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How a Gluten-Free, Paleo Diet Changed My Life

A local physical therapist and trainer shares her personal story of how she got her life back after the rare autoimmune disease Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis invaded her body.

Physical therapist Ann Wendel has struggled with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis for years. Photograph courtesy of Wendel.

“All of your blood work looks fine. The only thing that comes up is thyroid antibodies, but that’s nothing to worry about.”

My primary care doctor said these words to me in 1999, after I told him I’d been feeling anxious and jittery and couldn’t sleep for days at a time. I’d just had my first child a few months before, so since nothing else could be determined, the most obvious diagnosis was that I had postpartum anxiety and depression.

But while the symptoms went away over time with treatment, they were soon replaced by a mind-numbing fatigue. Little did I know that my own body was in the process of attacking itself because of an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis.

Fast-forward to 2007. I had been under a tremendous amount of stress over the year. Though I continued to exercise, somehow I gained almost 20 pounds, and my hair began falling out in clumps. Even after eight hours of sleep, I was still so exhausted I could barely get out of bed in the morning.

Before the autoimmune disease took over Ann Wendell’s body, she was an active athlete. Photograph courtesy of Ann Wendell.

I began researching my symptoms. My doctor’s words came back to me, and I began reading everything I could find on thyroid disorders. After getting an ultrasound, I discovered I had nodules on my thyroid.

So with medication, over a few months I began to feel like I was getting some energy back. But my weight didn’t change, and exercise still proved too painful.

The impact this disease had on my life in the beginning was huge. I had been an athlete my entire life, swimming competitively in college, running 10Ks, and doing triathlons. At 37, I suddenly found myself unable to walk three miles with my children. To say that I was afraid for my future would be an understatement.

Going Gluten-Free

About a year into treatment for Hashimoto’s, I mentioned to a coworker that I felt better, but still not great. He suggested I try going gluten-free for a few weeks. I resisted, because I loved cereal, bread, and pasta. But then I learned that celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, and people with one autoimmune disease are more likely to be diagnosed with others over the years. I decided to give it a go.

Before the autoimmune disease took over her body, Ann Wendell was an active athlete. Photograph courtesy of Ann Wendell.

After two gluten-free weeks, I felt 80 percent better. I was feeling more energetic, and gone were the cramps and painful bloating. I began to lose a little bit of weight, and I had the energy to begin gentle bodyweight exercises again. That was two years ago.

The Paleo Life

Then last spring I heard rumblings about the Paleo lifestyle. I researched the principles and learned that grains like wheat, rye, and barley can cause damage to the gut lining and put people at high risk for autoimmune diseases, including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, type 1 diabetes, and lupus. I went Paleo and cut out all of my gluten-free treats and dairy, increased my intake of coconut milk and oil, and began consuming larger quantities of grass-fed meats.

Almost immediately I noticed a difference in how I felt. My joint and muscle pain slowly faded away, I felt more rested when I woke up in the morning, and my brain felt sharp again. I even lost most of the weight I had gained over the years.

In the six months since I went Paleo, I’ve gone from not being able to walk a few miles to running, hiking, rock climbing, and weight lifting. My blood work looks good, my thyroid nodules are smaller, and I feel like I’m back to living the healthy life I had before Hashimoto’s decided to wreak havoc on my body.

More important, I don’t feel deprived of anything, because being able to play with my kids again is more important to me than eating pizza.

There is plenty of research to support the Paleo lifestyle as part of the comprehensive treatment plan for autoimmune diseases. A good place to start is by reading The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf. The book explains the science and includes an index at the back listing 30 pages of research articles that helped convince me to take on this diet.

From my frustrating and trying experiences, my approach to working with my own patients as a physical therapist and trainer has changed. As part of my objective to treat the “whole person,” I want to be sure I provide my patients with as much information as possible, so it doesn’t take them five years to get back to living, like it took me. It was a long journey, but it feels good to be in my skin again.

Ann Wendel is a certified athletic trainer, a licensed physical therapist, and a certified trigger-point therapist.

The information in this article is from the author’s own experience. This information is not intended to diagnose or prescribe treatment of any kind. Please consult your physician regarding any medical issues you may be having.

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  • Joan63

    I just got diagnosed and reading as much as possible about Hashimotos disease. I am finding a lot of positive on paleo and gluten free. I have been dealing with thyroid for roughly 15 years. I have tried endless diets and exercise and my starting weight was 125. I went as high as 210. Now I go up and down like a yo yo. I bounce from 173 to 195 and feel frustrated. I have been suffering depression for years. Makes me really wonder how long I have had this disease. I have the brittle hair, dry skin, fatigue, body aches, and brain fog. I am finding that I need to go gluten free and see if it will help. Do any of u know of a great way to flush toxins so I can flush my system? I will be going Paleo. Any other suggestions I am open to. I am 51 yrs old and seriously feel 80. I have been blessed with 3 grandsons and want to so badly feel better to enjoy them.

  • DianeSay

    Can someone please help me understand my situation. Seems like I have Grave's disease and Hashimoto. Can this be possible? I have a goiter (enlarged thyroid) and I also have what they call a dark zone in my thyroid (destroyed by my immune system). Approximately 6 months after giving birth I told the doctor something was wrong with me. I was sleeping on the floor of my baby's room after breastfeeding because I was so tired. Mood swings, heart palpitations, weight gain, tremors, sweating and cold. Finally I was rushed to the hospital because they thought I was having a heart attack and finally discovered that I was Hyperthyroid. But before turning hyperthyroid I believe I may have been hypothyroid first. I have seen more than 3 endocrinologists. One doctor had me come in 3 times a day 3 days in a row for blood tests and confirmed that my thyroid was hypo and hyper depending on the time of day. I was given strong doses of Tapazole at first and then slowly cutting back which lasted for a year and a half. I was ok for ten years after that. Then it started again and I was again diagnosed Hyperthyroid and given Tapazole for approximately one year. Then it happened again 3 years later. Now it is on and off so no medication. I have been on the Paleo diet for the past 10 months and it has helped me tremendously but I have cheated during the Christmas holidays and for the past month my eyes are puffy and dry and seem somewhat sticking out. I have joint pain and pain on the top of my head. I don't know what to do anymore. I don't know what tests or other tests I should ask for. Can someone help me with this? Can it be possible to have Grave's and Hashimoto at the same time?

  • DianeSay

    Oh I forgot to mention that for the past 3 weeks I have been taking my underarm body temperature and it has been between 35 and 36 celsius (95 and 96.8 fahrenheit).

  • Whatsreal

    Just in case you see this, I wanted to say I hope things are better for you and I hope you have some answers! This sounds really rough. (PS- Christmas kicked me off paleo two years in a row.. I am a really slow learner :)

  • this is sure going to help me in this .. Thanks a lot for sharing the nice and informative post..

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