Hashimoto’s Disease (Thyroid Condition)
By Janine Atkinson
Looking back on my childhood growing up in Southern California, I think of all the magic in my life. Of how much I loved singing every song in my Dads CD collection, acting in plays, dancing, performing on stage, writing, reading and learning languages like French and Latin. Of cooking with my mom and riding on my Dads Harley, then coming home to eat ice cream with him. I loved school and was considered a healthy and beautiful child. One of my moms friends always said I was like a wise old soul in a child’s body.
Then in my teens, everything changed when I went to a doctor for a routine checkup. At the time I was experiencing what I thought were simply cold symptoms. He took one look at my neck and said, Wow, your thyroid is really swollen. I had no idea what a thyroid was and was not sure what was wrong. He sent me to an endocrinologist, and I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease where antibodies damage the thyroid cells, interfering with their ability to make thyroid hormones. The parathyroid and the thyroid gland swell up to an abnormal size, having many lumps and nodules within the glands. In my case, it was also sticking to my surrounding vocal chords.
Being an autoimmune disease, my body was attacking itself. I had no idea why, and the many doctors I saw just made it more confusing for me all of them had differing opinions on what was going on, why it happened, and what should be done. Some said it was hyperthyroidism, some said hypothyroidism, while others thought what was going on was normal. I had also heard from them it was very strange for a girl my age to have Hashimoto’s, as mostly women in their 30s or late 40s get it. I was only 14.
After my initial diagnosis I soon developed other, worse symptoms, ranging from depression, fatigue, cold hands and feet, shaking muscles and hands, inability to focus and think, hypoglycemia, weight fluctuation, painful periods, and symptoms resembling irritable bowel syndrome. I was told I would be infertile, my symptoms would never go away, and that I would be lucky to live a fulfilled life.
I was put on a variety of synthetic medicines, given no advice on diet and nutrition, and was told many things would keep getting worse now that I had this disease. There were many tests done, including X-rays and scans, frequent blood tests, and even draining the glands of excess liquid. I was poked and prodded.
Despite all I was put through and the medications, there were no change in results. It was very draining to keep on this way and not feel any better, while trying to find balance, not only with my T3 and T4 levels (thyroid hormone indicators) but also within myself and my life.
The doctors suggested chemotherapy, more medications, radiation, or even to have the thyroid gland completely removed. They never discussed my eating habits, or other forms of treatment such as acupuncture or Chinese herbs.
When I inquired about the recommended surgery, I was told it would take 4 hours at UCLA Medical Center, and entailed completely removing the thyroid gland and parathyroids, and this would mean taking a hormone replacement every day for the rest of my life. During the operation they would have to scrape the sticky gland off my vocal chords, possibly damaging them, and I was warned after the operation my voice might not ever be the same. Because I loved singing, possibly not being able to sing again was a very discouraging prospect. The doctors said even after the operation the various problematic symptoms I had been experiencing most likely wouldn’t get better.
I had to make a decision on how to proceed with medical options. I knew I didn’t want radiation, and the drugs I had been taking weren’t working. After 3 years of drugs, tests, and suffering I couldn’t keep going this way. I had to do something, and thinking the advice I was being given by my doctors were my only options, I had to make a choice based on their advice.
Therefore, at 17 I underwent the surgery to have the glands removed and the vocal chords were scraped. It was a very difficult surgery and recovery thereafter.
I went on two daily synthetic hormone replacement medicines, and as I had been told might happen, my depression and other symptoms did not get better. As my hormones went all over the place I developed new problems: I gained 30-40 pounds, my bra jumped 3 sizes and my skin broke out constantly. I had anxiety, fainting (which I found out later was from the hypoglycemia), and either loss of appetite or a feeling of hunger that could not be satisfied. My eyesight was also becoming worse and I had to get glasses. My voice was recovering, yet it was very hard for me to enjoy singing because I felt self conscious about the way I sounded after the surgery. Because of my excessive weight, a year later, I had a breast reduction surgery, and then the following year, laser eye surgery.
Being only in my teens, it felt like my life had become a constant in and out of doctors offices, with no answers or reassurance, and no relief in symptoms I was feeling there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
I also felt isolated from my peers as they seemed to be completely healthy and could do as they pleased. I just wanted to be a normal kid and enjoy my life.
At 22, I had a spiritual awakening, as some may call it. Even though I was young, I was so unhealthy. I looked at my life and decided I needed to make a change or else I was not going to last much longer. I had addictions to fast food, alcohol, drugs and sugar; I had a complete lack of self worth and esteem, and no motivation or drive. I didn’t want to wake up or do anything, I stopped dancing, singing, writing, enjoying my life. I hadn’t become the person of worth I once believed myself to be: smart, talented, goal-oriented, and happy. I had become a complete stranger to myself and my loved ones.
Although I just wanted to feel like everyone else, I wasn’t taking into account my health differences, and before long the many signs calling me to pay attention became very apparent. I became aware of how highly sensitive I am to anything I consume, and once I realized I needed to detox to get healthy, I moved to North Carolina where my parents lived.
What I ate and put in my body became crucial because if I wanted to recover from my illnesses and not relapse back into drugs and alcohol, I had to be wise in my choices. I couldn’t eat like other people could. While other people could enjoy a cheeseburger or chicken salad, I got sick instantly. My body was giving me very careful signs that I finally had to surrender and listen to.
Reluctant to the idea of rehab or a detox center, I again went to the doctor and was told to take more drugs, such as antidepressants, pain medications, and so forth. This surprised me; I am trying to get healthy and get off drugs and yet the solution was to be given more drugs. For me, personally, I had to go a different way and take a more natural approach, or else it would only continue the cycle of illness.
I started looking up natural remedies, healing teas, vegan recipes and started to see an acupuncturist multiple times a week. I meditated for my mind, and practiced yoga for my body. I started to attend dance classes again as well just being on the floor at all was a huge difference and I realized I left smiling for the first time in a while. If I wanted better health and a longer life, I had to get sober, and give up meat, dairy, gluten, sugar and eggs, and I kept that elimination diet for a few months before realizing I still needed guidance.
The acupuncturist told me it was a shame I didn’t have a session when I was 14, because I could have saved my thyroid gland with just a few simple acupuncture sessions and a change in diet. I had lost a good amount of weight from eliminating all those toxic foods, but I still did not know how to eat properly for health recovery. I was trying to be a gluten-free vegan, so my diet basically consisted of a lot of sugary products and fruit, and was completely out of balance. She told me how these food choices (which I thought were beneficial), were making my hypoglycemia worse. She then told me about macrobiotics and the Kushi Institute in Becket. She encouraged me to not only take a visit to the beautiful campus, but also to go for the gold and attend the Macrobiotic Leadership Program (also known as the Levels), with the goal of becoming a macrobiotic counselor. Macrobiotics had to be a better answer than what I was doing, and I was ready for anything that could bring peace into my life.
Looking at the calendar, I had to make a fast choice. The program started in a week, and it was either go to Kushi Institute right away and push through the three months of the Macrobiotic Leadership Program (also known as the Levels,) or go for a short visit to check it out first, and then decide if I liked it and wanted to attend later. I decided a short visit was a waste of time and money, so I signed up to do the complete program.
I could not have been happier with that choice. As soon as I stepped on the Kushi Institute campus, the energy and beauty enveloped my whole being, and brought a feeling of peace, relief and rejuvenation. The beauty of the Kushi Institute is not only in the lovely natural surroundings of rolling wooded hills, but also the delightful teachers and the nourishing food. There is constantly something new to learn, which invigorates and surprises the mind, body and soul. The food could not be more delicious because of the positive energy put into every step of preparation- the chefs and volunteers keep it lively by singing and laughing, helping each other, and having a genuine appreciation for the meal. I feel this light then shines through the people who come to take a program; they actually feel that loving energy in the food, and then they feel better and better everyday.
At Kushi Institute I discovered so much about myself, and so many new things I can now enjoy throughout my day. I am also so thankful to have met all the wonderful people there from all over the world. I learned that macrobiotics is not about restriction or focusing on what you cant have its about finding balance in all aspects of your life, and finding peace within yourself. I don’t feel deprived when I think of how I used to eat steak, junk food, chicken Caesar salads and lots of cake, because I feel more fulfilled with my delicious healthy food now than I did with those other foods.
Very importantly, my symptoms have lightened, leaving me with a feeling of awe. I feel better now than I ever did growing up. As I write this I have been at Kushi Institute for 5 months (having become a volunteer after 13 weeks in the Levels.) I have been sober for almost 2 years now and I am able to manage my blood sugar levels, my hands and body don’t shake anymore, I can tolerate the cold or heat easier, my weight is at a normal range for my body type, and I have more energy than I did when I was a kid. I jump out of bed now, my mind is clear so my thoughts are too, the dosage of the natural thyroid hormone I take daily to replace the missing gland is lower than it was, and I know from a fertility test than one day I will be able to have a family of my own. I also hold endless appreciation in my heart every day. After everything I had been warned about, I am healing myself of with the power of a plant-based, organic, whole foods, macrobiotic diet and lifestyle.
I am thrilled Im able to continue to teach ballroom dance, and practice all other forms of dancing I love, like belly dancing, salsa dancing, and ballet. I sing as much as possible and also enjoy chanting for meditation. My voice has never sounded stronger or more passionate as since I’ve been at Kushi Institute. I hope to take what Ive learned and teach and cook for many people all over the world, and plant the seed of macrobiotics everywhere I travel. Once I have completed Level 4 (which takes two years), I plan on having a practice as a macrobiotic counselor for individuals and families.
The Greek Philosopher Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” Now I know what my body is telling me I need, and I listen to it, and sometimes its simply a bowl of brown rice.