Today's guest post all about the highs and lows of healing autoimmune conditions and chronic illness was written by my fellow NTP and internet-friend-across-the-country, Jenny Murphy.
Jenny knows firsthand all about living with those sneaky autoimmune diseases called Rheumatoid Arthritis and Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, and she is on a mission to help others with their journey to heal by addressing the mental aspects in addition to the physical.
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Now take it away, Jenny!
How Mindset Shifts Can Greatly Impact Your Healing
I would describe myself as your typical go-getter. Always buzzing around from one thing to the next, whether it be my work as an elementary school teacher, taking a graduate class, getting my masters degree, working out hard in the gym, scrapbooking, meeting friends for dinner, whatever it was, I was doing it.
I remember one of the first symptoms I recognized as being abnormal at the age of about 27 or 28 was fatigue.
I didn’t know it was a symptom then, I thought I was just tired. I remember coming home from work and just wanting to lay on the couch and rest. This was not like me. I was the type that spent a day at work and right to the gym, every day of the week, since college.
At my annual physical my thyroid numbers came back a little on the low side, said my doctor, and it was “no big deal.” I would just start taking medication everyday for the rest of my life. Okay, I thought. I can do that.
There was no conversation about it, there was no education and I didn’t research it at all. Six months later I was lucky enough to become pregnant with my first child and my OB-GYN wanted me to start seeing an endocrinologist to help monitor my thyroid levels during my pregnancy.
This is when I learned I had the autoimmune form of hypothyroidism called Hashimoto’s.
Luckily my Hashimotos’ was well managed with medication during both of my pregnancies and both of my babies were healthy.
Throughout my pregnancy with my first child and in the months that followed delivery was when I first recognized abnormal digestive behavior. My bowel movements were constantly switching between constipation and diarrhea. My OB-GYN said it was just pregnancy related, but when it continued after giving birth I started to question it. That was the year I went to see my first holistic practitioner in my health journey. I didn’t know it then, but things were about to change.
The practitioner I saw was a chiropractor. She took a detailed medical history and performed a form of applied kinesiology called muscle testing. Based on my symptoms and struggles, she recommended eliminating gluten and dairy to start, to try and address my digestive distress.
Within two weeks, I felt like a different person.
My digestive troubles disappeared, literally. I started to feel more energy and even less bloated. I recognized that I was onto something so I better keep it up and continue down this path.
Fast forward a few years when I learned about Michael Pollan, Food, Inc., Mark Sisson and Robb Wolf and other influencers in the ancestral nutrition/real food/paleo-sphere. I started reading books, researching like crazy, listening to podcasts, and just taking in all of this new information.
I had already been gluten and dairy free for four years at this point, but still had some work to do in order to feel optimally. This is when I learned about the Nutritional Therapy Association and started contemplating an additional career path.
I immediately changed things up in the nutrition landscape. I always thought I “ate healthy,” but quickly learned that I could be doing much better from a real food perspective. I focused on consuming whole foods, and removed any remaining processed foods and unhealthy fats. I tried to buy organic produce when I could, and humanely raised meats and seafood. We joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to increase our intake and variety of fresh vegetables.
I felt such beneficial changes from just following this ancestral/paleo template and my family was benefiting as well from my love of cooking and meal preparation. I truly thought nutrition was the answer I had been searching for.
Truthfully though, I was still struggling.
The positive changes that I experienced from removing gluten and dairy were overshadowed by new symptoms. I started to experience joint pain all over my body, the fatigue had returned, and I started experiencing mood imbalances throughout my cycle. My body had experienced huge hormonal shifts from two pregnancies, my thyroid medication was constantly up and down, but I just kept plugging along.
To say I was stuck and confused about where to turn was an understatement. I sought help from so many different holistic practitioners over the years, from chiropractors to functional medicine doctors, and always hit a plateau. I never worked with someone long enough to experience any lasting benefits. Practitioners were completely puzzled by my joint pain, which was the most bothersome of symptoms, and my autoimmune issues were too complex that no one really knew how to get the root of it all, including me.
Throughout this time, I tried more food eliminations, sugar detoxes, supplements, food sensitivity testing, adrenal testing, MTHFR testing, just to name a few.
As I look back on that time now, hindsight is always 20/20, right?
I can see that while my nutrition was completely on point, so many other aspects of my lift were out of balance.
My stress levels were constantly high. This includes physical and emotional stress.
- Working full time, raising two young children, being married, maintaining a household, going back to school for nutritional therapy, moving my family into our dream home. It was too much. (STRESS)
- My exercise routines felt great in my body, but deep down, I was exhausted. I always kept moving and working out no matter what. The joint pain slowed me down a bit, but not really, I just pushed through the pain. (STRESS)
- My hormones were out of whack. My moods were all over the place from anger to depression, and the unpredictability of it all was maddening. (STRESS)
At the beginning of 2017, my hands swelled up like balloons and were unrecognizable. The joint pain I had experienced for four years went straight to my hands and feet. Within two weeks I felt crippled. Suddenly I struggled to do really simple, everyday tasks like tie my shoes, put my hair in a pony tail, open the refrigerator, hold a pen, the list goes on and on. I remember crying in the shower because my rings were stuck on my swollen fingers…
It was confirmed on February 1, 2017, that I had Rheumatoid Arthritis.
My second autoimmune disease. My poor immune system was telling me a story for sure.
My body was trying to talk to me all of those years I suffered from so many telling symptoms: fatigue, cold hands and feet, brain fog, stalled metabolism, difficulty concentrating, joint pain, GI distress.
It was screaming at me: Slow down. Rest. Relax. Laugh. Play. Take time for yourself. Nurture yourself. Nurture your relationships.
I knew I had to make a monumental change. I was willing to do whatever it took to eliminate the pain. I knew that in order to slow or reverse the inflammation in my body that had built up over so many years, I had to focus on reducing stress. I could no longer do the workouts I had been used to doing, so I literally had to back off. My strength training and power yoga routines changed immediately. I focused on walking, not doing high intensity interval training, and taking the strength training down a notch. I did what I could whenever I felt good, and learned to be okay with that. I learned that my body was interpreting my exercise routine as stress, even though I felt like I was taking it easy at the gym.
Since having kids I was only working out 3-4 times per week. I seriously did not think I was working hard enough, but to an over-taxed over stressed body, my body interpreted it as too much. I just needed to listen.
I started acupuncture. I started working with the most brilliant acupuncturist, who is not only gifted at her craft, but is a true healer. She listened to my very long health story, and used traditional acupuncture needles, red light therapy and cupping during my sessions.
I also started working with an NTP and went back on the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol. Even though at this point I was a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner, I needed someone outside to assess my current situation (because it had been such a rollercoaster over the years) and help me see things I couldn't.
I have tried this protocol in the past, and it has historically stressed me out because it seemed that no matter how many eliminations I did, I was still experiencing pain. But I forged forward and did it anyway because like I said, I was willing to do whatever it took. I also started recording a symptom journal to track my energy, mood, pain level, digestion, bowel movements and any other symptoms. I had kept detailed food journals in the past, but this level of detail was a key element in telling my story.
Connecting the dots between my cycle, hormonal fluctuations, mood and pain was definitely a missing link and proved to be very informative in my journey.
Over the summer I went almost three months pain free. I was sure that the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol and my less stressful summer life (time with my kids, pool time, beach time, reading books and vacation) was the answer.
Within two weeks of being back at work in September, the pain returned. I was still following the Autoimmune Paleo Protocol, I was still being cautious with my workouts, I was doing acupuncture, and had started a meditation practice. So when the pain returned to multiple joints all over my body, to say I was discouraged was a gross understatement. On a positive note, however, I recognized that my body was still inflamed, and it was trying to tell me something.
I knew then that the pain I was experiencing was not a direct connection to any one food or eating template in particular because I was still recording everything in my food and symptom journals and there was nothing in particular that stood out.
I took my chances in working with another holistic practitioner during the fall months. I started on a new supplement protocol and met with him monthly to monitor my progress and any changes my body was making. I still had a fair amount of pain but it was definitely lessening and it was changing. It was moving around instead of just in my hands and feet. I could tell that my body was healing.
By December I was pretty frustrated again, because it felt like things were getting worse instead of better.
What I realized was that the strict eliminations that I was adhering to was contributing to some perceived stress in my body.
This coupled with the upcoming holiday season, which is always a bit stressful for me for a variety of reasons, was just not an ideal combination. I decided about mid-month to try and relax and enjoy the season. If I had something that was not 100% in my nutrition template, it was going to be okay. I might not feel great afterwards, but I was going to focus on letting it go and just be in the moment.
I decided I needed prescription for pleasure! So much of my energy was focused on my health, how to heal, how to get better, food journals, symptom trackers, but what I really need was a break from it all and to just trust the process. And have patience. Patience is key.
So I did just that. I took a chill pill and relaxed.
The end of December was pretty emotional, and I had a fair amount of pain, but within a week into the new year, l literally felt like the veil was lifting, and I was turning a corner in my healing journey. I have been pain free for two months and am making continued progress in the other areas as well.
People ask, so what really made the difference? Was it food? Was it a supplement? Was it a medication? It wasn't just one thing. It has been a multitude of many things.
- I am healing my gut as my ailing gut was certainly at the root of many of my issues.
- I am kinder to myself in my daily self-talk.
- I am incorporating shorter more concise strength workouts into my weekly routine.
- I am trying to rest each day and avoid any negative self-talk for not “doing more” or getting more accomplished at the end of a work day.
- I am making the things that matter a priority and letting go of the things I cannot control.
What I think made the biggest difference of all of these aspects was my mindset. How I talk to myself.
The daily mantras I say to myself. All of these things matter. For years, I have struggled with this negative internal dialogue: you’re not good enough, thin enough, strong enough, successful enough, fill in the blank enough. If you say these things enough, they start to wear on your soul and impact your health deep down inside. It may sound crazy to some, but I truly believe in the connection between the mind, body and soul.
I share my story with you to give you hope. A diagnosis is not the end all, be all in life. It’s just that, a diagnosis.
Use it as information in your health story. Your attitude and mindset can make or break a diagnosis. I chose to break it. I am here to tell you that can do anything you put your mind to. It’s going to take work, it might take time, and it might be hard, but it will be worth it.
I am hopeful for the future and I have so much gratitude for each day and the simple things.
Jenny has united her love of learning, her background as an educator and her training as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner to bring all that she knows to her clients. She is passionate about helping others feel their very best in body, mind and soul. You can find out more about Jenny, her story, and her practice at www.JennyRMurphy.com or by following her on Instagram or joining her private Facebook community.