This will be the hardest post I’ve ever had to write.
Imagine being a fit-and-trim 20-something marathon runner. You’ve been at your ideal weight for several years, having lost weight in college by learning to “eat right and exercise,” eventually going mostly vegetarian/vegan as a result. You’re fabulously fit, with two marathons and several half-marathons under your belt. You eat a wonderfully varied and healthful diet, including tons of vegetables, fresh fruits, beans and legumes, limited whole grains, healthy fats, and plenty of raw and living foods. You eat very few animal products and minimal sugar and white carbs. You’re active and energetic, and despite only being able to eat relatively few calories (lest you regain weight), you feel nourished and happy.
Imagine all of that changing. Imagine suddenly starting to gain weight, at a pace that accelerates by the month, despite your hours of weekly workouts and your meticulous diet. Imagine that you, the chef and nutritionist, the athlete and vegetarian, eat healthier and healthier (and less and less) and exercise more and more to combat this insidious weight gain and the accompanying depression, confusion, and crashes in energy. Imagine doing this for three years – working your butt off to get your weight back under control and yet continuing to look and feel worse – and at the end of it all, finding yourself with 30 extra pounds and a sudden diagnosis of a constellation of health problems. Imagine doing all this while writing a cookbook and a blog and trying to get your career as a chef off the ground, progressively feeling greater and greater shame as you continue to gain weight and your health continues to decline as you go about promoting a healthy diet. Imagine finally working up the nerve to tell the whole world.
Here I am.
I have Hashimoto’s disease. Hashimoto’s (or “Hashi’s”) is an autoimmune disease in which your body attacks, and gradually destroys, your thyroid gland, the energy production center of your endocrine system. A genetic predisposition combined with a long history of undereating and overexercising (I’m not one of those bloggers who speaks openly of having a history of eating disorders, but I may as well tell you, I do) made me susceptible to thyroid problems, and three years ago, around when the weight gain began, Hashi’s finally started to set in. I didn’t know this at the time, of course, and since allopathic doctors only test TSH, I was told I was “fine.” I was also told “Some people just need to eat less and work out more than other people to maintain their weight…yes, even the unbelievable amounts that you do.” “Some people only have a bowel movement every couple days…yes, even when their diet contains 80+ grams of fiber per day.” “Some people just need more sleep than others…yes, even 10-14 hours a night.” “Some people’s body temperature is a little low…but 97.3°F is just fine.” And on and on and on.
For three years I’ve been searching for an answer. I’ve watched my health decline in so many ways, even while eating an ideal diet, and yet no one wanted to listen. Any time I mentioned my inexplicable weight gain and feeling suboptimal to anyone, they would immediately reply with “Oh, you’re not fat; you look fine to me,” as though gaining 30 pounds despite rigorous diet and exercise is “okay” simply because I “look fine” – to them – and am not [yet] obese. But it is NOT normal to mysteriously gain 30 undeserved pounds, and it clearly hints at deeper problems. This is not just me being vain and whining about a little extra weight—for some time now I’ve known something is very, very wrong, and somehow I found the strength to keep searching for answers. I’m finally starting to find them.
My new doctor, Dr. Jason Pickel, trained with Dr. Datis Kharrazian, a renowned thyroid and autoimmune disease expert (and author of this book). I recently had panel after panel of tests done – blood, saliva, urine, stool, you name it – and today, I finally got the results. They are shocking, to say the least.
It’s been confirmed that I do in fact have Hashimoto’s disease. My thyroid is, as expected, underperforming.
I have rampant inflammation, to the point where my body has been eating its own muscle tissue for months, if not years. My white blood cells are depleted and my inflammatory markers are off the charts. My immune system is so taxed that I’m no longer even producing the expected number of antibodies.
I have terrible dysglycemia (blood sugar abnormalities), and probably have since I was a child. I also have insulin resistance. Me of all people!
My cholesterol is through the roof and my triglycerides are through the floor.
I have very little vitamin D stored in my liver, yet a near-toxic amount in my bloodstream.
I have depressed production of estrogen and progesterone and dangerously elevated testosterone levels. I haven’t had a period since last year.
I’ve taken probiotics and eaten fermented foods for years, and yet I have almost no beneficial gut bacteria. I’m underproducing hydrochloric acid. I have a dangerous amount of H. pylori bacteria in my stomach.
My pulse is usually over 100. My blood pressure waxes and wanes.
I’m low in blood levels of numerous vitamins and minerals (nearly everything except, ironically, B12 and iron). My ability to absorb nutrients has apparently been compromised for a long time now. My gut is leaky, sluggish, and prone to food intolerances I never even knew existed.
I’ve been so terrified to share this. As a natural foods chef and cookbook author, I’m supposed to be a role model for a healthy diet and lifestyle. It’s been killing me inside to want to constantly explain to people why I look the way I do, why I’ve put on so much weight—it’s not what I eat! In fact, let me be perfectly clear right here and now that my high-raw, low-glycemic, plant-rich diet did not cause ANY of this. In fact, it’s probably why I took so long to start showing signs and symptoms of Hashimoto’s disease. I could be much worse off right now if I’d eaten a shitty diet and was never active all this time. These issues took root in my tumultuous childhood and adolescence—long before I adopted a vegetarian diet. And unfortunately, my body is proving as we speak that there are some things that healthy diet and lifestyle changes cannot fix.
Now, three years after symptoms began, after finally finding a doctor recently who would actually listen to me and test everything that needed to be tested, I’m starting to uncover answers. I’m just beginning to discover what might – with any luck – be a path to wellness. It’s going to take time, though. I’m up against so much, it’s overwhelming, and keeping it secret all this time has probably made it even more difficult. It’s a lot to come to terms with. I’m still working on that. But now, I at last have a place to start.
Beginning immediately, I am eating a strict autoimmune diet as prescribed by my doctor. Since eggs and dairy are no-no’s for anyone with immune system inflammation anyway, this elimination diet happens to be plant-based. It’s also free of gluten, grains, sugar, nuts, legumes, sweet fruits, alcohol, soy products, and nightshade vegetables. In other words, some of my favorite foods! In addition, I’m incorporating a number of nutritional supplements (beyond the dozens I was already on) to calm inflammation and improve nutrient absorption, among other things. I’m also banned from exercising until further notice—talk about a lifestyle change! But it’s imperative now that I attack all these problems at once, get to the bottom of things, and heal myself so I can hopefully lose the weight and bloat I’ve gained, get my immune system under control, normalize my thyroid function, get my blood sugar in check, repair my gut, and alleviate my depression. After a few weeks, my doctor and I will begin to add foods back to my diet one by one, watching for autoimmune reactions. As I kill off bad gut bacteria and replenish the good, work to lower inflammation, try and increase my absorption of nutrients, and just feel better, my treatment will evolve, and with any luck I can get back to the point, someday, where I feel healthy, fit, trim, and happy.
I hope you all understand why I kept this so close to my chest for so long. My worst nightmare is for someone to hear my health is failing and for them to ascribe it to my high-raw, plant-rich diet. They don’t know what my childhood diet (or non-diet) was like, they don’t know what my body’s been through in the past, yet they might make the snap judgment that my current diet has caused my current problems, when that’s simply not the case—health is far more cumulative than that. I’m absolutely petrified that people will no longer trust my nutritional advice, buy my book, make my recipes, read my blog, or believe in the diet I believe in, simply because I myself am not in tip-top shape for reasons outside my control.
Another reason I’ve been afraid to write this, to be honest, is that I fear an overwhelming deluge of advice and suggestions, as well-intentioned as they may be, from readers. I’m afraid that at this point, it’s quite counterproductive. For months and months now I’ve spent hours – literally – every single day researching extensively and reading everything I can get my eyes on. I could talk to you all day about pregnenolone-steal syndrome, peripheral tissue resistance to thyroid hormone, free T3/reverse T3 ratios, aldosterone pupil tests, circadian cortisol production, lectins and phytates and oxalates, and on and on and on. I lie awake at night turning these things over and over in my brain. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think about when I go to sleep at night. The reams of information I’ve amassed on these subjects are staggering, and it’s been consuming my life. As such, I’ve decided to limit the amount of time I spend reading and researching from here on out. I can’t cut it out completely – I’m a knowledge junkie, what can I say – but I can’t continue to stress myself this way. So I’m very sorry if this sounds awful, but I’d like to request not to be bombarded with well-meaning health advice (unless it’s something truly obscure that you’re certain I couldn’t have come across on my own). I need to re-learn to relax and let nature take its course as I work with (and trust) my doctor on treating my problems and caring for my battered body.
In just the past year, I’ve written a cookbook (and am now working on marketing it), traveled all over the place, gotten engaged, and begun to plan my wedding; I’m also moving later this week and have been packing like mad (can’t wait to show you the awesome new place, though!), and through it all, I’ve been dealing with debilitating physical symptoms and lots and lots of mental turmoil. Money is an issue too, as this has not been an inexpensive process. Now that I finally have some answers, and am beginning to dare to hope that I can heal myself, I’ve decided to confess it all…to you, dear readers. As lively and upbeat as I tend to sound on this blog, a lot has been going on in my life in private, and YOU – yes, you – have helped me get this far. Your comments have helped me laugh, smile, think, and feel stirrings of hope. You’ve kept me believing that I have the power to restore my health. I can’t thank you enough for being here with me through it all—even though you didn’t even know it.
I am determined to get my Hashimoto’s disease under control, heal my thyroid and gut, calm my immune system, cure my dysglycemia and insulin resistance, restore my sex hormones, and eventually lose the weight I gained – no matter what or how long it takes – AND keep on creating amazing, healthy food to share with you as long as the Earth will allow me to.
I will not quit.
UPDATE, late 2013:
Please note that this post is now well over 1.5 years old. Since writing it, my eating habits have evolved a great deal. I no longer feel comfortable talking about my experience with Hashimoto’s (which is still a work in progress), nor giving advice to others about their situations (which can be vastly different).
Thank you for your understanding.