I got a crash course in autoimmune disease when I woke up on New Year’s Day 2013 with a swollen finger and no explanation. After weeks of x-rays, blood tests, anti-inflammatory medicine, and occupational therapy, nothing was working and I had no answers. At a loss, the hand specialist referred me to a rheumatologist as a last-ditch effort. I endured more bloodwork, answered questions about my family medical history, and tried different medications. I felt like the doctors were writing prescriptions and saying, “Try this and see if it works.”
Eventually, I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis. I say “eventually” because if you or anyone you know has an autoimmune disease, then you know that it can take a long time to get an official diagnosis. My diagnosis came from a process of elimination. Quite a few autoimmune diseases have overlapping symptoms, but we were able to rule out some based on details of my symptoms. For example, I could not have rheumatoid arthritis because my swelling was only in my left hand versus mirroring to my right hand. I also learned that the psoriasis I was being treated for by a dermatologist for the last 10 years was also an autoimmune disease. Suddenly at 30 years old, I had two autoimmune diseases, and the best course of treatment offered was an injection medicine to suppress my overactive immune system – you know, the type with the commercials that go on and on about all the terrifying side effects.
When my doctors kept noting that my bloodwork showed that I had inflammation in my body, I thought, “Of course I do. It’s right here in my finger.” What I later realized through doing my own research of autoimmune disease is that I was suffering from chronic inflammation throughout my body. I thought the problem was my finger, but in reality my finger was just a symptom of a systematic failure of my immune system.
While doing internet research on how to reduce inflammation, I found the book, Clean Cuisine, by Ivy and Andrew Larson. I was fascinated by the author’s story of controlling her multiple sclerosis symptoms through a whole food approach that reduces sugar and processed foods. Over the next four years, I read many books on the link between nutrition, gut health, and autoimmune disease. As I learned valuable new information, pieces of a puzzle came together, showing me that my eating habits affect my health in ways I never knew.
During this time, Michelle and I were inspired to change the way we eat, but struggled to break old habits and maintain the healthy changes we implemented. We would start following a food plan, but within days or weeks would go back to eating the standard American diet ingrained in us. It felt impossible to do this on our own, and we weren’t sure how to get the support we needed. I regularly visited my doctors, but they just kept doing blood tests and asking if my symptoms had gotten worse on whatever medication I was on. No increase in symptoms meant that nothing needed to be done. Even when I asked one doctor about treating my autoimmune disease through diet, he dismissively responded, “Would you really want to live without everything you’d have to eliminate? I’ve never seen anyone be able to do it.” I wanted more: I wasn’t satisfied with symptom management; I wanted to restore my health.
When Michelle and I moved to Nashville recently, we decided to use this transition to fully commit to our health and knew we needed support. Many of the books that I read were written by doctors practicing functional medicine, an approach focused on finding and treating the root causes instead of just symptoms. So I found a functional medicine practitioner, Dr. Lee Howard, founder of Compass Cellular Healing.
For my first appointment, Dr. Howard met with me and Michelle for at least 45 minutes. He listened to us talk about my journey and our unsuccessful attempts at following a healthy diet. Using a white board, he broke down a lot of information, making it accessible so that I could participate in my own health decisions. He recommended doing a Dietary Antigen Test which identifies if I have an allergic or highly sensitive reaction to over 80 different foods. Despite the cost, Michelle and I decided to invest in our health and move forward. I got my results back a week and a half ago. In upcoming posts, we’ll share more about those results and what changes we are making.
Book Recommendations – These titles should be available at your local library
Clean Cuisine: An 8-Week Anti-Inflammatory Diet that Will Change the Way You Age, Look & Feel by Ivy and Andrew Larson
Autoimmune Wellness Handbook: A DIY Guide to Living Well with Chronic Illness by Mickey Trescott and Angie Alt