My health story: living with autoimmune disease
In 2015, while fulfilling my dream of travelling in China and Mongolia, I was feeling incredibly unwell. My year had been super stressful until then, doing two jobs, 10 hours a day. I was also committed to learning swing dance and had signed up to five evening classes a week. After the classes, I would still be finishing off work for my Australian clients and contractors. After nine months of that, I was drained and needed a break. I quit my part-time office job but continued project managing the online business while on my overseas trip.
When I arrived in Turkey, I was still confident that the Mediterranean cuisine of my aunty would cure me, but one month in and I was still struggling with stomach issues. My cousin, a doctor, suggested that she take my blood samples to the hospital lab to have them analysed. My blood work showed I had Hashimoto's – an autoimmune condition that affects the thyroid. I knew little about it, although my dad and brother have the same condition. They hadn't been well in years, and I'd watched their health decline while doctors just monitored the condition.
I was shocked. In my mind, nothing could touch me. I had always considered myself healthy, but if I looked back, I could now see that there had been a gradual decline over the years. My cousin told me that there was nothing I could do, that it would only get worse and that I would be on medication for the rest of my life. I know it doesn't seem very kind, especially coming from a family member, but as it turned out from reading other's stories, this was standard practice. I visited a couple of other doctors, but as they offered medications for symptoms rather than treatment for root causes, I lost my trust in Western medicine and realised I had to become my own expert.
I kept researching and found that recovery would require drastic changes in my lifestyle and diet, or else I was likely to develop other autoimmune diseases. By that time, I already had an 80% chance of being Coeliac. Further tests showed I already had a leaky gut too. I found a lot of different approaches that included very strict, limiting diets. I wasn't sure where to start, but I was willing to give it all a go, despite feeling anxious that I could no longer go out to socialise at restaurants and eat with my friends. I was going to be some kind of picky freak who can't eat the food. Food is, after all, a massive part of every country's culture; it brings people together to share with each other. Food is really our identity, and it's how we build trust.
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Keeping my family stories in mind, I slowly started cutting out allergenic foods out of my diet. That year on my way back to New Zealand, I ate my last Haagen Dazs dairy ice-cream on the plane. I had to accept my vulnerability and be willing to build my life around it. I went through a phase of feeling sorry for myself, believing that I no longer fit in with everyone else who was healthy. I mentioned this during a meeting with my nutritionist while he discussed my test results. He had a plan of attack requiring more lifestyle changes, but I felt overwhelmed. I wasn't going to filter my water, avoid using microwaves and plastic food containers, use a sleep app, do fasting days, chuck out the non-stick pan and do a six-week programme on supplements that would cost me hundreds of dollars. It's easy to say "Why me?" and slip into a victim attitude. So, I looked for groups on social media that were full of people with autoimmune conditions or people with allergies that were hopeful, supportive and had a growth mindset.
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Today, even though my autoimmune condition is not yet in remission, it ended up being good for me. It taught me to take care of myself as I had never done before, with the necessary discipline, to be patient with myself, to be inconvenient and to invest time in something I took for granted, my health. This led to benefit other areas of my life. I don't use my condition to make excuses for myself. I changed to a better job with set days and hours, and I am enjoying a diet that could be considered boring by most people, focusing more on nutrients rather than serving the purpose of comfort.
To people with digestive problems, I would suggest finding a practitioner who will order the right tests for you. Don't get lost on the internet or obsess over following a trend. Make the required lifestyle changes to reduce stress, and follow through with what works for you religiously, while being open to discovery along the way. You are your own experiment, so listen to your body; often it will tell you what's right for you, despite any biased opinions around you. Trust your gut!
Olga Celikoglu is a guest contributor to this month's My Health Story series. The thoughts and opinions expressed are hers. Habit recommends always seeking the advice of trained health and fitness experts before engaging in any diet or exercise programmes.
My Health Story is a new series written by individuals bringing attention to conditions or situations. Would you like to send us a health story? Send us an email.