflamed that my immune system was always being called upon to act - so much so, that it eventually gave up the fight. A fight it could no longer win. I became extremely sick, fatigued, and bogged down with mental fogginess, migraines, and excruciating lower back pain. I could no longer climb stairs without becoming short of breath and feeling pain. I couldn’t sleep or get comfortable whether I was sitting, lying down, or standing. I couldn’t escape.
I was finally diagnosed with hypothyroidism, and sent off with a prescription for Synthroid - a synthetic thyroid hormone.
Things seemed to improve a bit while I dutifully took the drug - at least enough for life to move on. Until about a year later, that is, when I experienced a thyrotoxic storm. This was an intense period where my thyroid began overproducing thyroid hormones which caused a flood of strange and intense symptoms. I was so weak, I could barely climb stairs. I was dizzy, nauseous, and so extremely exhausted that keeping my eyes open was a challenge. Despite the extreme fatigue, I could not fall asleep, but would toss and turn all night instead. I was also hot, and would sweat for no apparent reason.
The most startling symptom of all? I began shaking. Uncontrollable and unrelenting shaking of my arms, hands, and legs - sometimes one limb, but often times several. The shaking of my arms became so severe, I had to sit on my hands to slow it down.
With this came the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism and Graves Disease. As it was explained to me, sometimes, the body goes through a period of low thyroid function just to awaken a storm of activity and toxic hyperthyroid storm a while later. It did not happen very often, but it did happen. Lucky me.
So my Synthroid was replaced by Tapazole. I went from an underactive thyroid to an overactive one. On top of it all, I developed a goiter (which required an extremely painful biopsy - that thankfully came back cancer-free!) and a bulging eye.
My immune cells were attacking the healthy muscle tissue behind my eyes, which resulted in my left eye seeming to bulge from my head. I underwent two eye surgeries to correct the deformity.
Not once, throughout this whole ordeal, did any doctor - not my GP, not the Internist, and not the Endocrinologist I saw, once said anything about my diet. In fact, it was even suggested that radiation therapy be used to kill my thyroid leaving me dependent on hormone replacement therapy for life.
My husband and I thought this seemed rather extreme, but the doctors seemed to think was a reasonable solution. Needless to say, we opted to wait.
How I Hacked Graves Disease
Life continued. I managed with my autoimmune condition and resigned myself to the fact that I had this condition and would need medication to control it - forever.
Then, in 2013 something miraculous happened…
I decided to try a Paleo approach. Until then, no diet had resulted in any long-lasting weight loss or real health benefits for me. But then again, never had I stopped eating wheat or sugar.
Initially, I agreed to a two week commitment to eating Paleo. That’s all. I decided to give it two weeks and not a day longer. Two weeks to give up all gluten, sugar, and treats. To avoid fast food, packaged foods and anything processed. To eat healthy fats, meat, and fresh vegetables, but no wheat, grains, legumes, or corn.
Mentally, I told myself this was temporary, but to honour my promise, I had to be strict for the next two weeks. It was challenging to pass up staffroom treats and to tell myself I couldn’t have the foods I wanted. It was even harder to know that I couldn’t have anything sweet - I’m sure you know that feeling… when you can’t have something, you want it even more!
But I did it!
I remember the exact moment that things changed for me forever… It was almost two weeks into the hardest challenge of my life when I entered the staffroom one morning to find the remnants of a giant chocolate slab cake leftover from a celebration the night before.
But something was different. I could smell that familiar sugary sweetness, and from memory knew precisely what that cake would taste like. But for the absolute first time in my life, I didn’t want any.
This was my defining moment.
I saw the cake, I could smell it, and I could even taste it but for the first time, ever - I didn’t want it. The signals in my brain were not firing the way they once did, which was a completely foreign concept to me. I never knew it was possible anyone could not crave a sweet treat - least of all me.
I call this my defining moment because I craved sweets my whole life. I could pass them up if I were strong at the moment, but I’d still walk away feeling like I wanted it. And for the first time in my life, that yearning - that wanting - that craving was gone.
I recognized that moment right away and must have walked around the rest of the day with a permanent grin on my face. I kept reliving that moment over and over again where I didn’t want a piece of that cake. And I’d smile. I even made a point of going back to the staffroom a short time later to see if it was still true - if I was still immune to that sugary, chocolaty smell. And I was.
In that instant, I had also become empowered. I became strong with a new resolve, as I knew I had to stick with this. I realized I had actually been addicted to sugar but never recognized it as an addiction because I knew nothing else.
My two week trial without sugar and carbs turned into two months than two years, and more. I have been free of my sugar addiction for almost five years now, and I have never felt better!
Even more important to me was that over time, my hormones rebalanced themselves, and I have not taken thyroid medication in almost four years. That’s right; I hacked my Graves Disease.
In fact, I’ll take this one step further to say my once full medicine cabinet is now empty of all prescription bottles.
No Going Back
Initially, I may have committed to two weeks without sugar, gluten, and corn, but once I experienced my defining moment, my health started to improve, and my weight started to go down. I had boundless energy (even without coffee), and my memory seemed to be better than it was. I felt so uncharacteristically happy, healthy and light that I knew I couldn’t go back.
Part of the reason I resigned to remaining gluten and sugar-free is the memory of how difficult it was to free myself from these addictions in the first place. I had no idea how powerful an addictive substance sugar could be and how hard it is to banish cravings, and just don’t want to go through that withdrawal process ever again.
I have stuck to a paleolithic or ketogenic eating plan ever since, and know this is how I am meant to eat. I still have lots of energy, I am more relaxed and calmer than I’ve ever been, my sleep habits have improved, and my mind is clear. Even though I still work with sick kids, I don’t catch whatever bug is going around anymore.
I know that cutting sugar and wheat from my diet has given me a new lease on life with a stronger immune system and more resolve. I enjoy everything in life so much more that I just can’t give that up. And for the first time in my adult life, I feel good. I had no idea what it felt like to be truly healthy! Now that I have experienced this, there is no going back.
So for any of you thinking that you can’t do it - or that a change in eating habits will be just another failed diet attempt, I implore you to give it a try. Reach your defining moment!
If you need help kicking sugar to the curb or would like to quit carbs but don’t know how, I’m here for you. As always, I welcome your comments below and look forward to hearing about your defining moment.