My Story: Recovery from Gluten-intolerance, PCOS and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease

A few weeks ago, I shared my husband’s story of recovery from mental illness and chronic pain through real food and promised to share more stories of recovery. Soon, I’ll share the story of my son who, raised on real and traditional foods, illustrates that there is hope for true recovery in the next generation.  If you would like to share your story of recovery through real food, please contact me.

My Story

I was born in a small community in Oklahoma to a very young mother, and in the late seventies the world was anything but breastfeeding-friendly and, like most babies of my generation, I was raised on formula.  Colicky and intolerant of milk, I was raised on specifically on soy formula – a food we now understand to be riddled with antinutrients like enzyme inhibitors, goitrogens, endocrine-disruption xenoestrogens and mineral-blocking phytate.  We now know that soy formula is linked to increased risk of thyroid disease, depressed immune response, diabetes and hormonal disruption in adulthood, but, at that time, no one fully understood or recognized these risks.  And as a mother, you do the best you can with what circumstances allow.

Later, I weaned to mayonnaise and white bread sandwiches, m & ms and breakfast cereals.  My saving grace, nutritionally speaking, was a love of liverwurst and anchovies both of which I consumed with abandon until grade school when I learned from my peers that liverwurst and anchovies were “gross.”  By then, the low-fat craze of the eighties and nineties was in full swing and my household was no exception: margarine replaced butter; vegetable oil and shortening replaced traditional cooking fats; chicken came without the skin and blue-tinged skim milk lurked in plastic jugs in the fridge.  We didn’t consume sugar, except on rare occasions, though plenty of artificial sweeteners wormed their way into the home – mostly as Crystal Light.  I remember craving fat so desperately, that, on the rare occasions we had real butter in the house, I’d steal away in the middle of the night and eat it by the spoonful under the cover of a darkness lit only by the pale and lonely refrigerator light.

By middle and high school, I, like most of my eco-conscious and animal-loving peers, toyed with vegetarianism.  I didn’t like what I read about CAFOs, but didn’t understand that there was an alternative.  Mostly, I was uninformed and believed whole-heartedly what I learned in school: that fruit, vegetables and whole grains are the keys to health; that plant-based diets are the only humane and healthy choice, and that the more soy I consumed, the better off I’d be.  It wasn’t too long before I began to get sick.

Tired All the Time, Gaining Weight with No Cause

In college, even though money was tight for me just as it is for all college students, I did my best to eat well – even if that meant spiking my 25-cent Ramen noodles with fresh bok choy and kimchi.  Mostly, however, my diet is best described as whole foods vegetarian with occasional dalliances with fish or chicken when I began to feel nutritionally deprived and the cravings resurfaced.  I should have listened to my body.

By my junior year, I felt sick.  I was gaining weight, despite eating a low-fat diet with plenty of whole grains.  I felt tired all the time, from the moment I woke to when I fell asleep.  Worried, I visited the campus doctors and nurse practicioners who took bloodwork, found nothing abnormal and simply concluded that I was “under stress.”  Only, I didn’t feel particularly stressed out: my studies were easy, I had a loving boyfriend and I was plodding happily along.

Eventually, I just stopped going to the doctor.  Tired of being told time and time again that my fatigue, my weight gain and general malaise was all in my head, I gave up and surrendered to the idea that I’d feel like that for the rest of my life.

The Diagnoses: Gluten Intolerance, Graves Disease, PCOS

A few months after I finished school and took a job, those symptoms I’d give up on started recurring with a ferocity I hadn’t expected.  I tried dieting to lose that extra weight that had mysteriously crept on in the final years of school and I dutifully restricted calories and fat.  I worked out regularly at a local gym.  It didn’t matter.  Now, I wasn’t just tired; I was exhausted.  I wasn’t just gaining a little weight; I gained twenty-five pounds in three months.

At my next wellness visit, my doctor cautioned me not to gain weight so rapidly and urged me to eat low-fat foods, whole grains and to exercise more.  I broke down in his examination room, paper gown and all.  But I do eat right, I implored. I exercise. His eyebrow raised and he suggested that I might suffer from polycystic ovarian syndrome – a condition of infertility affecting approximately 10% of women.  Some blood tests and an ultrasound later and his suspicion was confirmed.  Given the state of my ovaries during the ultrasound, he suggested it would be nearly impossible for me to conceive.

Two years after that initial diagnosis, I still didn’t feel optimally well.  I continued to gain weight, but chalked it up to PCOS.  I was still exhausted, but couldn’t sleep.  I felt jittery nearly all the time, even suffering from tremors.  My stomach was constantly upset, and my digestive health left a lot to be desired.  Bloodwork done at a stray community health fair led to an urgent phone call: TSH (a poor indicator of thyroid health) came back almost undetectable.  They suspected hyperthyroidism, which was later confirmed through full thyroid panels including antithyroid antibodies.  I had autoimmune thyroid disease and was severely ill.

Given the choice between antithyroid pharmaceuticals and ablation of my thyroid by radioactive iodine, I chose pharmaceuticals with the warning from my physician that “it almost always fails.”  She explained that I should give up hope of healing, undergo ablation by radioactive iodine and commit myself to taking medication for the rest of my life.  That wasn’t good enough for me.

Several months under the care of an endocrinologist, my thyroid seemed to recover with hormone levels hovering at normal; yet, I was still sick.   In exasperation, my endocrinologist ran a series of antibody blood tests which resulted in a diagnosis of celiac disease.  At 25, I had been diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, Graves disease and celiac disease. (Of course, now, blood work alone wouldn’t be used for a celiac diagnosis which usually also involves a biopsy – but that’s the diagnosis from my endocrinologist.)

Recovery through Real Food

After the diagnosis of celiac disease, I had direction.  More than the task of taking pills – metformin and yasmin to combat PCOS, tapazole to combat Graves disease – I felt a new sense of control.  There was a way to heal myself through food.  My husband and I dutifully cleaned our cupboards removing any hint of a processed food and we adhered to a gluten-free, whole foods diet.  We also began to better incorporate oily fish into our diet: wild-caught salmon in particular.

Within five months on a whole-foods, gluten-free diet, I was pregnant.  I went to my primary care physician for confirmation only to have her shrug her shoulders and look at me worriedly.  She said, “With your conditions, there’s no way you can be pregnant; it’s more likely there’s something seriously wrong with you.”  Though  tests confirmed elevated levels of hCG in my blood, she refused to confirm the pregnancy until I undertook an ultrasound – believing, instead, that pregnancy was impossible and I was simply very, very ill.  It was two very hard days of worry before they could schedule an ultrasound.  The doctor was wrong, and, sure enough, I was pregnant.  During my pregnancy, I was able to give up the pharmaceuticals and maintain thyroid health.

During my pregnancy, I craved good foods: wild-caught salmon, cottage cheese, butter.  So I steered away from that veg*n diet I toyed with for years and began eating real foods – if only because that’s what my body knew it needed.  After the birth of our very healthy boy, we returned to a gluten-free, whole foods vegetarian diet, but not for long. You see, I eventually found the Nourishing Traditions in an online book swap which led me to the Weston A Price Foundation.

We began adhering to the dietary principles of the Weston A Price Foundation and our health blossomed in a way I never knew possible.  I felt revitalized.  I had energy.  I felt healthy.  Eventually, and with care, I focused on healing my gut in an effort to recover from gluten intolerance just as my naturopath suggested I might.  I consumed bone broths, sauerkrauts and water kefir.  After a time, I was able to tolerate a small amount of properly prepared wheat and spelt: true sourdoughs and sprouted grain flours.  It was a diet very similar to the one outlined in Reversing Food Allergies, an online course offered by a friend of mine who has also successfully healed her sensitivity to food through a strategic approach to that focuses on digestive health.

A Continual Journey

Healing doesn’t take place overnight, but our bodies do have the ability to heal.  They do have the ability to recover from disease, from food sensitivities and from infertility.

For me, it’s a constant struggle.  I still suffer from symptoms of PCOS like overweight, though I menstruate regularly now when I never did before.  I still keep an eye on the health of my thyroid with regular tests and mindfulness toward symptoms (they haven’t recurred and tests have always returned normal).  I’m careful, and I choose to honor my body through real foods, traditionally prepared.

As for food sensitivities, I’ve recently noticed a recurrence in symptoms of celiac disease which has me concerned.  For the last several months we readopted a completely gluten-free diet.  And while I did my best to heal with the knowledge I had, I didn’t follow a strict protocol and omitted key steps necessary for recovery: an introductory diet, therapeutic grade probiotics and strategic detoxing which is why I plan to follow the GAPS diet using the online class Reversing Food Allergies as my guide.

As a culture, we expect immediate results and when we don’t get them, we throw up our hands in surrender.  For me, I understand that my road to recovery is a continual journey of learning.  After all, from the soy formula of my infancy, the low-fat pseudofoods of my childhood to the vegetarianism of my teens and early twenties, I spent twenty-seven years eating wrong. The five years I’ve spent adhering to traditional foods has seen miraculous improvements in my health, but I don’t expect five years of good to undo twenty-seven years of wrong.  It’s a slow process, but one that does offer recovery.