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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.
Christina Tidwell’s autoimmune journey began at age 18 and has had a profound impact on how she shows up in the world today. After having her life saved by western medicine, Christina realized that while her doctors were doing all they could, they simply couldn’t offer the holistic guidance she needed to become truly well again. It wasn’t until she learned how — and found the confidence — to seek alternative therapies that she got her life back.
What health issues are you dealing with, when did they begin, and how long did it take to get a diagnosis?
When I was 18 years old I was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called Adult-onset Still’s disease (AOSD). I was a healthy, active high school student finishing up my senior year when I started to feel vague, flu-like symptoms accompanied by a low-grade fever. Over the course of a few weeks my fevers had begun to progress and went through cycles of shivers and chills that shook my whole body, high spiking fevers up to 104 degrees (F), followed by drenching sweats. These fevers came in cycles and started around 8pm at night and broke by morning. I thought it was a horrible virus, and just tried to rest and get over it.
I went to sleep early one evening and woke up in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain from my left shoulder down to my tailbone. My back had seized up into a knot and the slightest breath in or out made me scream in pain. I grabbed my phone next to my bed and called my parents down the hall in the middle of the night so I could tell them that something was really wrong and needed help.
I was rushed me to the nearest hospital, and there they found I had a pulmonary embolism or a blood clot that had traveled to the arteries in my lungs that had caused my severe pain and shortness of breath. I was started on a blood thinner to get rid of the clot and given morphine for the pain. In addition to this clot, I still had these strange, vague, flu-like symptoms and none of the experts were sure how this all fit together. I was tested for every infectious disease under the sun from West Nile virus to Dengue fever. Finally, the doctors diagnosed me with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (this diagnosis has later changed to AOSD) and began treating me for the autoimmune disease that was attacking my body.
I was discharged from the hospital three weeks later on high dose steroids which had stifled my fevers and methotrexate which was supposed to shut off my body’s immune response. The blood clot was thought to have been a part of the perfect storm that triggered my body to mount an attack on itself in the form of Still’s disease.
Describe what the lowest point on your health journey was like.
Since my diagnosis, I have been through many ups and downs dealing with my autoimmune disease. The lowest point in my life was probably when I was a freshman in college, only a few months after the initial onset and diagnosis of my disease, as I was trying to navigate my health. I was on high dose prednisone which made my face puffy, caused me to gain weight and have extreme anxiety. Even on the prednisone and methotrexate I was still experiencing breakthrough fevers which exhausted me to the point that I was unable to get out of bed some days. I felt like every cell in my body had been hit by a truck after a long night of chills and fevers. I was constantly running on empty and had no energy. I was terrified because I could feel that my body was still so severely out of balance underneath the stifling effects of the medications. Also, I had to give myself blood thinner shots that year for the pulmonary embolism and my body was bruised all over. I hardly recognized myself and was so afraid I would feel this way forever.
What challenges influenced you to look for a solution? Basically, what was the tipping point?
At this point in my life I was so desperate to feel better that I obediently followed up with my doctors and did everything they told me to do to treat my illness, which was just a regimen of medications. Even while taking all the medications they recommended I was miserable and still was unable to find the best treatment for me. All of the health care professionals I went to were highly skilled in their field and I owe my life to them. They did not, however, seem to take me into account as a person rather than a disease category. I looked to them to give me clues as to how to live my daily life, what to eat to nourish my body, or what other alternative therapies I could try to reduce stiffness in my body or decrease my anxiety, but unfortunately I never got any of this information.
One day I went to see the nurse practitioner at my rheumatologist’s office and after listening to my whole story, the one I’d told a million times, she looked at me and said, “Wow, you’ve been though a lot, how are you doing with all of this?” It stopped me dead in my tracks because this was the first person, out of the dozens of health care workers, who had actually looked at me as a person, not as a diagnosis, and asked this simple question that brought me to tears and changed the course of my life.
From there she began to ask me how my medications were working for me, and how we might alter them to better fit my needs and reduce side effects rather than saying, “This is just how it’s done.” She took a leap of faith and started me on a newer injectable medication, that ultimately was the only drug that worked to alleviate my symptoms. She never rushed me out of my appointments and she listened to how my disease was affecting all parts of my life. She encouraged me to do yoga and exercise to regain the strength I had lost. She suggested stress reduction techniques such as meditation, because stress is a major trigger in my disease. She opened my eyes to the idea that I was the one that had control, and by modifying my diet and lifestyle I could learn how to live a life not ruled by my disease.
I had been so miserable but I honestly didn’t know that I had any control, or that there were alternatives to what had been presented to me. I so badly needed someone to guide me as an 18 year old, and this gave me the insight I needed to seek out alternatives. From here I embarked on my own journey to healing.
When you found a protocol to help you heal, what was it and what was your first indication that it was working?
I was first introduced to the idea that diet could influence my autoimmune symptoms through Kathy Abascal’s book, The Abascal Way: To Quiet Inflammation. I began experimenting with an anti-inflammatory diet and found that it helped my overall energy and improved my symptoms greatly to eat whole, nutrient-dense food. I was not, however, one of those people who simply cut out gluten or dairy and had all of my symptoms go away. I wish! For me it reduced the overall burden of inflammation in my system and gave me long periods of remission in between my flare ups. Along with this I began to identify triggers for my flare ups, and found that mindfully reducing stress through yoga and meditation helped me immensely.
Two years ago I began working with a nutritionist and adapted the AIP for a period of time to work on gut healing and eradication of SIBO and SIFO which has made a huge impact and was a big turning point in my healing. With the help of AIP and some targeted supplements I healed my gut, eradicated some serious infections and reduced my bloating and stomach discomfort. I was pretty strict with AIP for a few months and I really credit this protocol with healing my gut once and for all and making me feel the best I have since my diagnosis 12 years ago.
What resources have you used on your healing journey so far and how did you find them?
I have found the importance of building a care team to live well with autoimmune disease, and this is what I coach my health and nutrition clients on as well! Our current medical system perpetuates the idea that we need only visit one doctor for a “quick fix” to our problems. This model may work in some cases, but can set us up for failure in the context of a complex autoimmune condition because rarely does any sort of quick fix actually work to resolve our underlying issues.
Many people looking to one practitioner for all the answers become frustrated and discouraged in the healthcare system. They are doing everything they are “supposed to”, but are left feeling sick and tired. Instead of being disappointed that one practitioner cannot give you all the tools and support needed to heal, take what you need and actively seek out assistance from a holistic team who support you as an individual. I have found acupuncture, nutrition support and therapy to be hugely beneficial in my healing journey.
Did your doctors suggest any treatments that you rejected and if so, why did you choose to try other methods?
My doctors only ever suggested long term use of biologic medications to turn of parts of my immune system. I was on these for many years, but really felt in my body that I didn’t need them anymore and decided, in conjunction with them, to go off of them and it’s working well for me personally. I prefer to get to the root cause of illness rather than masking symptoms and it’s been important for me to look towards other more holistic methods of healing. I really align with the functional medical approach to treating disease!
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 find happiness in small, daily joys and being healthy and able to move my body through yoga and mindful movement. Because of my own journey I started my own holistic health and nutrition coaching business, Live Well with Christina, where I specialize in helping people with chronic autoimmune conditions to increase energy levels, reduce pain and inflammation in the body, and decrease stress and anxiety in order to live a more vibrant life not ruled by their chronic disease. It really is my true joy to help support others find their health again. I also love cooking and having fabulous dinner parties with friends and family!
Would you like to share your Story of Recovery? Let us know by filling out our interest form.