Disclaimer – I am not a licensed medical professional. This blog post is general information only and is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This is my personal experience.
I’ve had Hashimoto’s for nearly thirty years. Yes, you read that right, 30 years. I wasn’t aware that I had Hashimoto’s, nor that it was wrecking havoc in my body. Nope. I just suffered from all the awful symptoms, not connecting them or realizing that they had a name—and a solution.
I was cold all the time, no matter the season. I had no energy. I felt achy and had dry, itchy skin. I was bloated after every meal and couldn’t lose weight. My mind was foggy and easily distracted and my memory shot.
When I was diagnosed as hypothryoid (around 33 years old), I went on thyroid hormone replacement meds. For me that was both T4 (generically called levothyroxine or by the brand name “Synthroid) and T3 (generic = liothyronine or Cytomel). Over the next year, my doctor checked and rechecked my labs to get the medication “right” – to the point where my lab numbers were within “normal” ranges.
BTW, there’s a difference between your labs falling within the “standard” or reference ranges and falling into healthy ranges. The lab ranges tend to be far too broad. Patients and functional practitioners tend to favor more conservative numbers that fall within a more narrow range.
Yeah, I use quotes around “right” and “normal” because those are terms used by the medical community and in no way reflected how I felt. Because even when my med were supposedly correct, I still felt like crap. Still bloated, with mysterious food sensitivities, brain fog, and low energy. And a had a really hard time getting pregnant. (Yes, infertility is one of the possible effects of Hashimoto’s).
Does that sound healthy to you?
Of course not. But the goal of most modern medicine is to avoid or treat catastrophic illness to keep you alive, NOT to make you healthy. Unlike Eastern medical traditions or functional medicine, wellness is not a concept that even comes up in conventional Western medicine or medical training.
But that wasn’t enough for me. I didn’t want to just “not die” – I wanted to feel alive.
So, science-nerd that I am, I did a crap-ton of research. I dug into medical journal and health texts, took online courses and read popular health books. Hell, I even became a darn HEALTH COACH—because I wanted to understand how to heal my body and feel GREAT.
Chronic Illness—> Chronic Response
Inflammation is a normal part of your body’s immune response. It’s the redness and swelling that occurs at the site of an injury. The increase in the production of immune cells to protect you from infection. The fever that raises your body temperature to help you win the battle against viral or bacterial invaders.
Those are good things—when inflammation is an acute short-term response to an injury or illness.
However, when you have a chronic illness like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, inflammation can become chronic. And that is definitely not good.
Maybe you feel flu-like aches and pains all the time. That “swelling” response becomes bloating and water retention. You gain weight and it won’t budge, no matter how much or little you eat or exercise. Your brain feels foggy and your energy flags. Your skin or hair get dry. Maybe you can’t sleep—or feel exhausted no matter how much you sleep.
All because your body is trying to fight an ‘illness’ that isn’t going away.
Why does your immune system go haywire when you have Hashimoto’s? Well, there are basically two reasons.
One, is what I said above—your body is working to heal something that isn’t going to be healed using your typical immune response. More swelling, redness, immune cells, etc. aren’t going to help when the problem is on-going. It’s just going to make you feel worse.
If immune activity is the problem, increasing that activity is like trying to fight fire with fire. Not gonna work.
Two, the immune system is what kicked off the problem in the first place! Hashimoto’s is an autoimmune disorder, which means that your immune system is attacking your own body. Treating your own cells like invading bacteria or viruses.
It’s kinda like punching yourself in the face—ouch! In the case of Hashimoto’s, it mean your immune system is punching your thyroid gland. Treating certain cells in your thyroid like foreign invaders and launching an attack against them.
(Specifically, with Hashimoto’s your immune system creates antibodies that “tag” one more kinds of thyroid cells as “foreign”:
– thyroid peroxidase, or TPO, an enzyme that helps to make thyroid hormones, and
– thyroglobulin, Tg, one of the molecules that is a precursor or ingredient in the production of thyroid hormones.
These antibodies are known as anti-TPO and anti-Tg and are what your doctor looks for to see if you have Hashimoto’s.
Can you do anything a out it? Can you convince your body that there’s no emergency, even when you’ve got a condition like Hashimoto’s, which everyone says is for life?
I was able to stop just “surviving” and start thriving—even after having Hashimoto’s and all its awful symptoms for decades.
And guess, what? You can too—naturally. By taking control of your diet and lifestyle, you can get rid of those symptoms and get your brain, body, and life back!
The ENRG+ Approach to Healing Hashimoto’s
I took what I like to call the ENRG+ approach, because low energy was one of my worst symptoms—until I got some of my energy back, I couldn’t even imagine doing anything else.
And I love clever acronyms.
[True fact: right after grad school, I worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, the U.S. government agency responsible for fisheries management and the National Weather Service. To those of us who worked there, it was also know as the “National Organization for the Advancement of Acronyms”, because every freaking program and policy had it’s own silly acronym. I guess some things just stick with you, eh?]
Anyway, clever acronym or no, this is the process I used to tame my Hashimoto’s and start feeling great.
NOTE: this approach is not meant to be a substitute for taking thyroid hormone replacement. If your body is not making adequate amounts of hormone, there is little that diet or lifestyle can do. And being chronically low on thyroid hormone can set you up for many many debilitating and even fatal ailments down the line. So work with a trusted practitioner to make sure your hormone needs are met.
1. I ELIMINATED triggers and inflammatory foods.
Hashimoto’s is caused by the immune system going haywire. So, step one is to calm that sucker down! Remind the body that there is no fire to put out, no emergency to respond to. No need for all that inflammation and the nasty symptoms it causes.
I started the ‘calming’ process by ELIMINATING foods and other triggers that rang the alarm bells in the first place. Yes, certain foods can trigger your immune system, either by directly causing inflammation or by confusing your immune systems into mounting an attack.
It’s not just YOUR cells that can confuse the poor immune system. Who knew, right?
Each of us have our own trigger foods, but there are some that are nearly universal among Hashimoto’s folks. Gluten and dairy are the most common trigger foods, followed by soy, corn, and nightshades vegetables (tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, eggplant, goji berries). You may have fewer or others.
How did I discover them? A combination of food sensitivity testing—which looked for IgM antibodies in my blood against a whole list of common foods in my blood—an elimination diets.
2. I NOURISHED my body to promote healing—especially for my gut, liver, and adrenals—with nutrient-dense foods, “super” foods, and supplements.
The easiest way to both eliminate many of the most common triggers AND ensure that you are eating lots of nourishing food, is to adopt the Paleo way of eating, which does both, with a few modifications for Hashimoto’s.
For now, suffice to say that eating the foods that our body is adapted to thrive on, is a great way to ensure that YOU thrive.
Note: based on all the scientific evidence that I have seen in the decade I’ve been researching this issue, I do not think it is advisable, or even possible, for someone with Hashimoto’s to thrive on a vegan or even vegetarian diet.
This also comes from my own PERSONAL experience: I was vegetarian for nearly three decades and completely destroyed my health—developing Hashimoto’s and a ton of other health problems, including eczema, all kind of food sensitivities, and rosacea. It was only when I started eating Paleo and incorporating healthy animal products back into my diet (after not eating meat or poultry since I was fourteen) that my body began to heal.
Now, contrary to what some folks think, eating paleo does not mean becoming a complete carnivore (although the Carnivore Diet has shown some promise for helping Hashimoto’s folks with really bad dietary issues—more on that in a future post). The paleo diet focuses on the kinds of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate—animal proteins and fats, fruits, and vegetables—and eliminates those foods that became common when humankind shifted to agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago, (a mere blink of an eye in evolutionary terms), including refined sugar & flour, grain, legumes, industrial seed oils (sunflower, canola), and artificial flavors, colors, or preservatives.
So what do you eat?
- Animal protein: beef, lamb, chicken, fish, shellfish, etc
- Vegetables: as much/many as you like (minus any you might be sensitive to, like nightshades)
- Fruit: fresh or frozen, NOT dried or juices, which are user-high in sugar and low in fiber.
- Healthy fats: animal fat (tallow, lard, ghee/clarified butter, if you can tolerate it), olives, avocados, coconuts, and their oils. Yes, fat is good for you, especially saturated fat. Hard to believe after all the bad PR ft has gotten over the past few decades, but the SCIENCE IS CLEAR.
- Healthy plant starches: sweet potatoes, beets, pumpkin and other squash, taro.
- Nuts and seeds: like almonds, macadamia nuts, pecans, Brazil nuts (go easy on that last one – no more than 5/day – because Brazil nuts have a high selenium content).
Bonus? These foods are rich in the nutrients and anti-oxidants that help our bodies heal and support healthy, not haywire, immune function.
In addition, to specifically support your gut, liver, and adrenals, add those goodies to your diet:
- Bone broth, which is great for healing your gut lining
- Fermented foods like yogurt (coconut if you’re avoiding dairy), sauerkraut, kobucha, etc. And probiotics to encourage healthy gut bacteria
3. I focused on REST and RESTORATION.
A Hashimoto’s-healthy diet— both what I eliminated and what I eat—took me 50-75% of the way toward thriving, but it wasn’t enough. I also had to give my body the time to heal and to remove non-diet stressors.
After, diet, sleep is the most potent tool we have in our Hashimoto’s healing toolbox. You’ve probably heard it a million times and I’m gonna say it again here: we ALL need more sleep. Americans are chronically sleep-deprived and it’s killing us.
Some with Hashimoto’s may feel wiped out all the time and have trouble getting out of bed, but that doesn’t mean we’re sleeping well. Often, I went to bed exhausted yet suffered from insomnia, either having trouble falling asleep or waking at 3:30 am and laying awake for hours. Sadly, this is common for those of us with Hashimoto’s. Some find it hard to fall asleep. And still others sleep for 9+ hours and still feel awful.
Diet helped a lot with the fatigue— eliminating trigger foods and getting real nourishment gave me a major energy boost that allowed me to get out of the bed in the morning.
My poor sleep and insomnia were caused by out-of-whack stress hormones and unhappy adrenals, which are really common with Hashimoto’s. Eating well and reducing stress helped. A LOT. I also needed to prioritize getting enough quality sleep to really heal. That meant going to sleep at a consistent, reasonable hour, turning off the devices a few hours before bed, and sleeping in a dark, cool, quiet room.
I also had to reduce stress in other ways. Deep breathing, yoga, walking, qi gong and meditation all helped me turn down the inner alarms. Even a minute of focused breathing a few times a day had a huge impact on my nervous system
(TBH, I still struggle with sleep from time to time, but that’s because I’m not great about going to bed at a consistent time every night. It can be really hard for me to put down a book at bedtime—especially if I’ve just gotten to the good part…)
Once I got the first three steps under control—not perfectly but enough that I didn’t have to think about them all the time, I moved onto number four.
4. I GENTLY Got Moving
I can’t emphasize this too much—I had to get my diet, sleep, and stress dialed in BEFORE I added in exercise or worried about fitness. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just sit around—I was walking regularly and doing gentle movement exercises like yoga and qi gong. But I didn’t think about anything more intense until I started feeling better.
Exercise, when done correctly, puts stress on your body. A good kind of stress that makes your body stronger.
There’s a good kind of stress? Yup. Appropriate doses of stressors cause your body to adapt and get stronger, a process called hormesis.
The challenge for this of us with Hashimoto’s is that when our illness is out of control, we’re under too much and too many different stressors and it becomes really easy to just add more stress by overdoing it on the exercise.
Thats why the G in ENRG includes GENTLY. I had to reduce my exercise and heal in other ways before I could add it back into my routine, to be sure I was helping not hurting myself. The best way I found to do that was to start with a foundation of walking and yoga and then added in semi-regular strength training.
I started by doing whole body compound movements 1-2x a week, keeping close track of how I felt. At first, I did bodyweight exercises (squats, modified push-ups, etc.) then progressed to using weights that I bought secondhand on Craigslist. I gave myself plenty of rest between sessions and didn’t hesitate to reduce the intensity or frequency if I felt worn out or my sleep or digestion started to suffer.
My exercise routine is still work in progress—and probably always will be. It changes with the season, with my overall health and time commitments, and depends on what else is going on in my life. Sometimes I strength train multiple times a week. Other times it’s once in 7 -10 days. But I always check in with myself before working out and never give myself grief if I have to take a day off.
The worse kind of exercise for Hashimoto’s, IMO? Chronic cardio. Sure, it’s good to get your heart rate up. But you can do that with strength training. No need to pound the pavement for miles day after day or push yourself through hours exercise classes. It’s way to stressful for those of us with chronic illness.
So, to recap:
To thrive with Hashimoto’s, I used the ENRG+ approach:
– ELIMINATED inflammatory foods and those that triggered my immune system
– NOURISHED my body by eating a Paleo diet that focused on healthy proteins, fats and vegetables with super foods like bone broth and sauerkraut
– RESTED and RESTORED by body with adequate quality sleep and stress management practices like deep breathing, walking, meditation, and yoga
– GENTLY GOT MOVING with strength training, varying the frequency and intensity depending on how I feeling that day or week.
So what’s the + part?
5. I had to adopt a HEALTHY MINDSET
There is one more critical aspect of my healing, one that I revisit every single day—my mindset. All of the ENRG steps above were super important and did so much to heal my body. But without adding a healthy mindset, I could never have stuck with it for the duration of the healing process, or maintained my healthy routines to today.
I regularly remind myself that:
– No one is perfect—accidents, mistakes, and flare-ups will happen.
– Health is a dynamic not a static state—there is no one perfect point that we reach and then we’re done. A journey not a single destination
– I need to be kind and compassionate to myself—it’s not my fault that I have Hashimoto’s, it’s not easy to live with an invisible, chronic illness, and it’s okay if I feel discouraged or frustrated at times.
And most importantly:
I’m worth the effort. It’s not easy to make and sustain the changes needed to heal and thrive with Hashimoto’s. Not easy to disappoint family and friends who want you to drink with them, try their homemade bread, or stay up late to party.
But it’s worth it because I’m worth it—and so are you.