“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
It took 16 years and multiple hospital visits before Jenny Woch received her diagnosis of autoimmune pancreatitis. Once she realized her condition was autoimmune, she decided to try the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). After doing the elimination phase for 2.5 months, she returned to the gastroenterologist for follow-up testing. Her tests came back healthy and showed that the damage to her pancreas had healed. Simultaneously, the AIP also eliminated the asthma and eczema she had suffered from for years. Her doctor told her to keep doing what she was doing. That was six years ago. Since then, she’s reintroduced many foods successfully back into her diet, and has a personalized diet and lifestyle that supports her wellbeing. She shares the details in this interview.
What were your first symptoms?
When I was 16 years old, I felt an intense pain in my upper abdomen and then became very ill (vomiting and diarrhea). It was excruciating. An ambulance was called and I was rushed to the hospital. I was given morphine and anti-nausea meds via IV in the ambulance, and the episode passed by the time I arrived at the hospital. Aside from exhaustion for a couple of days I completely bounced back.
These acute attacks seemed to occur randomly every 3-5 years. They were always extremely severe where I’d be rushed to the hospital. At first, the doctors thought my spleen was twisting upon itself and then releasing. Since the attack would always pass and they occurred infrequently, and I was young and otherwise healthy, the doctors didn’t do much testing and no diagnosis was made.
When did you learn what it was?
In 2009, 16 years later, I had the worst attack yet and spent 4 days in the hospital. That’s when I was diagnosed with pancreatitis. The doctors were confused by it though, as typically it occurred in older men, heavy drinkers, and/or people with kidney or gallstones. I did not fit the criteria. Another attack occurred in 2012 during the early stages of pregnancy. In the emergency room, they told me I likely miscarried, but fortunately they were wrong. Bodies are incredible and somehow miraculously, my little one weathered the storm. In 2017, another attack almost killed me. My IGG4 serum was elevated as was my lipase, and this was when I was diagnosed with autoimmune pancreatitis.
What role has medication played in your autoimmune journey?
I dislike taking medication of any kind, but during acute attacks, I gratefully take whatever pain medicine and anti-nausea medication I’m offered. For lesser flares, I manage my symptoms naturally.
Which healing diet(s) did you try, and what were the results?
Once I was diagnosed with autoimmune pancreatitis, the doctors recommended a prednisone steroid. That is the standard treatment, but the list of side effects concerned me greatly. I chose to try the Paleo Autoimmune Protocol instead. When I was tested again after 2.5 months of the elimination phase, my GI doctor was shocked that everything looked good, and in particular that my damaged pancreas had healed. I was told to keep doing whatever I had been doing. I did begin successful reintroductions. I continue to have to monitor what I eat or don’t eat. I know very quickly if I’ve had something my body doesn’t like. For pancreatitis, I’m also careful to avoid too much fat, even the good fats.
Since beginning AIP in 2017, I had two acute attacks in 2020, but these attacks were not as severe as previous attacks and I also bounced back more quickly. I have no doubt this is due to my careful diet and lifestyle.
Beyond autoimmune symptoms, did other areas of health improve with dietary changes?
I used to take the lowest dose of Flovent (an asthma medication) once a day since around age 19. When I ran out, I’d sometimes test the waters to see if I really needed it. Always within a few days, my breathing would get tight and I’d cough more, so I’d refill my prescription. After starting AIP, at some point I ran out of Flovent and didn’t refill the prescription. I have not needed it since. My asthma is gone! Also, I used to have eczema on my elbows, and that went away too!
What does your diet look like today?
Dairy-free and gluten-free. Low sugar, low alcohol, and low caffeine. Very limited processed foods, and if I do eat them, I make sure I know what every ingredient actually is. I eat lots of plants and variety. I try to follow Dr. Terry Wahls’ recommendation of 9 cups of fruits and vegetables a day. For protein, I eat mostly fish, but some meat (organ meat when possible). I also drink water first thing in the morning and before every meal, plus whenever I walk in the kitchen throughout the day.
What other things do you do outside of diet to support your health and healing?
I began exercising every morning in the beginning of 2020. I do a combination of weights, cardio, and yoga. I also walk 4-6 days a week. I sleep 7+ hours a night. I do red light therapy 20 minutes a day. I end my showers with 1 minute of cold water. I take time to journal my gratitude, wins, and losses. I prioritize time outdoors and time with people I love. I also take some daily supplements including vitamin d, zinc, b-complex, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium.
What symptoms still remain?
Most of the time I feel like there is a band around my upper abdomen. In 2020, I was told my pancreas is slightly enlarged. I also struggle with low energy much of the time. All of this is always a work in progress, and some days are better than others.
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 was sick a lot as a child. I had meningitis and a severe staph infection. I had been on steroids as a child as well as many antibiotics. These things may or may not have affected my overall health, I don’t know for sure.
Who supports you in your healing journey?
My kids, my extended family, and my friends. I’m very fortunate for their support.
What’s the hardest part of maintaining a healing lifestyle for you?
It has become such a part of who I am, that for the most part it is not hard anymore. Sometimes though, I’d like to eat the treats at Christmas or the pizza at a party. One of the hardest parts is choosing food at restaurants that I think will be safe for me. Also, I feel added stress when I go on vacation because I’m not sure what the food situation will be like. I always have to plan ahead and bring food with me whenever possible.
What advice would you give to people with autoimmune disease who are just starting to consider diet and lifestyle changes?
I began the AIP diet because I was desperate to heal my body and avoid medication side effects. I was determined to stick it out for 2.5 months (the time to my next testing with my GI doctor). I think committing to do the changes for a certain period of time helps. It gives an end goal. If you experience positive results like I did, you will want to stick with it, at least in some form!
With lifestyle, I recommend starting small. When I started daily workouts, my only goal was to get on the elliptical for 20 minutes, whether I went slow or with no resistance, didn’t matter. The goal was just to do it. To create the habit. After many months I wanted more. The habit was there and it grew naturally.
Be patient, change takes time. Remind yourself often why you are making these changes. It sounds intense, but when I was tempted to eat something I knew wasn’t in the protocol, I’d think about the pain it would likely cause and the fact that it might just kill me by bringing on an attack.
Lastly, always have back-up food readily available so it’s an easy choice.
What does autoimmune resilience mean to you?
Your body may be storming, but you can take care of it, you can help it. There are things within our control, within our power, to heal ourselves. It might not be perfect, but it can be better. Better is a real option.
You can connect with Jenny through Instagram @pancreas_and_panoptic_health.
Jenny and her son, Caerwyn.
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