Monday, 3 December 2012

"Eat yourself fitter" a surprising tale of dietary adjustment

I've mentioned a few times of late how changing my diet has seemed to make a big difference to how well I've been the last few months.

But I haven't told you the whole story have I? Well here it is.

Before we start, I'd also like to share a charming little tune you may like to listen to while you read, "Eat Yourself Fitter", by punk heroes of my youth, The Fall. Okay, the soundtrack is entirely optional and may not be to everyone's taste (pardon the pun), but here's the full unexpurgated tale of what I am almost confident enough to call my recovery....

gluten free and #healthyyum breakfast
I first heard about how going gluten free can be worthwhile for some people with thyroid problems quite early on in my illness, late 2009 when I was so unwell I was desperate for a solution and spent a lot of time online trying to make sense of all the conflicting information out there. I heard about Gluten Free (or #GF) from several different sources, many of which seemed highly unreliable and in the end I kind of wrote it off as unlikely to make a difference and not worth trying.

How I wish I hadn't done that back then.

What I read was that good health is dependent on good gut function and low thyroid hormones will impact gut health which in turn also then makes it difficult for our bodies to use (natural OR medically prescribed) thyroid hormones effectively. Some people don't get on with gluten, for a complex and not fully understood raft of reasons. They may find going gluten free makes them feel a lot better and even if you have a blood test that says you are NOT intolerant to gluten you may find that you actually ARE and that it is worth giving it a try.

But I also read that giving up gluten was really difficult and there is no proof that it is worth doing.

Bizarrely my first ever appointment with an endocrinologist included her mentioning, in passing really, that it might be worth me trying to go gluten free, but she was also willing to prescribe me T3 medicine and I was  focused on that first and foremost. How wrong I now think I was. And I wish she had made more of a big deal about the idea and actually encouraged me to give going gluten free a try.

I started taking T3 meds alongside my thyroxine (T4 meds) in July 2010. Six months later I also started taking Vitamin D supplements after a blood test showed I was deficient. Both of those things appeared to make me feel better than I had done before, but the benefit of the T3 seemed to tail off after a while, even though the dose was increased. My weight slowly continued to increase (by more than 20 pounds over the course of two years, I got quite porky) and I still felt tired and a bit vacant a lot of the time.

Subsequently, at several of the patient information events I have since held for The British Thyroid Foundation in London, we have had several endocrinologists reiterate what that first one said to me - that trialing a gluten free diet seems to help a lot of thyroid patients and is worth trying if all else seems to be failing. Why, oh why did I not heed this advice sooner? The answer is that it was never really emphasised, no-one credible ever seemed very serious about it.

Early in 2012 I got a bug. A really horrible cough that wouldn't go. It lasted for weeks. My doctor tried me on antibiotics and steroids, she gave me an asthma inhaler which I was using, at one point, more than ten times a day, she also said she thought it might be partially allergy related and gave me antihistamines and a high strength nasal spray. I had to keep going back to the doctors, I was really quite worried, nothing seemed to shift this wheezy cough.

Then a random conversation with a pharmacists assistant changed my life.*

The pharmacy operated an allergy clinic. I knew this, I hadn't been. I had had enough of people telling me they knew just what would cure all my symptoms and all I had to do was pay for the benefit of their expertise or witch doctor medicine. When you're visibly poorly this happens a lot and I've become very cynical about promises of miracle cures, especially when there's a price tag attached.  One day I'll write about my experiences of alternative  medicine and you will howl with laughter (or cry real tears) at my past gullibility.

But this girl had nothing to gain. She just worked in the shop, she wasn't on commission. She'd seen me several times over the preceding weeks, picking up different medicines for my cough and expressing frustration that it still hadn't shifted.  I mentioned to her the doctor thought there was an allergy component to the illness and she told me how the allergy clinic at the pharmacy had helped her. Basically she'd been diagnosed with a load of food intolerances by the pharmacist, after years of terrible health, and now she feels radiantly healthy and she recommended I book an appointment. £20. Cheap.

I saw the guy the next day. He said lots of people with unexplained symptoms have food intolerances, usually either to wheat or dairy. He said he recommends avoiding first one then the other potential irritant for two weeks each and after a month of noting symptoms and food intake we would probably know if I was one of those people.

Blimey, it was miraculous. In the first two weeks I ate no wheat. My cough went, my itchy eyes cleared up, I had more energy. I decided that wheat definitely wasn't good for me and I cut it out from then on. Whenever I forgot and ate a bit I would get itchy eyes and feel rotten. It was totally straightforward.

In the second two weeks I also cut out dairy. I didn't notice much difference. I don't eat a lot of dairy anyway. It seems dairy is not really an issue for  me. Everyone is different. At the end of my first wheat free month I'd lost seven pounds. Just like that.

I was delighted. As well as the symptom reduction I was thrilled about the weight loss, which continued at the same rate, slowly and comfortably, in the following weeks. A couple of months later I decided to go one step further and do a couple of weeks of a very low carb diet to see if I could shift a bit more weight. I am very vain and the weight loss was a great incentive. After another month I'd dropped another seven pounds and I realised that I'd accidentally gone gluten free.

Since then I've continued with a gluten free diet which is also pretty low in fast burning carbs. I've lost all the weight I'd gained. I look and feel MUCH better. I don't have itchy eyes or brain fog anymore.

I've read that when you have a food intolerance you can eat a little bit of what you're intolerant to once you've avoided it for 3 months or more. So once in a blue moon now I'll eat a bit of nice bread or flapjack if I'm out and it's being offered. I'm  not rigid about the low carb thing, I'll have roast potatoes with my roast dinner at the weekend, if we go out for dinner I'll have a pudding and eat whatever else turns up on my plate.

I don't eat commercial "gluten free"  food substitutes like gluten free bread or pasta because I know that they are just other kinds of fast burning carbs that I may not actually be intolerant to but will not be good for me.

I think I probably have more low level food intolerances yet to be identified, my skin is still not perfect, I still get a bit phlegmy some days. But basically I'm back to being slim and looking healthy. My digestion is pretty normal. My energy is much better. I'm a hundred times clearer headed. I'm continuing to pay attention to how I feel after I've eaten different things and I hope in time to work out what else might be affecting me adversely to a greater or lesser extent so that I can improve my health even more.  I'm trying to find an expert in the field of thyroid and nutrition to come and talk to our group.

On the whole  I am now a poster girl for going gluten free and low carb. I know it doesn't work for everyone but if you are one of those people who's thyroid blood tests appear to be "normal" yet you still feel unwell I think this is something well worth your while trying. And remember, don't fill up on artificial commercially produced high carb "gluten free" alternatives as they are likely to keep you feeling unwell. Go for natural healthy food that won't play havoc with your blood sugar.

Great sources of more information that I have found useful include the books Wheat Belly and the South Beach Diet.   

There are lots of great websites and groups for swapping healthy eating inspiration online. Since first writing this post I've now set up a #healthyum page on this blog to share some of my own invented recipes and highlight some of my favourite sources of further healthy eating related information and support. Let me know if you have other specific information sources you'd like me to add to the page.

*By the way, there's another great track by The Fall called Mr Pharmacist..... rock on.

with smiles



  1. I have only just discovered your blog and I would just like to say how helpful I have found it. I was diagnosed with Hashimotos in 2011 and it has not been a very easy time since then. My blood tests are now 'optimal' according to the endocrinologist but I still feel rubbish. Your posts have given me a lot to think about and I am very grateful for that. I tried gluten free when I was at my worst but I think I will try it again. I hope you are feeling well.

    1. Hi, thanks so much for sharing that. I found that going gluten free gradually was easier than doing it all at once and I noticed an almost immediate improvement just from cutting out wheat so you might want to think about following a similar route, be gentle with yourself and take your time. I also know that if you go gluten free but actually just switch to all those commercial "gluten free alternatives" - gluten free bread, pasta, etc, you may well not feel much benefit because the fast burning carbs in those processed foods may be as bad for you as gluten itself (in fact may be more of a problem). Wheat Belly is a great book that explains this in more detail. Switching to real alternatives, whole foods not processed stuff, is likely to be more helpful. Keep me posted, I hope you feel better soon. I was pretty undisciplined aroud food over Christmas and as a result am a bit foggy and bloated now but I had a nice time and reckon it was worth it! I believe I know how to get back on track now and am not worried. Hope you also enjoyed the holidays! :)

  2. you've made my day. i don't think any physician has captured the tru essence of thyroid disease. my husband has not taken the time to study/understand my condition and it hurts me.And to make matters worse, the good DR's haven't been much help.Take new pills, never suggest a proper diet for condition. Family Dr actually suggested bariatric surgey.i would rather try thyroid diet than get cut. he neds to quit shaking his damn money maker!!!!

    1. Hi, so sorry to hear you have been having such a difficult time. My husband also doesn't really understand the detail of my illness and I wish he would as it would be helpful, but I'm lucky he is VERY understanding and supportive otherwise. He just doesn't know what TSH, T4 or any of that stuff is about and would be no use at all talking to a doctor about it on my behalf if the need arose! I'm guessing from your "money maker" reference that you're not in the UK where we're lucky enough to have the NHS that is paid for by our taxes rather than the individual. I do think there seem to be a lot of private docs, particularly those in other countries (like the US) who seem to be more interested in making money than treating patients to help us get well and I am so thankful for the system we have in the UK, even though it's not perfect. there are some good doctors trying to understand hard to treat hypothyroidism and there is some good research being conducted but more is needed and my personal feeling is that there is a long way to go and too many patients suffering needlessly in the meantime. It's a shame. At least we can support each other and share information and do our best to influence how the medical profession treats this tricky disease. Nothing stays the same. Let's hope this will be a good year for all of us. Let me know if you make some progress by changing your diet. Good luck and good health in 2012!

  3. Hi, Lorraine,
    Just a note to let you know that I appreciate your sharing on your blog. I'm an American who had RAI back in 2005 and have been messing around since then, trying to figure out the best medication-lifestyle to feel well. I found your blog about a week ago and like your writing. It's clear, personal and kind. I too have experienced success cutting out gluten. Although I've been fooling around with added T3 for years, it seems like I can never find a stable level. I would like for just plain T4 to work and may give that a go again after reading your experience.
    Thank you so much for your time and effort creating your blog!


    1. Hi Alyson, thanks so much for your generous feedback. I'm really pleased you like the blog and it's so interesting to hear from other people who are on a similar journey. I hope you'll share again. Sending smiles and good luck.

      Lorraine :)

  4. Lorraine,

    Very interesting post. My TSH test just came back "normal" but I still do not feel right. I am slowly and steadily putting on more and more weight and I have no energy to do anything... I just sleep all the time. I have only had my TSH levels checked and I have never had the T4, Free T3, or Free T4 tests done. I'm thinking about requesting those tests from my physician. Then again, some of my problems may also be stemming from my recent diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea, for which I begin treatment for next week. Thank you for your information!

    1. Hi Rachel, thanks for visiting the blog. The sleep apnea or indeed something else may be contributing to your symptoms. Equally, many doctors will consider tweaking your thyroxine dose while keeping your TSH within the normal range. there is evidence to say that many of us feel better when our TSH is towards the bottom of the range, so that's also worth discussing with your physician. If you're in the UK and your blood tests seem normal but you still feel unwell you should be referred to an endocrinologist who can do further tests, your GP can also do further investigations, such as for vitamin deficiencies or other conditions. A GP often can't test for FT3 as UK labs often won't do the test unless it's requested by an endocrinologist but I don't know why they wouldn't check your Free T4, I'd ask the question.... Good luck!

  5. Hey Lorraine! I don't want to brag, but my endocrinologist is fantastic. He's actually got me on his own version of the Mediterranean diet, and it's giving me great results! I mean, sometimes it's a pain in the butt, but I feel like I can lead a mostly normal life now. :)

    You should check it out! His name is Dr. Arem, and he made his diet a book - The Thyroid Solution Diet. It's pretty awesome. :)

    1. Hi Kerse, thanks for your post. I checked out the link to Dr Arem and his book. I was surprised and actually concerned to see that he recommends taking iodine supplements. I've always been told that taking iodine can exacerbate or even cause an autoimmune thyroid condition. I've emailed him to ask if he can explain his thinking at all. I'm incredibly interested in nutritional approaches to thyroid disease, but it's a highly controversial area so I'm also very wary of people selling books and supplements as Dr Arem does.