By Stacey Scott.
Healing from an autoimmune disease.
The worst thing that happened to me, turned out to be the best thing that has ever happened to me. I learnt there are ways to heal yourself from an autoimmune disease.
When I turned 40, I didn’t really feel the issues or challenges that people often cite at this point in life. I was in a really good place emotionally, physically and financially. I felt fit and healthy, and even though I was in a very stressful job with high levels of accountability, life felt good.
What I didn’t realise at the time is that a whole host of issues had been slowly developing in the background, and in just a few months I went from being fit and healthy to requiring help for basic tasks like having a shower, getting dressed and walking.
It was the most frightening time of my life. My symptoms were neurological and similar to those experienced in the autoimmune condition, multiple sclerosis. At the time I was working in a hospital as an occupational therapist with a specialism in neurology. I regularly treated people who had the same symptoms that I developed.
Autoimmune conditions are where the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy cells in the body. Some autoimmune conditions target one organ such as the pancreas, seen in Type 1 diabetes. Others are systemic and attack the whole body such as multiple sclerosis or rheumatoid arthritis. Evidence shows that autoimmune conditions are becoming much more prevalent. Thirty years ago one in 400 people developed an autoimmune disease in the US. Now it’s one in 12, with 50 million Americans diagnosed with one or more autoimmune conditions. And the UK is following closely in its footsteps with an estimated four million people – over 6% of the population – diagnosed with one or more autoimmune conditions.
What stands out for me, is that 75% of those diagnosed with autoimmune conditions are women. In fact, more women are diagnosed each year with an autoimmune disease than breast cancer and cardiovascular disease combined.
We’re led to believe that there is no cure for autoimmune conditions and that the expectation is life-long medication and likely deterioration.
And yet, this is not my story.
It’s almost four years ago that I experienced neurological symptoms. It started with tingling and sensory loss in the tip of left thumb and over the course of three months I gradually lost sensation and co-ordination in both hands, lost sensation on the soles of both feet and was unable to walk without assistance. I could barely hold a fork to eat, needed help to wash and dress and I was exhausted.
When I realised what was happening to me, I did what we are encouraged to do as health professionals – research. Under our current medical system, autoimmune diseases are treated as diseases of particular organs and often conventional treatment is to suppress the immune system. However, a new paradigm of thought is emerging whereby evidence suggests that with autoimmunity, no matter what part of your body is under siege, the underlying problem is inflammation. Further, that the microbes in our gut play a role in modulating our immune system, our metabolism and our brain chemistry.
So rather than suppressing my immune system, I researched how to support my immune system instead. I read as many peer reviewed papers, books and online articles as I could find. I researched nutrition, herbal, and lifestyle medicine. And luckily for me, I found a different route to health. I woke up to how my lifestyle and behaviours were driving my illness and found the courage to change.
What I did and how it can help you.
I asked for help.
Now it’s not easy to go it alone and walk the less trodden path. My family were distrustful of any modality outside of traditional medicine and although they supported me, I understood their concerns. As such, I found myself an excellent herbalist who is also a functional medicine practitioner, to work alongside any recommendations from my doctor. She was able to request tests that looked for viruses that might be driving my symptoms and to look at the health of my gut in order to prescribe herbs and supplements to support my damaged nervous system. There is also something about the holistic approach to treatment that resonated with me.
Food overhaul – I radically changed my diet.
Everything changed when I focused on nutrition. Within two-weeks I noticed a small improvement to my balance when walking indoors. Within 2 months I was walking around outdoors by myself again. Functional medicine doctors explain that the gut is the seat of our health and when it is damaged, as often seen in autoimmune conditions, toxins are able to seep into the bloodstream, causing inflammation. The elimination diet I used is an adapted version of Paleo with the inclusion of a massive dose of leafy greens, non-starchy vegetables and organ meats e.g. liver. I began by removing all potential trigger foods – gluten, dairy, almonds, soy, eggs, legumes, nightshade family (peppers, tomatoes, aubergine) and sugar. I increased my water intake to 2 litres per day and ensured that it was filtered. After being symptom free for about a year, I reintroduced eggs, some of the nightshades, and the occasional gluten and dairy free dessert with no repercussions. Today, I have a sustainable way of eating that works for me, including foods that feed and repair the cells in my body and excluding those that don’t.
When I was at my most unwell, I was having difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, I was exhausted even after a few hours’ sleep, I was having mood swings and energy crashes throughout the day. This is when I discovered the work of Sara Gottfried MD. She explains that the hormones that usually become imbalanced first are cortisol – stress hormone, and insulin – blood sugar hormone. Of course, hormones don’t work in isolation, therefore when cortisol and insulin are imbalanced it creates a downstream effect on other hormones, such as thyroid hormones, oestrogen, and melatonin. There is emerging evidence to suggest that oestrogen may contribute to the development of autoimmune conditions, yet another reason to keep our hormones balanced. In her book ‘The Hormone Cure’, Sara Gottfried proposes a specific elimination diet to address hormonal imbalances, because when order is restored to the endocrine (hormone producing) glands, the body re-balances and the gut heals. I tweaked my elimination diet to more closely follow Gottfried’s recommendations with great results.
Evidence suggests that psycho-social factors influence the physiology of the gut. Changing your diet can be pivotal in improving your health, however unaddressed stress can increase inflammation in the body and adversely affect the gut. I prioritised daily journaling and took time to talk about, define and examine the stressors in my life. Work was the greatest source of stress; a high level of accountability for patients coupled with their families’ fear for their loved ones’ future, and low-level managerial support had most definitely taken its toll on my body and mind. So too did the childhood trauma of going through a messy and painful divorce, and the on-off bullying I experienced at home and at school. I learned that unresolved emotions and anxiety from past experiences can play out in the subconscious mind on a loop that causes low-level inflammation.
Meditation and visualisation.
I started to meditate in earnest. Prior to this, I regularly attended yoga and the gym, and I convinced myself that I was managing to stave off the stress. In retrospect, if I’m truly honest with myself, I knew that I was struggling. I just didn’t know what to do to make things easier. By taking time out to relax, meditate and visualise, I believe that I created the inner environment to permit change. Because the mind does not recognise the difference between an actual event and an imagined one, when you visualise excellent health, using all the senses, your body believes this and starts to switch on the genes that cause good health in response to this new data.
I made friends with sleep again.
Fatigue was an issue for me. I remember existing on four hours sleep. Nights when I would lie awake for hours. I would try reading, getting up for some water or trips to the toilet to help myself get some sleep. I was exhausted when I woke up and wired when I wanted to go to sleep. I had no energy and resorted to coffee in the morning and when I was wired at night, I would have a glass of red wine to help me unwind. My cortisol levels were out of whack and my adrenals were on the floor, driving the inflammation in my body ever higher.
Movement and exercise improves your immune system functioning. We are designed to be active throughout the day, everyday. However modern life is not designed for this. We sit for hours, looking at a computer screen, or the TV. We subscribe to gyms and talk ourselves out of going. Or we put ourselves through rigorous training and wonder why we don’t have the energy to go more than three times a week. I recall being this way with the gym or hot yoga classes. Exercise felt more like punishment than pleasure.
I changed my attitude to exercise by incorporating little, bite-sized spurts of movement into my day. More walking, some swimming when I could, stretching in the morning. Getting the dose right for your body is key.
There is a quote on Joe Dispenza’s Instagram feed which resonates with me. “What if the worst thing that happened to you turns out to be the best thing that has ever happened to you?” Looking back, I realise that something good has been born out of this difficult experience. My journey back to health had a profound effect on me. It taught me to look outside of the traditional model and to embrace a more holistic and personal approach to regaining my health. I realised that I want to support others to reclaim their health and life using the methods that I used. In 2017 I added health coaching to my skill set and founded Vita, offering coaching programmes to women with overwhelming stress, digestive issues or autoimmune conditions. I believe that there are many routes to excellent health and I want to support women to explore them.
You may also like Healthy Habits In Midlife (This Diet Thing Sucks) and How To Deal With Stress In Midlife – What It Helps Women To Know.
Stacey Scott is the founder of Vita, a health coaching company based in London. She has had several careers including yoga teacher and neuro-occupational therapist, all of which have led to what she is doing now – coaching like-minded women to up-level their health, manage their stress and feel really good about themselves. Stacey believes that when we take responsibility for our own health and wellbeing we can thrive mentally, physically and emotionally. Find out more about Stacey’s work at www.vitahealthcoach.com.