“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
Elise Chan has suffered from alopecia, eczema, and osteoarthritis. For a long time, she attributed it to stress, and stress does influence her symptoms. But when she had a chance to research further, she realized diet might be a root cause as well. She turned to the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol and got dramatic results.
What were your first symptoms? When did you learn what it was?
Itchy, red, swollen hands from eczema. Swollen joints and limited mobility with the arthritis in my right thumb and left big toe. With the alopecia, I started to lose my hair in patches about the size of a quarter, then they grew to the size of a half-dollar. I did not know that it was autoimmune-related until recently. I thought all three issues were stress-related. During COVID-19 Shelter in Place, I had the time to do the research and realized that the symptoms flared when I reached perimenopause, and hormone shifts can impact autoimmunity.
Can you describe what it was like for you when your condition was at its worst?
My hands were the most difficult symptom. At their worst, they were bleeding and weeping. It was unsightly and painful. At work, I would try to hide my hands so people wouldn’t see, and I sometimes wore gloves to prevent the drainage from getting on important papers. With alopecia, children in my neighborhood were the first to notice and ask me what was happening. All I could say was, “I don’t know.”
What treatment methods did you try before dietary intervention – conventional or alternative?
I gave up eggs and all the common potential allergens, but I was not strict at first. I tried cream for the eczema, but it did not work. I tried to increase my protein intake for the alopecia. My nutritionist suggested that I give up carbohydrates and sugar for the arthritis and that seemed to help a bit. I went on the Keto diet for a bit, but I run triathlons and as an endurance athlete, it was not sustainable. I also tried acupuncture, but it did not have an impact for my conditions.
Which healing diet(s) did you choose?
The Paleo Autoimmune Protocol. Time at home during the pandemic allowed me to really focus on healing and commit to doing the AIP elimination phase 100%.
How fast did you see results?
Right away. Once I fully committed to the AIP, I saw results in less than a week. It helped everything: eczema, alopecia, and arthritis. The eczema is completely gone. If I cheat and have grain or sugar, it will come back first. The alopecia responded very well to the diet too, but it can also get triggered by stress. I still have osteoarthritis, but it’s not as painful as it was before AIP.
Beyond autoimmune symptoms, did other areas of health improve?
What symptoms still remain?
Sometimes, when I am stressed, the eczema and alopecia will crop up again. But now I know what to do. Stress management is part of my healing as well.
What other things do you do outside of diet to support your health and healing?
What role has medication played in your journey?
I have not taken any at all.
How strict were/are you on the dietary protocol? Any “cheats”?
When I began in March of 2020, I was very strict for about one year. But I have been able to reintroduce some things (nuts and seeds). Now, once in a while, I will cheat when we go out for a meal, but then I will go back to cooking at home and no cheats.
Do you intend to do this diet forever, or do you hope to wean yourself off it eventually?
What were/are the challenges for you in sticking to the diet?
No dairy, no grain, and no sugar. I have learned to make my own almond milk and that has been a game-changer, but eating with friends can feel awkward. I’ve become more comfortable with questions about my diet. I keep the answers brief if they’re simply curious, but if they really want to know more, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned.
Who supports you in your healing journey?
The online AIP communities have been really helpful, along with reading up on literature regarding autoimmune disease. I also have friends who have various types of cancer and I sometimes tell them about my journey and introduce them to novel recipes and products that are AIP-compliant. I have one friend who was particularly overwhelmed when his doctor told him to reduce inflammation by eliminating the whole list of foods that are linked to inflammation. His wife is pregnant and she was working full time and cooking for the two of them. I told them about cassava flour, sweet potato noodles, and smoothies. Knowing healthy swaps makes a big difference.
With autoimmune disease, there are many potential triggers and root causes. Were there any events in your life that you think contributed to your diagnosis?
I started to lose my hair when I started a stressful corporate job. I also lost my hair when I was first pregnant. I developed eczema when I started a second demanding corporate job. And my symptoms flared again during perimenopause. So, stress and hormone shifts have been triggers for me.
What advice would you give to people with autoimmune disease who are just starting to consider diet and lifestyle changes?
I would say: start slowly and then go in 100%. Be sure to lean on the community, because it will not be easy. Don’t take it to heart when others make discouraging comments. Just move on and don’t invest energy in being upset by their attitudes. You will always have detractors. Keep a food journal and note the effects of the dietary changes including sleep, mood, and ability to focus. Those improvements will keep you going.
Elise with her husband and son
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