“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
Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disease that affects over 10 million people in the US alone. Damaging the thyroid gland, it creates symptoms so wide-ranging and confusing that it can be hard to diagnose. Sophie Van Tiggelen’s first symptoms were unexplained panic attacks. Neither she nor her doctor knew the thyroid was the cause. By the time she was diagnosed, she was also experiencing body-wide pain, exhaustion, depression, insomnia, brain fog, and myriad digestive issues. She discovered the paleo autoimmune protocol (AIP) in 2012, and her symptoms immediately began to improve. She went from being unable to work or care for her children, to feeling 95% better. She shares her story with us today.
What were your first symptoms? When did you learn what it was?
Mt first symptoms appeared suddenly, out of nowhere, after a minor outpatient surgery in 2009. A few days after the procedure, I woke up in the middle of the night in the throws of a full-blown panic attack. Up until that moment, I had never suffered from anxiety in my life.
After that first episode, I suffered from anxiety and panic attacks on a daily basis for months, developed severe insomnia (only sleeping 1-2 hours per night) and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I was a mess and nobody could figure out what was wrong with me. After several trips to our local emergency room, I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication. While this helped with the panic attacks, it did not prevent the deterioration of my health. My thyroid was painful and swollen, and I continued to struggle with anxiety, sleep problems, weight fluctuation, fatigue, brain fog, and hair loss.
What looked like a serious case of anxiety disorder turned out to be, in fact, the first symptoms of my illness. It was only several months later, after many tests and doctor consultations, that I was finally diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease.
Can you describe what it was like for you, when your condition was at its worst?
When my condition was at its worst, I could not function like a “normal” person anymore. I was unable to work, accomplish household tasks around the house, or care for my kids. My husband, who was working full time and traveling a lot for his job, had to take care of the children, shop for food, prepare meals, and do the laundry! I was utterly exhausted all the time. All the energy I had left, which was very little, was used to consult with a string of doctors. Needless to say, this put a strain on our family, financially and emotionally.
Here is a list of the symptoms I was experiencing at the time: anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, heart palpitations, intense fatigue, depression, crippling brain fog, impaired memory, joint pain, bloating, constipation, weight fluctuation, aches and pains all over my body, hair loss, dry skin, swollen limbs, itchy skin, swollen thyroid, mucus over-production.
What treatment methods did you try before dietary intervention?
At the beginning, I consulted with several conventional medicine doctors. Unfortunately, their answer was always to give me anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants. Then, they gave me even more medication to counteract the side effects of the first medication! They ordered blood tests, urine tests, saliva tests, electro-cardiograms … and everything came back “normal”, with some signs of adrenal fatigue. I kept changing doctors, hoping that one might finally find what ailed me. At that time, I was taking a lot of different medication without getting better.
The turning point for me was when I started working with a functional medicine practitioner. I decided to drop all my medication cold-turkey and approach my healing in a more natural and holistic way. I don’t know if I would recommend someone abruptly stop taking mood altering medication as the withdrawal symptoms were intense and painful. But with the help of my holistic doctor, true healing began. We did extensive testing to correctly assess my thyroid hormone levels. That’s when we discovered that I had Hashimoto’s disease. I began a healing regimen including chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture, massages, supplements, and behavioral therapy for my PTSD.
Which healing diet(s) did you choose?
After my first health crisis in 2009, my holistic doctor advised me to clean-up my diet and I went gluten-free, thinking that it would be enough. Unfortunately my health continued to deteriorate and in 2012, I experienced a second health setback in the form of severe joint pain. Once again the onset of symptoms was sudden and very intense. I couldn’t walk anymore because the pain in my lower right ankle was excruciating. I searched online and found the paleo diet, and shortly after the autoimmune protocol (AIP). I read stories from other people who had been successful at reversing their autoimmune disease, so I decided to start the AIP diet in August 2012. I have been on it since then.
How fast did you see results?
Most of my symptoms improved almost immediately, especially the joint pain. However I didn’t experience the legendary “energy boost” most people report feeling when starting the paleo diet. In fact, I continued to struggle for several months with fatigue and sluggishness. Eventually, I regained my energy but the process was slow.
I also experienced a tremendous relief from anxiety within days of starting the AIP diet. My head cleared-up and the brain fog lifted. My sleep patterns returned to normal, and I was able to stop my behavioral therapy because I no longer needed it.
What symptoms still remain?
Very few, and they’re mostly related to self-care. I still have sensitive joints that are prone to hurt when I exert myself too much or practice a high impact activity like running. Some symptoms will also come back, to a lesser degree, when my autoimmune system gets triggered and I have a flare up. This will happen for instance if I get sick, after a particularly stressful event, or if I inadvertently eat a food that will elicit an autoimmune response (while eating out at a restaurant for example). However the flares are much less intense than before and they tend to disappear more quickly. I attribute this to the fact that the AIP has successfully diminished the systemic inflammation in my body, allowing my gut to heal, and progressively lowering the antibodies attacking my thyroid.
I also have to stay on top of my relaxation, meditation, and sleep to keep the anxiety in check. I won’t go into a panic attack if I skip a day, but without regular practice of stress relief techniques, I can feel the tension building up.
Overall, my symptoms have improved 95%.
What other areas of your health improved simultaneously?
For as long as I can remember, I had been struggling to maintain a healthy weight. Always on the heavy side, I was battling with relentless sugar cravings, pushing me to snack all day long on sugary treats. As a result I was very self-conscious and often uncomfortable in my own skin. I tried several diets after my pregnancies, but after a short period of time, the pounds would always come back, and then some. Things have completely changed though with the AIP diet! As I started to eat nutrient-dense, wholesome foods, the extra weight came off easily, and I am no longer dealing with sugar cravings. My digestion improved as well, and I no longer suffer from bloating, gas, and constipation.
Then, later on, I noticed that a number of little aches and pains, that I thought were normal, had disappeared as well. I am talking about seasonal allergies, PMS and menstrual cramps, headaches, pimples and skin rashes, frequent sinus infections, back pain, neck pain, etc.
What areas feel immune to the effect of diet?
There is really no area that I feel hasn’t been greatly improved with the AIP diet! I would even say that my entire family has benefited from the autoimmune protocol!
What other things do you do outside of diet to support your healing?
Many things: relaxation/guided meditations, moderate exercise, supplements, massage, infrared sauna, plentiful sleep, and a bedtime routine that promotes healthy circadian rhythms. All of this has been important to my healing.
Are you on thyroid medication? If yes, did it take some trial and error to find the best one for you?
Yes, I started taking Armour Thyroid in 2011, which is 2 years after I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s. Between 2009 and 2011, I tried to address my hypothyroidism with supplements, lifestyle changes, and by taking gluten completely out of my diet. While we tried to “make it work”, I was not improving enough and my overall health was still deteriorating. My thyroid was simply too damaged to be able to function properly.
I have always been against taking medication, and I have had a hard time accepting my thyroid prescription. However, my energy and well-being quickly improved after I started taking Armour. While the medication didn’t address the root cause of my autoimmune disease, it helped me function better, and most probably prevented other symptoms creeping up on me.
How strict were/are you on the dietary protocol? Any “cheats”?
For a very long time, I was very strict with my AIP diet. It was easy to stick with the protocol because my symptoms were still prominent and very noticeable. When I started to get better and feel “normal” again, I relaxed my diet a little bit. I have reintroduced spices in the form of some convenience foods like bacon, sausages, and pickles. While manufacturers never give you a complete list of the spices they use, often it is pepper and paprika. I have also reintroduced chocolate and coffee in small amounts.
Do you intend to do this diet forever, or do you hope to wean yourself off it eventually?
My intention at this point is to continue the AIP diet as long as I can. I feel so good on the autoimmune protocol that I have no desire to eat differently. I do not intend to go back to eating gluten and processed food. I know that it would put me right back to where I started. I think that while sticking to my baseline diet, I will allow myself some splurges from time to time, like some rice at a sushi place, or a good handcrafted cappuccino.
What were/are the challenges for you in sticking to the diet?
The biggest challenge to sticking to this diet is myself and my own motivation. In my case, my health was terrible, I was in a lot of pain, and I was scared. I made the decision that I wanted to get better for myself and for my loved ones. When you are determined enough, you can overcome the obstacles that will arise on the autoimmune protocol. And the best way to stick to your guns is to be prepared! Be creative and develop strategies to always have safe food on hand and ready to eat. Don’t put yourself in a position where you will become so hungry that you might be forced to eat something that will cause an autoimmune flare.
Who supports you in your healing journey?
First of all, I am very fortunate that I found a knowledgeable functional medicine practitioner to work with. He is well versed in autoimmune conditions and has been instrumental in my healing journey. He was there to help and guide me when I was unable to think straight because of my brain fog. As I grew stronger, I started to do some research on my own and became more involved in my own treatment.
Also my family has been, and still is, a huge support. My husband and my 3 children saw how sick I was. They were there with me every step of the way, supportive and willing to go on the AIP diet with me. While they are not 100 % AIP, they eat exactly the same meals as me. They have their own snacks and foods, but everybody sticks to the rule “no gluten and junk food in the house”!
What advice would you give to people with autoimmune disease who are just starting to consider diet and lifestyle changes?
First I would say congratulations! You have decided to take your health in your own hands and decide what is right or wrong for yourself! The transformative power and healing potential of the AIP diet are tremendous. But keeping an autoimmune disease at bay is a battle at every moment. There is no day off. It takes courage and determination.
My last thought goes to the amazing community of people fighting an autoimmune disease just like me. Reach out and connect with others, whether it is in a local group in your town, or online (Facebook, Instagram, The Paleo Mom Online Forum). Share your success, your failures, and draw strength from the friendships you develop. Connecting and sharing with other autoimmune warriors has been a tremendous source of inspiration and motivation for me!
You can follow Sophie’s journey on her blog: A Squirrel in the Kitchen. In 2016, Sophie published her first cookbook: Simple French Paleo.
Other Healing Stories
This is part of a series of autoimmune success stories. Click here to see the full list. They are also a regular feature of my podcast: Phoenix Helix.