The only way to recover is to listen to your body, find what works, and take charge!
– Teresa Sullivan
In the Beginning
My health story begins when I was a young girl of 11 or 12. I was an active kid growing up in the suburbs of the San Francisco Bay Area. Raised on the Standard American Diet (SAD), I suffered from terrible constipation and bowel troubles. My discomfort was so extreme during this time that I actually welcomed the enemas my grandmother, a nurse, gave me to relieve the pain.
I attended a college preparatory high school and danced competitively, which required many hours of practice and weekends devoted to competitions. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, when I was 15 years old, I contracted a bad case of mono (hello, Epstein-Barr Virus [EBV]). I spent the summer of ’78 sleeping my days away. Sometimes I sat outside and watched my siblings and their friends swim in the pool. I had no energy to join them, and the hot Bay Area weather wore me out.
It was at this time that the chronic migraines started—and by chronic, I mean, daily headaches, and a full migraine two to three days a week, which lasted until I was 54 years old. Little did I know that my body would never be the same.
Living a Healthy Life—Or So I Thought
I married young, had two daughters by the age of 25, and lived an average suburban life chock-full of typical, day-to-day stressors. I had little energy, so I slept as much as I could to keep up with my busy life; I napped when the kids napped and fell into bed early every evening. At one point, I attempted to throw nursing school into the mix, but I quickly burned out to the point of collapse.
By this time, my childhood constipation had turned into full-blown IBS. It could hit me anytime, anywhere; I was always running scared, so to speak. Despite my continued stomach problems, I thought I was pretty healthy. I was a licensed cosmetologist working in a quaint, upscale California town filled with boutiques selling organic skincare lines, body products, and clothing. I had access to a beautiful farmers’ market–style grocery store that exposed me to incredible organic fruits and vegetables I never had growing up.
With so many options, I was basically a kid in a candy store! I’ve always loved to cook, and I’m fearless in the kitchen, so the experimentation commenced. I didn’t allow white bread or any produce sprayed with pesticides into my house. When they were babies, my girls ate home-cooked and fresh-pressed baby food, and I used cloth diapers. My inner hippie had blossomed!
I thought I was doing everything right by eating whole grains, making my own household cleaners, and living the cleanest way I could. Life was good, until it wasn’t.
It All Comes Crashing Down
Divorce hit me square between the eyes. Needless to say, my happy suburban life took a turn. The stress was overwhelming at times. Marrying at 18 did not prepare me to be an independent adult, let alone one with two kids, ages 9 and 7. That first year, I had what I believe were a couple of breakdowns. My weight plummeted to 111 pounds, alarming for my 5’7” frame. I was a skeleton, a skeleton with no energy.
One morning, almost a year after my divorce, I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. My legs were like lead. I had flu-like muscle aches and bone pain. My head swam, and dizziness washed over me. I was depressed and exhausted, and I couldn’t gather my thoughts.
My mom suggested that I have my thyroid checked—bingo. All the stress had broken down that poor gland. I found a doctor that tested me for hypothyroidism, put me on Levothyroxine, and sent me on my way. That was 1997. I never felt great, but at the time, it seemed like a start. I also went vegan for a while, never realizing the damage I was doing to my thyroid by depriving it of healthy fats and protein it needs to produce adequate amounts of hormones.
Despite the medication and my “healthy” lifestyle, intuitively, I knew I was not right.
New and Scary Symptoms
By this time, chronic fatigue and migraines were an everyday battle. I lived in a fog.
I had moved to Colorado as a single mom, and it was a good change but another big stressor. I continued to take the thyroid medication—upping the dosage as the years ticked by—and did what I thought was best nutritionally. My intuition and gut instincts had served me well my entire life, but now I could not pinpoint what my body was trying to tell me.
Around 2001, I started to have new and scary symptoms: Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS), vision issues, heart palpitations, high cholesterol, swelling in my feet and legs, just to name a few. In the span of two years, I fell three or four times. The doctor I was seeing at the time noticed a suspicious “spot” on my optic nerve. I was immediately whisked off for an emergency MRI. The result was negative, but she was still concerned.
Ticking and vibration in my neck; lightning bolt pain shooting up my jaw, through my left eye, and to the top of my head; swelling and painful salivation in the parotid gland; and numbness on my left side. My symptoms were mounting.
In the early 2000s, I had entered a new era with a new husband, but I knew there was still something deeper at the root of my lethargy, pain, and lack of zest for life.
By 2012, we relocated to the South for my husband’s job, and left a full clientele list back in Colorado, along with my now adult daughters and their husbands. I was heartbroken, and I fell into a deep depression. I couldn’t muster the energy to restart my business, so instead, I enrolled in school to become a nursing assistant and proceeded to work in post-op orthopedics. I loved my new career but was drained every night. About two years into this new life, my health took another downward turn.
Things Get Ugly
In the fall of 2014, my body fell into a crisis that left me sick and unable to function for six weeks. I experienced dizziness, loss of peripheral vision, vertigo, facial numbness, myoclonic seizures, severe pressure in my skull, pressure that gave me a rainbow prism, elevated body temperature, extremely restricted pupils, neuropathy in my right toes and fingers, painful salivation, phantom cigarette and chemical smells, lack of coordination, loss of balance, and a wide walking gait. Not to mention, hair loss in clumps that left me with little shiny bald spots all over my head. I have a three-page print-out of symptoms, which my future endocrinologist would describe as a possible thyroid crisis or “thyroid storm.”
I asked my GP to send me to a neurologist who put me on a few meds for seizure and headache prevention, but nothing “fixed” me. The neurologist suggested that I had fibromyalgia. My GP agreed and put me on Lyrica. It made me so sick that three days in I quit.
I was referred to a rheumatologist next, but it took me six months to get an appointment. During this window, I had plenty of time to research, which was always something I’d enjoyed doing even since I was kid. This is when Hashimoto’s thyroiditis first came onto my radar—it was me! I just knew it intuitively.
I compiled a list of all my symptoms along with every test I wanted to run. No doctor in my mounting medical history had ever suggested an in-depth thyroid panel to check for autoimmune antibodies (TPO and TG), nor had any doctor ever questioned my diet. Never. I brought all this to the rheumatologist, and also asked that he do some nutritional testing for B12, magnesium, selenium, and vitamin D.
At my two-week follow-up, it was there in black and white: high TPO antibodies and deficiencies in all the vitamins mentioned.
“Where do we go from here?” I asked the doctor. He threw his hands up and said, “It’s out of my wheelhouse.”
I had more homework to do and an endocrinologist to find.
While waiting to get into the endocrinologist, I found books upon books to read, specifically for Hashimoto’s. Izabella Wentz’s Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis: Lifestyle Interventions for Finding and Treating the Root Cause was my first introduction into this unchartered territory. My life came alive on those pages! I was engrossed in this new information, and I couldn’t get enough.
The Autoimmune Wellness Handbook was next, with Mickey Trescott and Angie Alt’s Autoimmune Protocol (AIP) recipes for healing.
I jumped feet first, hard-core, and went gluten-free. Low and behold, the results were immediate. At 54, I was headache-free for the first time since I was 15!
During this waiting period for my endo appointment, I also decided to schedule a colonoscopy, four years overdue. What I discovered was that years of habitual NSAID use and gluten consumption had damaged my gut. My intestines had deep pockets of diverticulosis and dark areas of tissue degradation.
My newfound discoveries only sparked my appetite for more knowledge. I studied and studied. The first priority after going gluten-free was to heal my gut. To do so, I supplemented my diet with liquids my body could absorb, like bone broth, collagen, NAC (a precursor needed to make glutathione — a master antioxidant needed for detox), licorice root extract, probiotics, vitamin D, magnesium, and B12. Once I felt strong enough, I asked my neurologist to start weaning me off my medications.
Fast forward a year and a half, and I discovered the wonderful and supportive Transcend Autoimmune community. I’ve now started to eliminate more foods from my diet—nuts, rice, corn, sugar, dairy, etc.—and plan to re-introduce them one at a time.
I’ll be 57 soon, and I’m still a huge work in progress. But I make strides every day. My recent colonoscopy showed no tissue discoloration or diverticulosis! Changing how I eat has been one of the easiest, no-brainer decisions I’ve ever made. And I now see my diagnosis as a gift, not a hardship. I had been sick for so long that I welcomed the change and the empowerment it provided me. Four decades of health issues with little guidance from doctors has been a struggle, but my stubborn nature gives me the fortitude to steamroll ahead.
Changing how I eat has been one of the easiest, no-brainer decisions I’ve ever made.
I’m now proud and excited to have conversations with many clients and friends who have opened up about their own health concerns. I’m able to give them examples of what has worked for me—and I have the knowledge to tell them why and how! I love referring people to my top books and internet resources and offer them emotional support to proceed in healing. It always makes me feel good to steer someone else in the right direction, so they can navigate their own path.
My Top Tips For Healing:
- Dive into research studies and medical journals. The internet is your oyster. Go to reputable sights, like the top medical universities, here in the U.S. and globally. Government sites like Pubmed are available to everyone. Learn about your disease inside and out. Or, if you are not diagnosed yet, pay attention to the symptoms and listen to what your body is trying to tell you.
- Be your own advocate! I cannot stress this enough. Ask doctors for specific tests, and know WHY you’re are asking for them. Ask any and all questions that you can think of. Put your research to work for you. I still have not had an allopathic doctor ask about my diet or lifestyle. They just don’t know. What they DO know is how to treat the symptoms. Find a holistic doctor who will help you dig deeper.
- Spend your money on books that are related to your diagnosis. My books are my greatest investments. If I have a question I refer to my “bibles” for answers!
- Find out if you are nutrient or vitamin deficient, and slowly start adding those into your regimen one by one.
- Get a complete thyroid panel which includes two thyroid antibodies markers to check the autoimmune component (Hashimoto’s (hypo) or Graves’ (hyper)). The 8 thyroid markers to ask for include: TSH, T3, T4, Free T3, Free T4, Reverse T3, TPOab, TGab. TSH (thyroid stimulating hormone) is a good indicator of later stage thyroid dysfunction, but does not give you the whole picture on how the thyroid is functioning.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet. The autoimmune component demands healthy fats and proteins, increased vegetables, gluten restriction, sugar restriction and a few more. It is crucial to change diet and lifestyle.
- Reduce stress, or at least incorporate some healthy practices to help cope with stress. Yoga, exercise, meditation, prayer, nature, breathing techniques. Whatever works for you to be calm, get better sleep and to focus on you!
We all want to get better, stop hurting, get out of bed, live life to its fullest. I was too young to just keep on thyroid meds without investigating diet and alternatives to aid in my healing. I have 7 Grandkids to get down on the floor with, many school functions in the future to attend, soccer games, gymnastic meets and camping trips to take with them! The only way to recover is to listen to your body, find what works and take charge!
My Grandbabies are My Big Why
Image Credits: Teresa Sullivan
As Teresa suggests, what are your symptoms or challenges saying to you? If we get quiet, listen to our bodies, and trust our intuition, we may already know what we need to do. Very often there is a call of the soul we need to heed.
Take good care!
p.s. Before you go, please accept our FREE gift: Your Optimal Food Guide ebook, which can help you figure out which foods can help you reverse autoimmune conditions or just optimize your health.
p.s.s. For autoimmune healing guidance, carefully curated content, and a caring community of committed health seekers, consider joining Beat Autoimmune Academy.
Cover image: Hudson Hintze