Autoimmune disease is my biggest teacher
Updated: Jul 12, 2021
It’s a cliché, but as with most clichés it is based on truth - my biggest struggles in life have often turned out to be my biggest growth and learning experiences. Being diagnosed in my mid-30s with Hashimoto’s disease was no exception.
In case you don’t know, Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease affecting the thyroid gland. Autoimmune diseases refer to a type of disease where the body’s own immune system seems to be attacking healthy tissue, in this case the thyroid gland. The thyroid is involved in regulating many of the body’s systems from metabolism to reproduction so when it goes out of balance it has far-reaching symptoms, affecting everything from weight to digestion to temperature regulation to energy. In short you feel downright yukky but because the symptoms are so diverse it can be hard to pin down the root cause.
I was diagnosed in my mid 30’s but looking back I would say the symptoms were present and undiagnosed for many years before that. When I was initially diagnosed, my GP simply told me I would need to take medication for the rest of my life and there was nothing more that could be done. I accepted this and dutifully took the pills every day, which made me feel partially better but by no means resolved the vast range of symptoms I was experiencing.
5 years later I started to look a bit further into my situation. I consulted a naturopath and a holistic GP who both had a different take on my situation. I began asking myself questions about why these patterns had taken root in my body and I began to observe more closely the effects of how I was living on my body and my symptoms. What followed were another 8 years of learning, listening, reading, experimenting, progress, set-backs and frustrations.
This is what I learned along the way.
I learned that the foods I choose to put into my body have a direct effect on what I get out of my body. After initially being very resistant to making any dietary changes I am now a complete convert to healthier ways of eating. I had always prided myself on being a person who can ‘eat anything’ and for much of my 20s I had lived on a diet high in pasta and cheese. I had the mentality that slim =healthy and so because I didn’t ever really struggle with my weight, I truly believed I could eat anything I wanted with no consequences. What I now notice is that gluten creates horrible digestive issues for me, dairy products leave me congested and full of allergies, too much sugar affects my mood and sleep. I notice foods that give me energy and foods that deplete my energy. And I see the direct effect of these dietary choices on my thyroid antibody levels (the autoimmune response), measured through blood tests, which improved dramatically after I chose to make changes to my diet. Once I had made the links with how I felt, my food choices became a no-brainer.
What took me a little longer to figure out (surprisingly given my professional training is in clinical psychology) were the psychological aspects and how directly they map onto the physical. I can now see a direct link between my adrenal health (the body’s fight/flight response produced in the face of anxiety or threat) and my thyroid health and overall energy levels. I have learned that the ‘energy’ that comes from adrenaline production is effectively borrowed energy – borrowing from tomorrow’s resources – and this debt always has to be paid back sooner or later, usually with a huge crash, brain fog and having to scrape myself off the mattress in the morning.
I have learned that this kind of anxiety-driven, adrenaline-driven energy has a wired restless quality and that it’s very different from the more gentle, calm and sustainable energy that comes from being well-rested, balanced and nourished. I have learned ways to notice when my stress levels are rising and to re-balance through slowing down, grounding, breathing and stepping out of the anxiety spiral (at least sometimes). Yoga has been a big teacher in this.
I have learned that when I say ‘yes’ to things that I should be saying ‘no’ to, my thyroid health suffers. This has been a tough learning curve as the things that my mind wants to say yes to and the things my body is happy to say yes to aren’t always on the same page. A few years ago a very exciting business project came my way, it felt aligned with my vision for who I wanted to be in the world and I couldn’t help myself but say yes to it. What ensued was a lot of unpaid extra hours of work, worry and responsibility. My thyroid and adrenal health suffered. When I finally let go of this project my body breathed a huge sigh of relief, my energy returned and my blood results improved.
I’ve learned that my body wants a simpler, smaller life than the one my mind dreams of. This has been a tough lesson to absorb, but it’s made all the difference. I realise I bow to external pressures and expectations of what I ‘should’ be doing with my life (being ‘successful’, putting myself ‘out there’, doing more, earning more etc etc). I realise that this creates momentary highs, the buzz of achievement, that I can mistake for happiness. I realise now though that for me real happiness comes from inner peace and balance, more than from external achievement, and that this happens more easily when I do less, say no more often, and prioritise rest. It’s not very glamorous and it doesn’t make for great dinner party stories, but it feels like a more aligned authentic path for me. And my body loves it, which is the big seal of approval.
I have learned to speak my mind more, voice my anger more, and generally speak my truth more, with less fear of the consequences. The thyroid gland sits at the throat centre and in many models of health, such as chinese medicine, yoga and ayurveda, it is linked directly with self-expression. I had always been someone who suppressed my own voice for fear of judgment from others, a people pleaser who often tried to make myself and my needs ‘invisible’ because it felt safer that way. I am slowly learning to express more, to let go of the consequences or what others think, to recognise I can never please everyone so I may as well begin by honouring myself. And yes, perhaps to become a little more selfish, although I prefer to think of it as self-care. And actually self-care is ultimately not selfish at all because when your own tank is topped up you have much more to give to others. It’s a work in progress, but it has been a powerful learning.
In the meantime, while I’ve been making these discoveries (painfully slowly at times) my thyroid antibody levels have reflected the changes. Below 60 is widely considered to be the healthy range for thyroid antibodies. 8 years ago mine were at 583. They have gradually been tracking downwards (with the occasional blip). The latest results were at 41 placing them back in the non-clinical range for the first time in many years. This means the effects of Hashimoto’s are reversing, which my original GP implied was not possible. It's an ongoing journey, but it's definitely something to get excited about.
I want to emphasise here that this is my personal journey and by no means a prescription for how to cure Hashimoto’s. The factors that make a difference for you may be very different from the factors that made a difference for me. But what I do want to do is to encourage you to learn to listen to your body, to see your symptoms as a sign that something is out of balance, make adjustments to how you’re living and then listen to the feedback from your body. I want to encourage you to consider what you put into your body, the way your move your body and even the way you breathe. And I want to encourage you to consider the lifestyle patterns, thought patterns and the emotional world as crucial components in this equation. Our body is a very sensitive feedback mechanism and it quickly tells us when things are out of balance. More often than not we fail to listen, fail to understand what it’s communicating, or simply don’t want to hear the message because our mind has other ideas about how it wants to live. The choice is yours, but I do believe the clues are there should you choose to follow them.
If you are living with something similar and want to investigate your relationship with it, I encourage you to consult some professionals who can help you along the way. For me a holistic GP, naturopath and acupuncturist were all part of my journey, as was my training and background in both clinical psychology and yoga. For you it may be something different, but keep following your path and listening to the clues and I believe you can go a long way towards understanding what your body is trying to say.
Dr Vicki Connop is a Registered Clinical Psychologist and Yoga Teacher with a clinic in central Auckland. She would like to emphasise that she is not a medical professional and that the content of this article represents a personal journey and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice.