When thinking of starting this blog, it was very important to me to share my health journey. Unfortunately, people can be a closed book when it comes to internal battles and less than supportive of people suffering from invisible illnesses. I have learned so much that has changed my life for the better (and am still learning everyday!) and unearthed a new approach to health and happiness. I want this to be a space to have the hard conversations and take away any taboo associations.
My official diagnosis is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease in which your immune system attacks your thyroid, a small gland that is a part of your endocrine system and which produces hormones that coordinate many of your body’s activities and metabolic processes. But as you’ll read below, there are a slew of additional issues intertwined with autoimmune issues.
So to start at the beginning, I have always been on the larger side. I remember going to the doctor in middle school and them telling my mother that I needed to watch my weight, so we swapped out heavier meals for salads and lighter fare. A year later and back at the doctor, I had gained ten pounds. Flash forward to high school and I was running five miles a day, sometimes more, and still steadily gaining weight. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that something could be wrong. I just figured that I eat salads and I gain weight or I eat burgers and I gain weight. Needless to say I chose burgers. Then I found myself starting sophomore year of college at NYU, eating up everything delicious and unhealthy New York City could offer, not working out and closing in on two hundred pounds. (To clarify, I am 5’7). At this point my skin was dehydrated and felt like sandpaper and my once thick and long hair was thin and dry. The turning point came on November 19th, 2010 during my 6:30 African lit class. (Can you tell how much that moment impacted me?) My heart rate sped up, I started experiencing palpitations, I got very dizzy and I kept going to pass out. I grabbed my friend’s shoulder and she and the teacher helped me get to the hospital. That’s when the diagnosis came and I cried. A lot! I didn’t understand what was happening inside me and I hated the idea of having to take a pill every day. Little did I know the sh*t storm coming for me in the next few years.
I want to be clear here. When diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, most doctors will tell you it’s a black and white situation. Your body is attacking your thyroid and without treatment it can lead to the destruction of your thyroid, extreme fatigue, weight gain, the hair and skin issues described, infertility, and heart and lung failure. BUT with one magic pill a day, everything is fixed. Wam bam thank you Mam, issue solved. That has NOT been my case at all! Not even close! And according to millions of other people online, they’re in the same boat as me. On the other hand, I know people whose only symptoms were fatigue and slight weight gain and the pill was a one stop shop fix all. The point here is that everyone is different. Everyone’s body is different. And everyone’s journey will be different. Only you know your body, and you have to be your own advocate, pushing for answers and most likely trying out doctors until you find the one that listens.
So back to 2010 and my new diagnosis. My episode in class triggered a month of extreme fatigue before the Synthroid could fully take effect. I would wake up in the morning, go to the bathroom and then crawl back into bed, exhausted from those 5 minutes awake. I also developed anxiety about anxiety! A panic attack is so terrifyingly awful. It truly feels like you’re dying in that moment and it’s the scariest thing. Any indication of anxiety would send me into a panic attack, panicking about a panic attack. It’s a vicious cycle. On a positive note, I immediately lost 10 pounds once the Synthroid took effect and for the first time in my life, I was able to lose weight! The issue now was undoing all those years of bad habits and overeating. I worked really hard to revamp my diet and spent a lot of time in the gym and by spring of 2013 I had lost 50 pounds and weighed 149 pounds and was a size six!! My hair never recovered and I would have occasional anxiety but very few panic attacks. Everything felt under control.
Then I found myself in the fall of 2013 and two months into my first post-college job. I’m sitting at my desk after lunch and all the sudden another episode comes on, just like the one from 2010, but this one is different. It doesn’t end. This begins the darkest seven months of my life. I went home from work that day incredibly anxious. I couldn’t shake it. For seven months, I had at least two panic attacks a day accompanied by all over muscle spasms and twitching. I woke up anxious. I went to bed anxious. I remember sitting at work every day, willing myself to hold the attack at bay until lunch time, when I could slip into an empty office and lay on the floor, crying and talking to my mom on the phone. And the scariest part of all was the episodes of depression I would slip in and out of. I would literally be walking down the street, and a wave of depression would hit me. I would get so incredibly, unbelievably sad and hopeless. Nothing interested me. Not TV, not food, not magazines. Nothing. I don’t know how to put depression into words that adequately describe what it feels like, but it is hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. All light goes out of the world. I couldn’t think or do anything. I remember skyping with my parents one such time, and they would ask me things, but I couldn’t process it or formulate thoughts. I wouldn’t do anything or feed myself. They literally had to sit there on skype and say “Stand up. Walk to the fridge. Ok, are you there? Show us the fridge. See that apple, pick it up. Eat it.” This was a conversation during the longest bout I had. It was three days and I lost 5+ pounds. Most times it would be an hour or two and then I would snap out of it. From one instant to the next, all the light and hope would come back into the world.
During this time, I had doctor after doctor dismiss my concerns, saying my thyroid levels were in normal range and trying to push heavy duty drugs at me. They said this was just me; my new normal. I refused to accept that! How could this be me? Up until this point, it was not me! Something was wrong and no one would listen to me! I felt like screaming. Then the moment that put me on a course to get answers. My wonderful aunt put me in touch with a friend who had struggled with the same issues and diagnosis and my goodness did she have so much wisdom to pass on. She recommended some doctors in NYC and I made the first appointment available and waited for 1.5 months for that day. My new doctor listened! My new doctor believed me! My new doctor wanted to look at the whole picture and turn over every stone to get to the root cause. (She is an osteopath, so she investigated this with me in addition to figuring out the best hormone replacement method for me – Examples are Synthroid and Naturethroid). A very extensive blood panel came back with answers, a shining beacon of hope. I cried happy tears. I had several severe vitamin deficiencies. We’re talking rock bottom levels here of vitamin D, Magnesium, B12, Ferritin, Creatine Kinase and Zinc. My doctor went through and explained how all of these affected me, coming together to affect my nervous system and cause muscle spasms, anxiety, depression, and dizziness. She also explained that although I was ingesting most of these, I was simply not absorbing them efficiently.
We put me on a strict supplement regimen with me popping more vitamins than most elderly people. Seriously! I had one of those bulky day-of-the-week pill carriers, organized into day and night slots. It took several months for my levels to come back up to normal and for my anxiety and depression to completely go away. And they did!
This brings us to present day, 2016 and I am still constantly researching and having revelations and implementing changes that make my life and body healthier. Although I have been panic attack and depression free since implementing the supplement regime two years ago, I have found certain foods impact me negatively. For example, after a week in Eastern Europe of eating bread, pastries and beer, I experienced heightened anxiety and an hour or so of depression. Another example, is after drinking beer or wine, my stomach, chest, and back feel tender to the touch, like a bruise, and I experience hangxiety (hangover + anxiety). I attributed all this to a gluten sensitivity but after seeing a wonderful nutritionist, I discovered I am allergic/intolerant of yeast, rye and lamb. This is a very new discovery (as of three weeks ago) and changing my diet has already shown me drastic changes. I will detail this separately in posts as I further learn to revamp my diet and experience more positive changes.
My two take-aways from this whole process
- Hit at the root cause. It won’t be the easy path or the quick path, but it is the best path. Roughly 70% of your immune system lies in your gut, so it is crucial to pay attention to diet if you have any autoimmune issues. I don’t know why this was such an aha moment. We are machines. Of course what we put in dictates what come out! But this is even more important for people affected by autoimmune issues. This is what I was talking about at the beginning of the post about a slew of other issues that come along with autoimmune issues that aren’t necessarily addressed by a lot of doctors. Autoimmune issues can cause a chain reaction of side effects, including nutritional deficiencies, anxiety and depression. Especially the thyroid, which is a hormone gland. Hormones gone crazy = a mental health rollercoaster. This is crazy important and powerful knowledge if you’re trying to get healthy and feel well mentally. It makes me so happy that I was able to fix such heavy duty problems with diet and vitamins! I was able to find the root cause and fix it, and not just mask the symptoms with depression medication. (Disclaimer: This is my personal journey. Maybe you research the root causes of your issue and it turns out that you truly do need the depression/anxiety medication. The point is that you put in the time to find your answer. Your best, healthiest path).
- Be your own advocate. Everyone is different and you should push for answers when you know something is off. Even though there is a healthy and acceptable range of thyroid levels, one person may feel better at one point within that range and down right dysfunctional at another level within the range. We are all different. Push to find your own version of optimal. Push to find doctors that listen.