By Andrea Howe
I’ve seen the inside of doctor’s offices more this past year than I ever have in my life, which is saying a lot, considering I’ve given birth three times. Plagued with persistent strep throat, 7 episodes in the last year alone, and chronic fatigue that most days I couldn’t shake, I’ve felt like a complete stranger in my own body. For years I’ve been the epitome of health, rarely getting sick, exercising on a consistent basis, and in the past 18 months, completely overhauling my diet to eliminate processed and fast foods and switch to a total “real food” diet. Mentally, I was generally a happy person, with motivation, drive, and focus. This new me was constantly tired, grumpy, and irritable, and lazy as hell. I continually missed deadlines at work, had zero focus so that I typically got lost on the internet instead of crossing things off my to-do list, and even the most mundane of tasks felt overwhelming, leaving me to bounce several checks and leave bills unpaid. This new me sucked, and I desperately wanted to kick her to the curb.
After a bout of strep throat that knocked me out for a week and felt impossible to rebound from, I finally decided to make some time for me, and head in to see a specialist. I wasn’t surprised when she advised the “simplest” way to treat my recurrent strep was by taking out my tonsils, after all, my son had just had his tonsils taken out less than a year ago. But I pushed, because at age 38, getting one’s tonsils out is not so simple. And after being somewhat of a pain in the ass, taking up an hour of her time when the usual appointments are a speedy 15 minutes, I pretty much begged her to hear me out and help me figure out why I felt like crap all the time, and why I was getting sick so often. Because she either sympathized with me, or just wanted me out of her office, she ordered a complete CBC blood work-up, which revealed some interesting information.
Turns out, my white blood cell count and platelets were extremely low, which explained why I was having such a hard time fighting off or rebounding from infections. My TSH levels, which is the thyroid hormone, were also slightly off, which could be an explanation for some of the other symptoms I had been experiencing. For those not familiar, the thyroid has a role to play in every single cell of our body and influences the function of some pretty vital organs including the liver, heart, brain, kidneys, and skin, and when it’s not working properly, you’re not working properly.
The results of my blood work landed me in the offices of both a hematologist and an endocrinologist. Things start to take on a tone of more seriousness once you find yourself in the waiting room of specialists who deal with blood cancers and diabetes. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t start to feel uneasy and scared. But after countless vials of blood were drawn, resulting in a battery of tests for things as far reaching as HIV and mono, I finally got the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s.
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease where the immune system literally thinks the thyroid gland is an invader, and attacks it. Usually what happens as a result is the thyroid gland starts to overproduce the thyroid hormones, putting a person in hyperactive thyroid mode, until it eventually burns out, and then the person becomes hypoactive. My symptoms were a bit all over the place, and were a likely result of my immune system just working overboard so that I was constantly tired and out of sorts.
Despite millions of people, mostly women, suffering from thyroid disorders, it’s considered somewhat of a benign issue since it’s often not life threatening. Meanwhile, those who suffer through it end up feeling like crap most of the time, because their symptoms are often passed off, misdiagnosed, or left untreated. In my case, my endocrinologist saw no reason to treat me since my symptoms and numbers aren't "bad enough," but also told me there was really nothing I could do to ease the symptoms, and halt or reverse the autoimmune response. I’m sort of a stubborn pain in the ass though, and refused to believe that to be true.
After a lot of research on my own, I found that treatment plans do indeed exist for Hashimoto’s, beyond pharmaceuticals and my doctor’s desired approach to just “wait and see.” I’ve found a great Integrative Doctor in my area who believes in the benefits of both Western and Eastern medicine, and takes a holistic approach as well. After months of waiting, in just one visit she already has me on a viable treatment plan of supplements and slight dietary adjustments, including eliminating all gluten. The dietary changes alone already have me feeling almost back to normal.
Because the gluten molecular structure so closely resembles that of the thyroid, the body will rise up to not only attack the gluten molecule but also increase attack on the thyroid, further damaging it. By getting rid of gluten, I am essentially calming down or at least not aggravating the autoimmune response to attack my thyroid gland.
And to think, if I hadn’t persisted the first time, I may have found myself in a surgery room, getting my tonsils out, left with a horrible recovery and a mountain of debt. As women and mothers, we often get caught up in the cycle of putting others' needs before our own, taking care of everyone else, meanwhile ignoring our own bodies and what they need. I’m glad I finally stopped and listened to what my body was so desperately trying to tell me. And I’m sure glad I didn’t roll over and accept what numerous doctors were trying to tell me to do. One day I’m sure women will no longer be considered pushy or annoying when we advocate for ourselves and refuse to accept subpar as status quo. Until then, remember to always listen to your gut, and refuse to be afraid of being a pain in your doctor’s side. You are worth it. One million times over and over again, you are worth it.
Andrea Howe is a Southern California native and is married to her college sweetheart. Together they have 3 children, and she writes about style, DIY, food & wellness, and how to make it all a little less complicated, and a lot more approachable. She was recently diagnosed with Hashimoto’s, an autoimmune disease which attacks the thyroid gland. As a result, she’s attempting a gluten-free lifestyle, which is a miserable feat most days. You can read about her misadventures living a healthier lifestyle on her blog www.fortheloveof.net.