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.

By: Ann Wendel

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.