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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.
Katie traces the roots of her autoimmune journey and strained relationship with food to trauma in her early life. Weight loss, weight gain, falling “off the wagon” and getting “back on” defined the way she thought about her healing and her body for many years. It wasn’t until Katie found a naturopathic doctor who taught her what was really going on inside that she was finally able to discover the eating and lifestyle strategies that worked for her.
What health issues are you dealing with, when did they begin, and how long did it take to get a diagnosis?
When I was 17, I was about thirty pounds overweight. Throughout childhood, I sneaked sugary snacks after school, sometimes eating several things until it was time to eat dinner. I didn’t learn until well into adulthood that I was stress eating, coping with a range of big emotions, including loneliness, that had roots in early trauma.
At the time, it was no surprise to me that I had gained weight. I would only exercise in the fall, when I was on the cross country team. The weight gain happened the same year that I was injured, unable to run because of painful shin splints. To lose weight the next spring, I started a popular diet plan, tried running again (it wasn’t painful anymore, thank goodness), lost the weight, and kept it off by continuing to run several days a week. Then, with thoughts of college coming up, I was determined to stay active and eat healthy so I wouldn’t gain weight.
The next year, at 18 years old and fresh off a routine physical, I was declared healthy…even though the blood test results weren’t available right away. I moved out of state and started college a few weeks later. By November, despite eating healthy and clean with significantly less snacking (I had been so proud of myself for being so disciplined!), running nearly every day, I had started gaining weight. Some weeks I gained 1 or 2 pounds. It was starting to really upset me. Other weeks I would maintain. Over holiday break, I went home. During that visit, I saw a letter that the doctor had sent home after the summer blood test, suggesting I come in for another test. I went for another blood draw, then returned to school before the results came in. The weight gain continued. I did not lose a single pound that year. A couple months later, feeling like a failure, I stopped running altogether. This ended up being the first of many rounds of mild to moderate depression I’ve experienced as an adult.
By the end of that academic year, I had gained at least 60 pounds. When I returned home for the summer, I went for an annual checkup and learned I had been diagnosed hypothyroid. I started medication that summer. I was 19 years old.
A long stretch of years followed – most of my 20’s – living with hypothyroidism and the anger that brewed in me that “someone” (the doctor? my parents?) didn’t catch it when the first blood test had an anomaly. Despite the medication holding my weight gain steady at 60ish pounds, I didn’t resume regular exercise until a couple of years after college. In that amount of time, I gained 20-30 additional pounds.
When I did return to exercise, it was because of a coworker. I saw her daily, at lunchtime. She had a healthy looking, well balanced meal packed every day and wrote in a notebook at the end, before returning to work. It was a food diary. She shared that she had gone to a nutritionist and kept the diary to hold herself accountable. She had lost nearly 100 pounds that way.
I must’ve been ready for change because within two weeks (the first available appointment), I was meeting her nutritionist. I remember this person working with some of my medical records. I’m sure I told her I was hypothyroid. There was no guidance from her about foods to not eat, no conversations about inflammation, leaky gut, or adrenal fatigue (in hindsight, I was experiencing mild symptoms of all of them). She focused on supporting me feeling good about whatever I was eating. I was able to heal some aspects of the old emotional eating patterns while working with her. Enough weight was lost by walking, eating, and keeping a food diary, that I was able to start running. Again. In one year of this collaboration, I lost 90 pounds.
Sessions with this nutritionist started me on the path to having colorful vegetables at lunch and dinner. Much later, in my mid-30s, I would do five days of a week-long raw food detox that also included colorful vegetables. Just not the right ones. Nightshades. Everywhere. I didn’t complete the detox because my body rejected the 5th day’s morning detox juice and in the middle of that day I felt deep pain in my lower gut, followed by getting so lightheaded I nearly passed out. Instead of trying to figure out what was going wrong, I followed my gut – a strong sense to STOP and walk away from it.
Describe what the lowest point on your health journey was like.
1) Seven years ago, I started experiencing lower abdominal pain. It would pass, be gone for up to a week, then happen again. I thought I was severely constipated. Then it passed again…and I wasn’t constipated. Within a few months, it would come on fast and soon grew excruciating (I was then on the floor, curled up, either screaming or trying to breathe gently and calm myself down). I had been going through an intensely stressful time, struggling financially. I couldn’t afford gas for my car, so I had to ride my bike everywhere. I was, again, at a low body weight. This time, though, I was exhausted. I couldn’t seem to get enough sleep or rest when I had downtime. No matter whether I stretched or did yoga, I couldn’t seem to shake feeling sore or achy. The abdominal pain subsided for a few weeks, during which time I had an annual exam. The nurse detected something that turned out to be ovarian cysts. Besides the recent rounds of intense pain, there had been no other signs of anything like them developing. It turned out they were large enough to require emergency surgery, at which time endometriosis was also discovered. The pain could have been from endometriosis or leakage from the cysts…or both. (How could I not have felt any of that the weeks, months, or years before?)
During a ‘random’ conversation a few months after recovering from surgery, I was introduced to the concept that avoiding certain foods and adding/increasing others could help stave off some of the pain of endometriosis. This person helped me see so many dysfunctions from my earlier life – mental/emotional and physical – as interconnected to what ails me in adulthood.
2) I started teaching 16 years ago, first in general education, then focusing on special education for the past five years. When I started this specialization, I worked with children with some of the most challenging disabilities and behaviors. They taught me things I would never learn anywhere else, and the stress was like nothing I’d experienced before. While in those environments, I felt the most strain and stress on my system. I hit a wall emotionally and symptoms of adrenal fatigue were at maximum levels. My “old reliable” self-care strategies were no match for this situation. I did my best, but knew it wouldn’t be good for my health long-term. When I left to work with students with academic challenges, a year ago, recovery could start but it was slow. I’ve only recently started feeling ready to re-engage in self-care (including full AIP) that I previously could not sustain.
What challenges influenced you to look for a solution? Basically, what was the tipping point?
I’d been relying on western medicine, through the best intentions of some really incredible doctors, to guide my health. And yet, I was still on the same journey that started with medication more than 20 years ago. I was starting to think it was time to switch gears.
In the last ten years (I’m in my mid-40’s now), I have been switched from lower to higher, then back to lower doses of the same medication, then from one brand to another, all because my “lab work” showed too high/too low levels. One of those times, the clinic actually acknowledged, a couple months later, that it was a lab mixup and my levels had actually been “fine” (in the meantime, I went on a higher dosage for 8 weeks, then back to the lower one). Another time, the doctor directed me to stop taking the medication for 6 weeks, then start again. All the while, I thought there must be something wrong with me because I didn’t feel anything different physically.
Three years ago, I switched to a naturopathic doctor. The first thing this doctor did was draw me a picture with labels and arrows, and explained how the thyroid gland works. First, I couldn’t believe I understood…then I couldn’t believe he was the first one to take the extra seconds to draw me a picture. He needed a blood draw and was ordering more tests, just related to thyroid, than I ever heard of before. A couple weeks later, the result was a diagnosis of Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I continued going to this doctor, trying out homeopathic treatments he would send me home with. I did not stick with those, despite my fascination with the concept. A few months after the new diagnosis, I learned about functional medicine and sought out a local practitioner. More tests led to much more personal medical information. I left that office with the best kind of overwhelm – so much information. It’s been a year and I’m going back for a checkup in a couple weeks.
Amidst all the medical discoveries was a diagnosis of perimenopause. There is a related possibility that I was infertile in the first place, as well. My husband and I had been trying to grow our family for a few years, only to find out that was one reason why it wasn’t working. While I’m self-care-ing my way through that one, we have found ourselves researching and taking steps toward adoption.
When you found a protocol to help you heal, what was it and what was your first indication that it was working?
The more I looked into it, using Hashimoto’s as my starting point, the more everything made sense. Research led me to the AutoImmune Protocol, and I knew it would be one of the tools that would be right for me. It’s an elimination diet, so the most restrictive parts might end up being short-term. The tricky part is that everything is whole food. There aren’t processed short-cuts.
Over the years, I have gained and lost 30-50 pounds through comfort food and sedentary lifestyle, followed by increased activity, eating healthier, and losing nearly all of it again. This has happened at least three times in adulthood. At one point, I was active (and motivated) enough to train and complete a marathon. After that milestone, however, my body did not easily rebound from the aches and soreness that resulted. It’s been more than 15 years and I haven’t resumed running regularly (more than 2-3 consecutive days) since. I have the feeling that following AIP will eradicate this old pattern.
What resources have you used on your healing journey so far and how did you find them?
Despite learning about it in the summer of 2016 and buying the AIP bundle soon after, I meekly (trying to not feel ashamed) acknowledge that I’ve only followed it with full compliance for 3 consecutive days. A year ago. I love many of the recipes (from: Healing Kitchen, and Mickey and Angie’s books, also AIP bloggers and Instagrammers and Facebook groups) and have even tried enough to notice some things that my body has trouble with (lamb and beef). After those 3 days, maybe I should have asked for help from my family. On day 2 I was feeling a lot of energy, so I knew it was starting to work. The next day, I was probably detoxing and feeling increased sluggishness. More food needed to be made but I was feeling strong fatigue, so I went “off plan”. That was followed by other days when I ate two compliant meals, then comfort foods. The thread that holds everything steady, at least through lunchtime, though, has become bone broth. I don’t like it straight, so I use it as a base for leftover veggies and protein. I’m a teacher and heating that up for lunch is really soothing in the middle of even the best-kind-of-stressed school day. When I don’t keep up the bone broth, and I have sugar in my diet, I’ll feel nausea off and on the next day. If I have the bone broth, it sometimes eliminates the nausea even if I still consume some sugar. Having it both ways doesn’t heal a darn thing, though, I know.
Supporting adrenal fatigue (part of the “package” for me, apparently) is also helpful. Early bedtimes sometimes feel like a miracle the next day. Treadmill walking every morning, followed by short kundalini chanting meditations (I do it quietly), when I do them both in a self-care session, leave me feeling stronger and calmer. That feeling lasts for quite a few hours sometimes. I also try to journal daily – 3 “morning pages” concept from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way is my goal. Often I start that while I’m still in bed, right after snoozing the alarm, even with my eyes closed and the pen all over the page. I keep the snooze active in case I drift back to sleep while writing. I estimate when I’m “finished” with each page since there’s no way I can use lines with my eyes closed.
Did your doctors suggest any treatments that you rejected and if so, why did you choose to try other methods?
The last doctor I saw before changing to the naturopath had recommended a vegan diet. He knew the hypothyroid diagnosis and had seen the lab numbers for a few years, but never thought to order a more comprehensive test. I was not comfortable going fully vegan because I learned a lot about my body and nightshades (see raw food detox, above), and I knew that I usually felt really good after eating fish, chicken, or turkey with lots of greens and ‘safe’ veggies. I had not lost a lot of weight since the year before, and this doctor noted that and was starting to sound like he was disappointed/ashamed of me. It was subtle but noticeable. I did not appreciate feeling that way but remained silent. A few weeks later, I received a form letter from the clinic where he practiced stating that he had left their office. All former patients were referred to another physician at the same clinic. That’s when I decided to try the naturopathic doctor.
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 learned that my husband loves to help me batch cook! This has kept me compliant for 1-2 meals each day for a year. He is on board when I’m ready to launch full AIP.
I am a wife and step mother to a teenage girl. One of her favorite dishes to cook, whether at our house or with her mom, is an AIP-compliant salmon recipe. It makes me so happy that something that is healing for me is fun for her.
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