Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Autoimmune Disease
I was covered in mud. Splatters of grime, red clay, and wet dirt speckled well past my running skirt. My shoes, once a deep purple, were a dark brown and squished over the singletrack. My breath was somewhere between labored and controlled, muffled by the steady rain and wind. Arms pumping, legs flying over the rolling terrain, I felt swift. Efficient. Determined. I was alone, running new trails and moving with a power I’d forgotten I have.
In the early miles of this run, I nervously avoided the puddles, toeing my way around the edges of the trail. Now, I barreled through, no longer avoiding the mess, no longer skimping on the opportunity to play.
Puddles, deep mud, and the occasional fallen tree were no match for my stride. My emotions and thoughts fueled every step, creating a cohesive thread of emotional response, mental calculation, and physical movement. This thread pulled me through phases of confusion and grief, anger and frustration, and finally, as I stomped through ankle deep mud, acceptance.
I was recently diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid. The diagnosis wasn’t necessarily a shock, however, the emotional weight of an autoimmune disease was. This diagnosis is the ankle deep mud. It is the puddle I tiptoed around, in fear of getting my shoes wet. It is unavoidable, unpredictable, and now splattered well past my knees. But I’m done avoiding the mud – I’m done pretending I don’t have an autoimmune disease. I want to heal, I want to play, I want to jump in some puddles.
So, let’s start talking about it. About autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s, and my path toward healing.
Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid, leading to chronic inflammation and impairing the thyroid’s ability to do its (very important) job. Hashi’s is the leading cause of hypothyroidism in the US – a condition where the thyroid doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones to meet your body’s needs. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why some individuals develop autoimmune disorders such as Hashi’s and others do not. The likely cause is a combination of genetics, environmental triggers and toxins, and intestinal permeability (aka, “leaky gut”).[i] There are also studies linking this particular autoimmune disease with eating disorders.
Over 50 million Americans suffer from autoimmune disease, and of that 50 million, 75 percent are women. Once you develop one autoimmune disease, it becomes much, much easier to develop another. There are more than 80 types of autoimmune diseases, and many have very broad, all-encompassing symptoms, making diagnosis difficult.
In the case of Hashi’s, getting a definitive diagnosis can take years. In my case, it did.
What about this thyroid?
The thyroid is important. This little butterfly shaped organ nestled in the lower front of your neck controls the body’s most basic functions. Its main job is hormone production – thyroid hormones are multifaceted worker bees with too many accolades for a single page resume. They control the way your body uses energy and regulate breathing, heart rate, the central and peripheral nervous systems, body weight, metabolic rate, muscle strength, menstrual cycle, body temperature, and cholesterol levels, among other things. Every cell in your body is impacted by your thyroid hormones.[ii] When you have too much or too little of these hormones, your entire body is out of balance, and you can experience a slew of symptoms, including:
- Fatigue and sluggishness
- Trouble tolerating cold
- Muscle aches, tenderness and stiffness
- Joint pain and stiffness
- Muscle weakness
- Pale, dry skin
- Dry, thinning hair
- Irregular menstrual cycles
- Trouble getting (and staying) pregnant
- Excessive or prolonged menstrual bleeding (menorrhagia)
- Brittle nails
- Hair loss
- Trouble sleeping
- Unexplained weight gain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Memory lapses and brain fog
- Irritability, mood swings, and mood disorders
- And, apathy, feeling emotionally numb
I am no stranger to these symptoms. I’ve been told to “keep an eye” on my thyroid hormone levels since high school – while also enduring an eating disorder, amenorrhea, and running many, many miles in an attempt to find solace in it all. After years of visiting physicians, nutritionists, gynecologists, acupuncturists, naturopaths, and my fair share of therapists, I finally have an answer (and I finally found a medical provider willing to dig a little deeper). I have Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (with a side of sub-clinical hypothyroidism). I have an autoimmune disease. I thought I was healthy – and yet, I am not.
What comes with a diagnosis?
I am still settling into the diagnosis. Still working my way through nearly weekly diagnostic tests and doctor’s appointments. Still reading study after study on treatment options. Still learning. Still discovering. Still wondering, how did this happen? Why me?
While I could list the symptoms and share the years of daily struggles and anxieties I can now attribute to this disease, I want to talk about how I am feeling right now, and what I am doing about it.
I am relieved, scared, ashamed, and angry.
I am frustrated, tired, humbled, and overwhelmed.
When I first received this diagnosis, I pretended it didn’t exist. I shoved it under the rug with the fears and anxieties it prompted and assumed everything would be fine. My symptoms worsened, but every time I thought about the diagnosis, I felt sick to my stomach. I didn’t want to deal with it. I didn’t want to face my reality. So I didn’t.
And then things started piecing themselves together.
Symptoms worsened. Energy levels plummeted. I developed a sudden allergy and wound up in the hospital in anaphylactic shock. I shook with full-body chills throughout the winter. My situational anxiety and depression became not so situational. I developed severe cystic acne for the first time. The more I learn about the thyroid and Hashi’s, the more I realize just how much this disease controls my daily life.
Facing reality (and treatment)
Treatment began with a slew of supplements to combat the inflammation. I worked to incorporate more protein into my diet, ate more gut-healing foods, and got over my fear of kimchi. I researched treatment options, committed to routine blood work, and memorized the carpet’s pattern in my physician’s waiting room.
Despite these holistic attempts to combat inflammation, my thyroid hormone levels are still too low, and my thyroid antibodies (the sign of inflammation) are still too high. My symptoms remain, spontaneously shutting my entire system down with fatigue and unexplainable exhaustion. I’m now to the point of needing to supplement my body’s thyroid hormones – and am navigating my options on this front.
I’m committed to holistic medicine and addressing the root cause of this autoimmune disease, rather than solely placing a Band-Aid to mitigate my symptoms. That being said, at this point alleviating my symptoms is one of my top priorities. I am desperate for healing.
Phase One: Diagnosis
So, we’re at phase one: Diagnosis. And in this phase, I’ve struggled. I’ve grieved over the loss of the health I thought I had. Over my lost energy and fire. Over the years of tireless work and struggle to recover emotionally, mentally, and physically from an eating disorder, only to immediately have another struggle placed before me. I yelled, screamed, and kicked at the universe, demanding to know why. And then, I accepted my reality. I ran through the mud.
I am choosing to navigate my healing on my terms, to use this opportunity to learn more about my body and hear its subtle signs and signals. I’m excited to discover what nourishes me, and how I can provide my body the rest, fuel, and (potentially) hormone supplementation it needs.
My first stop? Food. Specifically, the autoimmune protocol. More on that to come.