“I believe absolutely that it is in sharing the most vulnerable aspects of our journeys that we support each other to find grace and strength and healing during equally challenging times.”
~ Baden Lashkov
Living a Resilient Autoimmune Life
While all of us would like to be overnight success stories, the autoimmune journey is rarely that simple. Healing isn’t linear. It takes trial and error to find what works for our unique bodies, which hopefully leads to growing improvements over time. Dan Hansen’s story is an inspiring one of strength, resilience, and persistence. He shares the details of his journey with us today.
What were your first symptoms? When did you learn what it was?
My symptoms started very early on. I remember complaining about feeling tired and exhausted when I was just 6 or 7 years old. A few years later, I seemed to get a lot of welts, rashes, and hives from random things…like the metal buttons from my blue jeans, wool sweaters, and Band-Aids. My first patches of psoriasis, to my recollection, showed up in my late teens (seemingly after a few major bouts of strep throat and mega-dose antibiotics). Finally, in my late 30’s and early 40’s, joint pain began to set in. When my joints began to swell and deform, that’s when I finally sought ‘serious’ medical attention. Around the age of 23 or so, I started to piece it together. After an official diagnosis of psoriasis from a family doctor, all the other symptoms started to make sense. Over the next two decades I would continue to receive more diagnoses and really start connecting the dots.
Can you describe what it was like for you when your condition was at its worst?
My typical day at rock bottom was spent lying in bed, most of the day, lacking the energy to get up. Pain levels were unbearable, around 8-20 on a scale of 10. My brain fog was relentless. I struggled greatly to string together thoughts, sentences, and even words on many days. I could eventually pull myself together (most days) to manage 1-3 hours of productivity, at best.
Most of my week was spent in doctor’s offices being poked, prodded, injected, tested, assessed, re-assessed, and x-rayed. I felt like a lab experiment for the better part of 3 years. This process was all for the sake of monitoring efficacy and outcomes regarding the different drug therapies and assess the progression of my disease. It’s a long and stressful ordeal. I would not wish it upon anyone.
What treatment methods did you try before dietary intervention?
I tried both conventional and alternative treatments. Working closely with a dermatologist and rheumatologist, I tried Otezla, methotrexate, and finally Humira. Also an endless roster of OTC and prescription NSAIDs and skin creams. My response to all the drug therapies was very similar: none of them worked for me. In fact my overall disease became much worse, including joint pain, swelling, and damage. I also experienced severe side effects. Brain fog became much worse. I suffered severe upper-respiratory infections, bouts of shingles, relentless nausea, and my energy lows became even lower. Essentially my immune system went on vacation. I experienced some pretty significant bouts of kidney pain on methotrexate, enough to send me to the emergency room. Also I became extremely depressed. I think methotrexate was the worst in that regard, pushing me into seriously dangerous thoughts and plans of suicide. Because of these experiences I chose not to continue on and ‘try the next drug option’. I was done. I didn’t want to live that way any longer. But, as the synchronicity of things would have it, the paleo autoimmune protocol miraculously came into my life – just as I decided I had to find another way.
I was also under the care of a DOM (Doctor of Oriental Medicine) for a time. That consisted of weekly acupuncture sessions, various Chinese herbal remedies, dietary guidance, and philosophical discussion. My response was better than to the conventional drug therapies, in that at least Chinese medicine didn’t make me feel worse. Unfortunately, it didn’t make me feel better either. The acupuncture was relaxing, but led to no long-term improvements. I stuck with it for around 8 months or so. I would consider trying it again in the future, now that my health baseline has improved.
Which healing diet(s) did you choose?
I first attempted Dr. Pagano’s dietary recommendations from his book, Healing Psoriasis. I saw marginal to no improvement. Next I attempted a no sugar, no grain diet under the advisement of my D.O.M./Acupuncturist. Again, very little improvement. But then, finally, I found the AIP!
How fast did you see results?
Within 2 or 5 days. I immediately felt a 10-15% increase in energy. My brain fog began to lift, by about 15-20%. My joint pain went from 15 to 7. I began to lose excess weight. After three months on AIP, I felt about 30% better but had hit a plateau.
That’s when I sought the help of a functional health coach: Ryan Monahan of The Mindful Nutrivore. This is when things really turned around for me. There is significant value in having someone guide you. I believe it’s an essential step in fact. There are just so many variables, so many little things that need to get dialed in, and they’re all unique to the individual. Although some are capable of achieving this on their own, I certainly wasn’t, especially with the brain fog I was still experiencing. I needed someone else to sift through all the little biochemical and nutritional details.
What other areas of your health improved simultaneously?
At rock bottom, I was around 50-60+ lbs. overweight. The heaviest I’d ever been. I didn’t start AIP looking to lose weight. However, I did lose most of that excess weight in a relatively short amount of time. It was a little frightening at first. I started to increase my calorie intake with additional carbohydrates, starchy vegetables and fruit, to ensure a more healthful decrease in weight.
Losing the extra weight had the added benefit of improving my insulin resistance/metabolic syndrome. I didn’t realize this was a problem at the time. Better blood sugar regulation ultimately improved my energy levels, mood, and brain fog. This was a nice surprise. I didn’t understand how being overweight was impacting my health on so many levels and exacerbating my primary autoimmune conditions.
What symptoms still remain?
Unfortunately, I experienced some significant joint damage before and during seeking medical intervention. I have the form of psoriasis where it has set into my all of my joints: fingers and toes, my spine, my neck, my hips, along with plaques. Before AIP, I also had significant skin involvement over 15% of my body: on my fingers, elbows, scalp, tops of my feet, and some other very uncomfortable areas.
Where I’ve seen the most improvement is in the joint pain and swelling and with patches of plaques significantly reduced. In fact, I have stretches of remission now where I have no plaques. I would estimate that, during times of remission, or even just good days, my overall body pain, including joint pain has gone from a 15 to a 3, sometimes almost a 1.
However, I really do have to stay on top of lifestyle and diet. This includes exercise, stress management, sleep, and eating clean 100% of the time, all of the time. That is the price of admission for me to live a mostly ‘normal’ life. And I’m totally cool with that. It’s worth it and much better than the alternative. I estimate I’m at around 75-90% remission at this point. When I stay on top of things (as mentioned above), I’m around 90%. And I do continue to see improvements in symptoms, flare severity, frequency, and overall baseline health.
What other things do you do outside of diet to support your health and healing?
- Family time. Everyday. Nothing is more important than family in my book.
- Gratitude: I keep a gratitude journal. I believe it’s crucial to find gratitude for what I have and for what life has presented, chronic illness and all.
- Music. It’s always been a great healer, extremely cathartic and massively therapeutic.
- Spirituality is central to my life. This means a lot of different things to everyone. To me it means centering myself, as often as possible, and getting my mind quiet enough to truly understand the temporary and transitory ‘truth’ of things. I mean, I just can’t take it all so seriously anymore. Another way of saying this is the small things are what matter. I’ll go out on a limb and say, they are the only things that matter. For me, this was the greatest lesson learned from getting sick and being knocked down, hard, by autoimmune disease.
- Exercise: I try to remain as active as I possibly can. I experienced some pretty significant exercise intolerance in the beginning of all of this. But I slowly built back my tolerance by doing a little activity every day. Now, I make time to get on the treadmill and/or do some resistance activities several times per week. And on those energy-zapping autoimmune flare days, I do some house cleaning, regardless.
- Epsom salts baths are vital for a gentle detox assist and to soak the sore bones, joints, and muscles when a flare occurs.
- One last thing. The use of a light therapy box in the winter months has been very helpful for me. I notice an improvement with my circadian rhythm pattern (sleep/wake cycle) when I use this. It’s essential during the winter months. I live in a more Northern part of the US with very few daylight hours from October – February.
Are you on any prescription medication now?
I have an old, 30-day supply bottle of Meloxicam (prescription-strength Ibuprofen), that is still half full. I take, on average, 1 per month and some months not at all. I used to take 1-2 per day. I mostly have success attenuating inflammation with natural compounds like curcumin and Yogi Ginger Tea. But this all largely depends on circumstance and timing.
How strict were/are you on the dietary protocol? Any “cheats”?
By the time I found AIP, I had hit my own personal health rock-bottom. Therefore, 100% compliance was easy for me. I had nowhere to go but up and there was no looking back. More importantly, getting well for the sake of my family was a huge motivator.
Do you intend to do this diet forever, or do you hope to wean yourself off it eventually?
At this point I’ve been observing the AIP template for just over 3 years. I have been able to reintroduce many nutritious foods: eggs, seeds (fruit/berry and spices), oats (oatmeal), and most importantly COFFEE! Unfortunately, I’ve tried reintroducing nightshades and dairy many times and experienced some significant reactions. So these are still a no-go for me and potentially may never be on the reintro menu. However, diet is key in autoimmune management. Therefore, my personal version of AIP (including the reintroduced foods I can personally tolerate) will always be part of my life.
What were/are the challenges for you in sticking to the diet?
Overall, I truly didn’t find it a challenge to stick with the AIP template. I was so grateful to finally find something that helped my condition! The typically perceived common challenges (batch cooking, shopping, not being able to go to many of my previously favorite restaurants) was simply the work required to start feeling better. It was something finally within my control. Admittedly, a big part of this attitude is potentially tied to my great support system, as discussed in the next question.
Who supports you in your healing journey?
My family and friends have all been very supportive. But without question my wife has been instrumental in my healing journey. When I decided to start AIP she started right along with me. She was fine with throwing out all the junk food, not going to our favorite restaurants anymore, and cooking 99.9% of our meals at home. Fortunately, we both love to cook. Honestly, I’m very certain I couldn’t have done it without her. Pets (aka. fur/feather kids) can be vital in this journey as well. Especially if you consider them as part of the family like we do.
What advice would you give to people with autoimmune disease who are just starting to consider diet and lifestyle changes?
Find a support system, whatever that means to you. Friends, family, real or virtual support groups, it all counts. This will look different for everyone.
There is no fast track to recovery. It simply is not possible to ‘undo’ a lifetime of compromised health in a matter of days or weeks, or even months. Yes, many can and will see results sooner than later. But from my experience, most of us with chronic illness need to decide we are in this healing journey for the long haul. This means making a conscious decision that our health is a priority, arguably THE priority. The way I see it, you must take care of yourself and put your health and well-being front and center. It’s challenging to show up for anyone or anything else if your health is pulling you down and not being kept in check. I don’t want to make it sound like there are not challenges, there will be. But attitude and gratitude about what we have and what we stand to lose can really make a difference. Yes, it will take work, but it is possible as evidenced from all the AIP success stories.
Finally, everyone’s healing journey will look different. Everyone’s ‘best health’ and what they are able to achieve will be unique to them. This is okay. Don’t compare yourself to others. Some of us may need to continue taking drugs to assist our health, and some of us won’t. Some of us may need intermittent medical help. Whatever the journey looks like is okay. Simply decide to make your health a priority and do the best you can. That’s all anyone can ask.
Dan and Sid, an umbrella cockatoo who became part of his family 5 years ago.
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