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AIP Stories of Recovery is a success story series about regular people from the Autoimmune Protocol community who are changing their lives using the protocol. Each month a new person is featured and readers have the opportunity to discover all the different health challenges that are being overcome by folks just like themselves on the same path. At Autoimmune Paleo we hope you’ll be inspired by, empathize with, and learn from these stories. If you are interested in sharing your story, please let us know by filling out our interest form.
Cindy Smith has a unique perspective on autoimmune healing. Not only did she watch her mother and grandmother manage the rheumatoid arthritis she would later inherit, but Cindy also went to medical school hoping to better understand this crippling disease. Her education taught her more about what doesn’t work than what does. It took seeking multiple alternative therapies for Cindy to find the healing routine that works for her.
What health issues are you dealing with, when did they begin, and how long did it take to get a diagnosis?
In western medical terms, I have a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis and I had papillary thyroid cancer with follicular variant with removal of my thyroid in 1998. I have had issues with my bowels since the age of eight. Mainly constipation. As a teenager I had depression and anxiety which was considered normal teenage behavior/feelings. In college my depression was severe, constipation was much worse, and I had weight gain. All was attributed to stress.
In medical school I had terrible sleep patterns, poor diet, did not exercise and constipation was much worse. I developed a bronchitis that was viral and was in bed for three weeks. I was never a smoker. In my late 20s (1987) I developed knee pain and cold intolerance and stiffness of my joints. I worried about rheumatoid arthritis as my mother and grandmother both had RA. I had no interest in using medications as I had never seen them very effective in my family or in the patients I saw as a medical student. I did discover a small thyroid nodule and had a scan which was not definitive for cancer so I ignored it (1993).
I began looking into energy medicine. First with a Reiki class and then acupuncture through UCLA and then a more intensive Chinese Medicine training course (four years) which I completed in 2004. I learned qi gong during that time which I still practice and I continue to use acupuncture on myself, family and patients. It helped to learn that my diagnosis in Chinese medicine is a Bi syndrome, which is treatable. As you can see, it took many years to receive a diagnosis and understand the root of my condition. Along the way, I did try supplements and avoided nightshade plants (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers).
Describe what the lowest point on your health journey was like.
My lowest point was in my early 30s (1994-1996). I had no energy at all and could barely get out of bed. I began my studies of acupuncture during this time and spent many hours in bed watching videos. I was able to get myself to work one or two days per week and this was enough to support myself. I lived in a cold and damp house on long island. The cold, damp weather made my joint pain much worse. I was so depressed and could not get out with friends because of the pain. My diet was junk food.
What challenges influenced you to look for a solution? Basically, what was the tipping point?
Another low point was after the birth of my daughter in 2001. I was 40 years old and I could not get out of bed to care for her. My hands simply would not work. I could not hold her, wash her or feed her properly. My husband helped with everything; perhaps he was doing most everything. It is a hard time for me to remember.
I did not want to get out of bed but my husband insisted I get up. I knew a wonder teacher/practitioner of Chinese medicine in Santa Barbara so I called her and she said told me to visit her and she could help. So I flew to Santa Barbara in early 2002. My daughter was four months old at the time and she came with me. My husband had to wheel me to the plane in a wheelchair because I simply could not walk.
I had daily treatments for 12 days with acupuncture, moxa and cups. I began improving right away and when I flew back home I was walking and could use my hands. My joint pain was gone. My bowel movements were normal. I continued to treat myself with acupuncture and qi gong, but I didn’t change my diet.
Things went very well until about age 52. That’s when I saw the swelling in my joints return. I began waking up at two or three in the morning, my constipation returned, and so did my anxiety. But I did not panic. I tried the acupuncture and it was helpful, but I wanted more than pain relief. That’s when I turned to diet (see below).
When you found a protocol to help you heal, what was it and what was your first indication that it was working?
I started reading many different diet plans to try to understand the relationship between food and my joint swelling. Certain foods definitely increased the boggy joints and the constipation. I stumbled upon the Autoimmune Protocol and began the elimination diet. I knew right away I felt so much better. I noticed my brain fog was clearing (I had never thought I even had brain fog). My bowel movements were also very regular (this is the first thing I notice to indicate things are working for me).
What resources have you used on your healing journey so far and how did you find them?
Medical school taught me a lot. I wanted to become a doctor to help my family heal of RA. Mostly I discovered what did not work through that process.
I use many approaches to manage my symptoms: massage, cups, acupuncture, moxa, qi gong, Terzi, Reiki, rolling, Feldenkrais, swimming, walking, affirmations and positive thinking, prayer, meditation, yoga and Pilates. I had surgery for thyroid removal (in retrospect, it was likely Hashimoto’s so it would have been better to leave it). And now for four years I have altered my food intake. I don’t eat gluten and dairy at all. I have also discovered food triggers such as tomatoes and corn.
I still make mistakes with the food and it is very difficult to go out to eat. My husband has come around a lot with the food and helps a lot to have a partner who tries to eat a lot of the same things I eat. I don’t feel tempted by things like I used too. There are lots of gluten-free dairy-free options nowadays if I want a sweet. And so many people have their own particular food sensitivities that I feel much less alone in my eating eccentricities.
Did your doctors suggest any treatments that you rejected and if so, why did you choose to try other methods?
Because of my experience growing up in a household where rheumatoid arthritis and pain was normal and seeing that medication was not helpful for my mom, I chose from the beginning to never take medications for RA. (My grandma never took the meds and her joints looked better than my mom’s did.)
My experience in medical school and in residency confirmed that treatment with medications only masked symptoms. As the treatments have become stronger, they lead now to suppression of the immune system with increased risk for pneumonia, infections and death. I was offered Plaquenil and Methotrexate. I did not use them. When my thyroid was removed I began Synthroid and then Armor Thyroid. This was helpful for 10 years but then I no longer felt well with it.
I now take a t4/t3 compounded preparation and eat Brazil nuts to help with conversion of t4 to t3. I was offered anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications in my late teens and 20s. I did not want to take them. No physician has ever discussed dietary changes with me. But if I bring it up, they have many patient scenarios of those that reduced RA symptoms with changes in diet.
It can seem like our lives are consumed by a chronic illness, but there is so much beyond those struggles. What brings you true joy right now?
I love to wake up in the morning and have tea or coffee with my husband. I love to see my precious daughter. I love to feel happy and hopeful. I love long walks, bike rides and swimming. I love to garden and eat from the garden. I love feeling normal and knowing I made it through a lot of years of pain. I feel the best is to come. I feel so supported knowing there are others out there who have shared in a similar journey. Instead of feeling that I have a chronic illness, I feel I am in a chronic learning process and that my symptoms always give me a clue that change is needed.
Would you like to share your Story of Recovery? Let us know by filling out our interest form.