The Top 5 Things That Helped Me Heal My Hashimoto's
An estimated 20 million Americans have thyroid disease, 60% of whom do not know they have it, according to the American Thyroid Association. The thyroid is a butterfly- shaped organ located inside your neck that produces hormones that help regulate metabolism and energy level. It also supports immunity, sleep, and digestion. Hypothyroidism, which is the most common type of thyroid disease, occurs when your body doesn’t make enough of these critical thyroid hormones, causing symptoms of fatigue, depression, brain fog, constipation, etc.
The number one cause of hypothyroidism is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease that occurs when your body mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland, eventually impairing its' function. Along with all autoimmune diseases, Hashimoto’s is on the rise. It is estimated that one in five women will be affected with Hashimoto’s at some point in their lives.
Conventional treatment for Hashimoto's is thyroid medication alone. However, research shows that genetics only account for 30% of all autoimmune diseases, with the other 70% thought to be due to environmental factors like nutrition, lifestyle, sleep, stress, exposure to toxins, infections, to name a few. This means there is a great deal that we can do to affect the disease process and improve our health.
Since January is thyroid awareness month, I wanted to share the top 5 things I did in order to restore my health after being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s about 3 years ago. If you are struggling with Hashimoto’s, or any autoimmune disease, I hope this inspires you in knowing that a better quality of life is possible.
1. Became my own best advocate and got rid of unsupportive doctors
Before getting officially diagnosed, I knew for a few months that something was off with my body. No matter how much sleep I got, I never had energy. My hair was falling out in alarming clumps. My breaking point was when I got a horrible case of the shingles. I made an appointment with my PCP and asked for a work up, based both on my symptoms and an intuition that something had to be going on. Her attitude was dismissive; she said I was probably “just overdoing it at work”. I finally managed to convince her to do some testing- I never went back to see her again.
My labs revealed a positive ANA, which is a nonspecific marker indicating that some type of autoimmune response is going on in the body. I was then referred to a rheumatologist. After waiting months for an appointment, other autoimmune diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, were ruled out, but what was causing my symptoms was unclear. The doctor did not check my thyroid, stating this was not within her scope and that I would have to see another specialist, an endocrinologist. She offered me immune suppressing medication to address the ANA, and added there wasn’t anything else I could do, such as change my diet or lifestyle. Thankfully, I knew better.
I didn’t schedule an appointment with an endocrinologist, nor did I go back to see this rheumatologist. Instead, I called my gynecologist and asked her to run a full thyroid panel for me as a favor. My TSH was elevated and my thyroid antibodies were through the roof (aka Hashimoto’s!) She also suggested I see an endocrinologist. At this point, I decided that instead of bouncing from specialist to specialist, I wanted to work with a functional medicine or integrative doctor who would look at my health holistically.
At my initial appointment with my integrative doctor, she reviewed my thyroid labs and immediately said “So, Hashimoto’s!”. It was the first time in this now long, drawn out process that I felt heard. Working with her, and later other functional medicine physicians has changed my life. Collectively, they helped me identify root causes of my condition and manage my autoimmunity through a holistic approach involving both lifestyle modification and medication.
Unfortunately, my experience is not uncommon, as people with autoimmune disease will see an average of six doctors over four years before ever getting a diagnosis. What I learned from my experience is the importance of advocating for yourself and your health, and seeking out a doctor who is a partner in your care. Never be shy about ending treatment with health care practitioners who are unsupportive or dismissive.
2. Changed my diet, identified food sensitivities, and corrected nutrient deficiencies
Imbalances in gut health contribute to the development of all autoimmune diseases. After all, 80% of your immune system resides in your gut lining. Assessing and modifying my diet was the first place I started with a functional medicine doctor.
I was lucky enough to stumble upon a research study investigating the efficacy of the Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP) on individuals with Hashimoto’s. I joined as a participant and started with comprehensive testing, followed by an elimination diet that allowed me to figure out what foods I tolerated and what foods I didn't. I found I was sensitive to gluten, dairy, soy and even some nuts. I learned how deficient I was in many crucial nutrients as a result of a decade-long vegetarian diet. I wasn’t getting enough protein and was way overdoing the GMO soy and grains, leaving me with hormonal and blood sugar imbalances.
I started eating high quality meat again and completely cut out alcohol, added/ refined sugars, grains, processed foods and additives. I felt the difference almost immediately as my energy and mood stabilized. With follow up testing, I watched my TSH and antibodies significantly decrease and all of my nutrient levels shift back into normal ranges.
Understanding how much food affects the way I feel and function has been one of the most important contributors to my healing. I learned how to feel energized through nourishing, balanced meals constructed of whole foods. To this day, I only eat the foods that make me feel my best. I don’t miss gluten, dairy or excessive sugar or booze, because nothing tastes better than being healthy feels.
3. Accepted the use of the right medication
I started on thyroid medication once my integrative doctor diagnosed me, and still take it daily. There are many different kinds of thyroid medication, and sometimes it takes trial and error to find out which one helps you the most. I’ve changed types a few times over the past few years. Through monitoring my symptoms and regularly checking my numbers, I landed on Tirosint, which is a T4 hormone replacement. If you’re wondering which might work best for you, consult with your doctor and check out this article.
As soon as I began taking medication, my overriding goal was to get off of it as quickly as possible. I didn’t want to be one of the majority of Americans who rely on prescription medications. As my disease process improved and moved into periods of remission, there were many times when I almost stopped taking medication. But I always held back.
I realized I had associated full remission with being completely medication free. And I associated medication with failure. I finally let this all go, along with the pressure I was putting on myself. In fact, I recently upped my dosage and I feel the best I’ve ever felt. Reminder that there is nothing shameful about taking medications when needed, while simultaneously committing to dietary and lifestyle changes. An approach to healing that takes the best of conventional and holistic modalities has been the most useful to me.
4. Developed a solid support network
Living with an autoimmune disease can be extremely isolating. It is common for autoimmune disease to be missed, since the early symptoms can be so non-specific (fatigue, hair loss, joint pain, brain fog, etc). As was true in my case, doctors often attribute symptoms to stress or minimize their significance all together. It’s easy to feel like it must be all in your head. But it absolutely is not.
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of a solid support system. Family, friends and partners certainly can be a great help. However, most of us need more support than that. Health practitioners are another, critical part of this process. To this day, I still see a functional medicine doctor, an integrative primary care doctor, a health coach, a fitness trainer, and a therapist.
I also think group courses are great for creating a sense of community and inclusion. A few that benefited me early on: SAD to AIP in Six , (an online group coaching approach to the Autoimmune Paleo Diet), and Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (an evidence-based curriculum where I learned to more effectively manage stress through a meditation practice)
The value I found in my support system was a huge influence on my decision to become a health coach myself. It is also why I have become so passionate about helping others achieve and maintain their health goals.
5. Learned how to prioritize my health in a non-judgmental way
Unfortunately in our society, disease prevention is usually not enough of a motivator for people to make health promoting change in their lives. The result is that many people (especially women) do not focus on their well-being until there is a problem, diagnosis, or simply no other choice. This was me too.
If living with an autoimmune disease has taught me anything, it’s how important it is to prioritize my health above all things. Keeping a regular bedtime, maintaining my diet, setting boundaries, moving my body, and meditating may not always be easy or convenient, but it’s a lot easier than being sick. The good news is that eventually it just becomes a lifestyle.
I’ve also learned the importance of being less judgmental with myself and my health. I’ve always been an over achieving, perfectionist, driven by finding solutions. These qualities did not serve me well, as I became hyper- fixated on specific symptoms, like my hair loss, making myself crazy seeking answers, and quick results.
I remember the day I finally relinquished all the pressure I was putting on myself to heal quickly. I started accepting my health for what it was at the time. With more ease and gratitude, I began working with my body vs against it. Only then did I really start seeing improvements.
I’m still learning to trust my body through the ebbs and flows of remission, flares, and everything in between. I have worked hard to develop the tools that I need to achieve a baseline of health, one that I can always come back to. My hope is that this post helps others know that they can do the same.
More specific things that have supported my healing (and still do):
-Developing a meditation practice
-Consistent movement, consisting of walks, HIIT classes, yoga, pilates, and spin depending on what my body needs on a given day
-Switching to clean beauty and personal care products
-Filtering my water
-Getting off hormonal birth control
-Eating meat again
-Going fluoride free in my toothpaste and water
-Gratitude and mindset work
-Eating the majority of my meals at home
-Switching to non toxic cleaning products in my home
-Balancing my blood sugar
-Investing in an air filter and opening windows more
-Ditching grains, gluten, dairy, soy, and refined sugar
-Nervous system regulation
-Doing my own research. If you have Hashimoto’s and don’t know where to start, I recommend picking up Izabella Wentz’s books.
-Social media detoxes
-Naps and extra sleep
-Talking about my experience with others