In 2012, rheumatoid arthritis hit my life like a wrecking ball. I went from a fit, healthy woman who worked full-time as a massage therapist and hiked on the weekends for fun, to someone who limped crossing her living room and didn’t have the strength in her hands and wrists to wash dishes. I was introduced to a level of pain so unlike any I had experienced before that I think it deserves its own word. I woke up in the morning feeling 90 years old, and that was the good part of my day. Every night like clockwork, a joint would flare so extremely that I would have to immobilize it or I would be gasping and crying with pain. If it was my wrist, it went into a brace. If it was my shoulder, it went into a sling. If it was my knee, I could no longer support my weight. And if it was my jaw, I couldn’t open my mouth to speak or to eat. Painkillers barely took the edge off. The doctors called this "rapid and severe onset". I was 43 years old and had experienced hard things, but this was the first time I didn't know if I would survive it. That's when I chose the symbol of the Phoenix, the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes. I felt like I was on fire from within and desperately needed hope. The phoenix embodied that hope.
Food as Medicine
Sometimes, intense challenges open us up to things we wouldn't have considered in the past. That's what happened to me. I was willing to try anything to feel better. In the past, I always pitied people with food restrictions. Now, I was wide open to the idea of a healing diet if it could restore my health. It seemed easy compared to the life I was living. The GAPS Diet was the first diet that made a difference. After months of inflammation increasing day by day, I felt something shift. My inflammation started to lower instead. It was an incredible relief and led to slow and steady improvements. I was able to reduce my painkillers, I started to have energy again, and I was able to return to work part-time. I wasn't back to full health, but I was no longer living in excruciating pain.
After 5 months, my progress plateaued, and that's when I tried The Paleo Autoimmune Protocol. It made a dramatic difference. Identifying my remaining food triggers eliminated 95% of my pain, allowing me to function at a level I had forgotten. In addition to working full-time again, I was back to hiking on the weekends and savoring my life. I also stopped having flares for two solid years. However, I wasn't cured, nor was I in complete remission. But the blessing was that RA was just a whisper in my body where it used to be a scream.
In addition to diet, I also prioritized an anti-inflammatory lifestyle. Meditation became a regular part of my life. Now that pain was no longer an obstacle to sleep, I established a bedtime routine to get the best quality sleep I could. I focused on gentle detoxification through Epsom salt baths and lymph drainage therapy. I focused on emotional healing and also made time for joy. Life was good, and I was grateful.
In 2016, RA raised its voice in my body again. I hit perimenopause and simultaneously, I started having miniature RA flares. They reminded me of RA onset but they were much less severe (thankfully). The inflammation moved around my body from joint to joint, but I didn’t need to immobilize joints or take additional painkillers. However, something else happened which was new and frightening – I started experiencing rapid joint changes simultaneously. I lost my ability to make a fist as well as significant range of motion in my left shoulder. I took steps to try to balance my hormones, but it didn't stop the RA progression. Until now, I had been medication-free. I made the decision to start immunosuppressant medication. I’ll be honest with you: that was a really hard decision for me to make. I had hoped to be able to avoid medication, but I came to realize that if I wanted to live a healthy life, I needed to stop the damage that was happening to my body. Medication could help me do that. It didn’t have to be an either/or choice. You can read about my medication journey here: part 1 and part 2.
What does my life look like today? I've now lived with rheumatoid arthritis for over a decade. I've had long periods of remission, and I've also navigated flares and setbacks. While there is no cure for autoimmune disease, I manage my health very well. I have many more good days than bad, and I've never returned to the pain I experienced in the beginning.
While I wouldn't have wished for this disease, I now see it has brought me gifts alongside the challenges. I have been introduced to an inner strength and bravery I never knew I had. I have a deep gratitude for the health and abilities I've regained. I no longer take anything for granted. I've learned to let perfectionism go and replace it with self-compassion. (This is a work in progress.) Most importantly, I've gained confidence in my own resilience, knowing that if and when a flare arises, I know how to navigate it and love myself through it.
I still follow a healing diet, personalized to me. I enjoy some AIP meals because they're nutritious and delicious, but I've also reintroduced many non-AIP (and a few non-paleo) foods successfully. That's the goal with a long-term healing diet. I always focus on nutrient-density, because that's what my body needs to thrive. And I enjoy more food freedom when I travel, although I always stay strictly gluten-free.
Mindset has become such a big part of my approach that I wrote a book about it. Autoimmune disease is challenging, so supporting our mental health alongside our physical health is essential. There's also an added benefit. The mind-body connection is real. So when we use mind-body techniques to manage stress and soothe our minds, we simultaneously send an anti-inflammatory cascade through our bodies.
I now have 10 years of healthy habits that no longer feel like work. Instead, they bring more joy to my life as well as wellness. And I'm very grateful for integrative medicine, because autoimmune health wasn't possible for me without it.
Your recipe for autoimmune resilience may look different from mine. We all have so much in common, but we're also unique. It takes experimentation to find the habits and interventions that benefit us the most. It's a journey of self-discovery that's definitely worth the effort. If you're just starting this journey, welcome! Never underestimate your ability to rise. We all have a phoenix within us.
Read the Details of My Journey Here
I’m neither a doctor nor a dietitian. I’m just a woman who believes that our choices are powerful, and we can affect our health positively or negatively by the food we eat, and the life we live. As someone with an autoimmune disease, I’m very motivated to take care of myself, and the internet is a wonderful resource to find knowledge and to share our healing stories. This website is designed to chronicle my own health journey, share what I learn in the process, and connect with others on a similar path. However, results will vary from person to person, and nothing I write here is a replacement for medical advice. If you are looking for a healthcare team to guide you on your healing journey, here are some excellent resources. May we all find wellness.