In May of 2020, my mother handed me a book that changed my life. At the time, I was 25 years old and fighting three autoimmune diseases. I’d endured radiation and steroid treatments during the previous few months, and I was suffering from awful side effects. The eye pain and mood swings were just as bad as the symptoms the drugs and radiation were supposed to improve.
After reading the book jacket of The Autoimmune Solution by Amy Myers, MD, though, I felt optimistic. Myers, who was diagnosed with Graves’ disease, says your fork is your best weapon against a body whose immune system attacks itself. (See “How to Boost Your Thyroid” for Myers’s 28-day plan to bring your thyroid back in balance.)
Intrigued by her belief in food as medicine, I read the book from cover to cover, implementing Myers’s suggestions as I turned the pages.
Over the next month, I began prioritizing whole foods and high-quality protein. I eliminated processed foods, dairy, and gluten. I also avoided nightshades — such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant — which can be problematic for people with autoimmune conditions. All of this meant I had to eat out less often and put more effort into meal prepping.
When my symptoms had improved significantly by the end of the 30-day reset outlined in Myers’s book, I felt the truth of her claim. For the first time since my diagnoses, I had hope that I could approach remission and a pain-free life.
From Bad to Worse
I first noticed something was wrong in February of 2020, as I was preparing to leave for a humanitarian internship in Israel through my alma mater, Highlands College. Shortly before my trip, my Apple watch kept telling me I had an abnormally high resting heart rate. I decided I should get that checked out before leaving for a year, since I was also experiencing hot flashes, twitchy muscles, and insomnia.
My family-practice doctor ran numerous tests that came back inconclusive, so I went to see a cardiologist. After a lot of bloodwork and monitoring, we still didn’t know anything. My doctors strongly advised staying home until we figured out what was wrong with me, so I did.
I’d never experienced serious health issues before, so this was new territory. Growing up, I’d been active in sports: cross-country running, track, basketball, softball. Because I was so active, I didn’t think much about what I was eating or the effects food had on my body — I never felt like I needed to. I ate what was convenient, including a lot of fast food.
As my symptoms continued in March 2020, I bounced around to specialists until my endocrinologist eventually diagnosed Graves’ disease. My thyroid-hormone levels — which control metabolism, heart rate, and body temperature — were off the chart. (For more on the importance of your thyroid, see “What You Need to Know About Your Thyroid“.)
My choices were to undergo surgery to remove my thyroid or radiation to destroy it. Regardless of the choice, my endocrinologist said, I would be taking medication for the rest of my life.
Radiation therapy seemed less invasive, so in April 2020 I began that treatment, which included a thyroid ablation, followed by an oral radiation regimen. Shortly after, my eyes swelled as though I were having a bad allergic reaction. I also developed proptosis: My eyes bulged out of my head, causing intense pressure, pain, redness, and dryness. These symptoms were worse than anything I’d experienced before.
The radiation had triggered what my ophthalmologist diagnosed as thyroid eye disease. I hadn’t even known that was a possibility, and I felt wronged at not having been given this information before I made my decision. But just when I was feeling hopeless, my mom gave me that life-changing book.
A More Functional Approach
By June 2020, after I’d radically changed my diet, most of my symptoms had calmed down. In August, I transferred from my job as a Life Time concierge in Houston to a club in St. Louis.
Once I’d settled in, however, I started looking for a functional-medicine physician, because I had begun to experience symptoms again: sleeplessness, migraines, hot flashes, and even hair loss. After more bloodwork, my new doctor identified antibodies for Hashimoto’s disease, too. Often, a person diagnosed with one autoimmune disease is more likely to develop others, in part because the immune system is already inflamed and easily triggered.
My doctor helped me build on the work I was already doing to address my diseases in a more holistic way. For me, it was beneficial to focus on the root causes of my illnesses and consider lifestyle changes along with medication.
At this point, I learned that managing autoimmune diseases also involves better sleep hygiene and reducing stress. Thinking about the months since I’d first been diagnosed, I realized I’d been feeling a lot of anxiety. There was all the testing and the treatments. And there was COVID-19: Suddenly my job included doing temperature checks, asking health-screening questions, and monitoring mask mandates.
To relieve some of this new stress, I began taking on-demand yoga classes. I also started hiking, which was something I had always wanted to do. Getting into nature was as good for me as the exercise — I could feel my anxiety dissipate with every step.
And it was like a chain reaction: By moving more and reducing my stress, I improved my sleep. All of these things helped me manage my autoimmune diseases.
Relapse and Remission
Despite these changes, bloodwork results in October 2020 showed that my thyroid levels had risen again. My endocrinologist said she’d never seen that before: Without a functioning thyroid, she explained, thyroid hormone levels don’t rise beyond a normal threshold, even with medication intended to raise them. She suggested I stop taking the medication, because my body was regulating my thyroid hormones on its own. The medication was making them skyrocket.
That’s when I realized that many of my setbacks had been caused not by my diseases but by the treatment. I stopped taking all medication in November 2020, and I’ve been in remission from Graves’ and Hashimoto’s ever since.
Today, the three pillars supporting my health are nutrition, activity, and supplements. Thanks to maintaining this strong foundation, I also entered remission from thyroid eye disease in May 2021.
My functional-medicine doctor believes that my dietary changes have been a critical factor in these positive results and have kept me from developing any additional autoimmune issues. I see her every so often for routine bloodwork, and I visit my ophthalmologist once a year. I’ve been really fortunate to see such dramatic improvement, and I don’t take my health for granted.
Healthwise, I feel like I do after a hike, when I get to look out at a view and feel the reward of all my effort. I plan on beginning a 10-month certification in functional nutrition, and someday I’d like to help people with autoimmune diseases by creating personalized nutrition and lifestyle plans. Even though everyone might not see the same improvements I did, I do believe in the healing power of food and that good nutrition can help everyone over the long term.
Demi’s Top 3 Success Strategies
- Be your own health advocate. Ask questions, seek out different perspectives, and be willing to try a variety of techniques and strategies to find what works best for your body.
- Listen to your body. No one knows it better than you do. What works for someone else might not work for you (and vice versa).
- Remember your end goal. Lifestyle changes aren’t easy. Stay motivated by surrounding yourself with supportive friends and family.
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This article originally appeared as “Food as Medicine” in the July/August 2022 issue of Experience Life.