If you’d looked at a snapshot my life on paper or, perhaps more accurately, on social media, I should have felt great. I live a mostly balanced life with exercise, a pretty healthy diet, and average eight hours of sleep a night. I’ve entered my forties and thought perhaps the slow decrease in my energy and overall pep was part of aging. The unexplained energy decrease still nagged at me and, thankfully, some small inside voice nudged me to bring it up with my OB/GYN at my last exam. My doctor ran a thyroid and hormone panel, suspecting it was my hormones. A few days after the blood draw, I got a call from the doctor’s office saying my hormone levels were fine, but my thyroid panel results required a follow-up with my primary care provider. A week later I had a diagnosis: Hashimoto’s. More accurately, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune condition in which my body essentially attacks my thyroid. My blood work showed that I had elevated TPO (thyroid peroxidase) antibody levels, indicating that my immune system is working against the thyroid gland and seeing it as something it needs to fight. Thanks a lot, immune system. Go ahead and let wrinkles and gray hairs invade with reckless abandon, but by all means, attack my thyroid.
My doctor shared that Hashimoto’s is an increasingly common diagnosis for middle-aged women. I didn’t know whether to be horrified or proud that I had such an on-trend diagnosis. I’m still in denial that I’m a middle-aged woman. She left me with a list of things I should stop doing, another list of things I should start doing, and a few things I should continue. I was overwhelmed and bewildered as I walked out of her office that day with a sheet of paper essentially telling me “how to live your life from this day forward with an autoimmune disorder.” Doesn’t my body know that I’m a yoga teacher? Who drinks kombucha? Apparently my immune system didn’t care.
Armed with my trendy diagnosis, I consulted Dr. Google, realized it was a dizzying rabbit hole of information, and took an old school trip to the library. I came home with The Thyroid Connection by Dr. Amy Myers and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, The Root Cause by Izabella Went. Both books were transformative for me. They thoroughly explained the condition, as well as the reasons behind the laundry list of start/stop/continue behaviors my doctor provided.
A sobering find was that having one autoimmune disease puts you at a higher risk for developing a second or third autoimmune disease. Based on my TPO antibody levels and other blood work data, I feel lucky to have had my condition detected relatively early in its development and before my thyroid was too damaged. Making changes in my diet and lifestyle was a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t I grab a life preserver and see if it floats instead of sinking deeper?
Saying Goodbye to Gluten (a.k.a. parting with pizza, crying over croissants, and banning bread)
One glaring takeaway from both books and from my doctor was that I would greatly benefit from removing gluten from my diet (read more here and here). I gave myself a week to indulge in all my favorite gluten-full foods and then cut out gluten cold turkey. It was less traumatic than I expected. Gluten free is even trendier than Hashimoto’s these days, so there are a lot of resources and products to support a gluten-free diet. Lettuce wraps for burgers and sandwiches, corn tortillas for tacos, and learning to bake gluten free has become my new normal. I’m pretty much the biggest Against All Grain fangirl around and find her recipes to be consistently good and family friendly. I’m also single-handedly driving up Simple Mills’ sales in San Antonio. Most restaurants have gluten-free options, and I always have snacks in my purse. I have been known to stealthily eat my packed almonds at gatherings where gluten-free options are limited.
As much as I miss a delicious pizza crust and a good baguette, I must admit that my stomach seems happier with a gluten-free diet. For me, there is less bloating and fewer unpleasant post-meal body reactions and sensations now that I’m gluten free.
Many Hashimoto’s patients do well by removing dairy as well as gluten. I have yet to find the will power to completely remove dairy, but I succeed at being dairy free during the week and only eating a limited amount of dairy products on the weekends. Knowing it’s not totally off limits lets me live a mostly dairy-free life without feeling deprived.
Supplements (a.k.a. becoming a pill popper)
After I got the gluten-free diet underway, I moved to supplements. Supplementation for Hashimoto’s patients varies depending on individual situations, and it is best discussed with your health care provider. Both books mentioned above have entire chapters on supplementation that I highly recommend reading. Iodine, magnesium, selenium, and zinc are common minerals that are especially needed in those with a compromised thyroid. I also added vitamin D and kept taking my probiotics. I take a few herbs that help with thyroid and adrenal support.
All The Other Life Changes I Should Make and Have Made
Gluten free—check. Intentional supplementation—check. Lifestyle changes—um, well, about that….
Autoimmune conditions like Hashimoto’s may stem from chronic inflammation. Addressing systemic chronic inflammation can literally require an entire lifestyle overhaul. It’s overwhelming and daunting: BPA in cans and plastic, endocrine disruptors in the air and water, pesticide residues on our produce, hormones in our meat and dairy. When you think of the potential toxins in everything from your carpet, shopping receipts, water, lotion, phone, clothing, and air, it can reduce you to a bewildered, wide-eyed, frozen-in-fear shell of your former self. It made me an anxious, “everything in this world is trying to poison me AND the sky is falling!” Chicken Little. And the irony is that stress only increases inflammation.
I realize over and over that the only way for me to make permanent changes is to do so gradually, one small change at a time. When I see the huge mountain in front of me, I want to run away. But if I see only a few feet of the path before me, I realize I can certainly take a few steps. I can’t move to an isolated gluten-free, plastic-free, free-trade, organic bubble in a toxin-free forest with Gwyneth Paltrow, but I can make small but significant lifestyle changes on a gradual basis:
- Transitioning to more natural beauty products.
- Using more natural household cleaners.
- Buying organic whenever possible.
- Drinking lots of water.
- Eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Taking weekly Epsom salt baths.
- Exercising for both the physical and mental benefits.
- Deliberately making time for laughter, fresh air, relaxing, and rest.
The Moment of Reckoning
Six months after my diagnosis and six months of a gluten-free diet and supplementation, I went back for a recheck with my doctor. My TPO antibodies had gone down almost 50%, coming quite close to “normal” levels. She gave me a big smile and said to keep doing what I was doing. I pretty much skipped out of the office that day. It worked! The gluten abstaining, lots of pills, and making slow but sure lifestyle changes synergistically talked my immune system into simmering down.
I celebrated with gluten-free cookies.
My Favorite Hashimoto’s and Gluten-Free Resources:
The Thyroid Connection by Amy Myers, MD
Against All Grain (website and cookbooks)
Helpful Online Reads:
9 Things I’d Say to a Friend Diagnosed with Hashimoto’s—The Thyroid Pharmacist
How to Improve Your Thyroid Health—The Real Food Dietitians