I Was Diagnosed with Two Autoimmune Conditions — This Is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet I Use to Combat Them

By Deanna deBara
|
February 23, 2022
blueberry spinach recipe

After months of alarming symptoms — bone-crushing exhaustion, shedding more hair than a Golden Retriever in the springtime, and a brain fog so thick I could barely focus enough to make it through a YouTube video — I finally received a diagnosis: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. I was in my early 30s, and I officially had my first autoimmune disease.

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With Hashimoto’s, the immune system produces antibodies that attack the thyroid, a small gland in the neck that produces hormones your body needs to regulate your metabolism. Over time, those antibodies damage the thyroid to the point where it can’t produce enough of those metabolism-regulating hormones. This results in a condition called hypothyroidism, the driving force behind all the super fun symptoms I was experiencing in the months leading up to my diagnosis.

I’m not going to lie: The next few years were a struggle. It took a really long time to figure out the right combination of medications (and the right dosages) to keep my symptoms under control. And even when the medications finally did get figured out, I’d have a blissful month or two when I felt “normal,” but then the medications would stop working — and I’d have to start the whole process over again.

But after a lot of trial and error, I finally got into a groove. My doctor and I landed on what seemed like the perfect medication regimen, and for a few years, my symptoms were completely manageable. Things were great. Sure, I had Hashimoto’s, but I’d gotten it under control and I finally didn’t have to think about having an autoimmune condition every single day.

That is, until I found myself dealing with yet another autoimmune disease.

Autoimmune disease: Round 2

One morning, I woke up with a pretty intense pain in my left foot — pain that would hit hard any time I put pressure on it (you know… like walking to the sink for a glass of water). I had no clue where the pain was coming from, but after a months-long process, my doctors finally discovered what was going on: an MRI revealed a large growth that was compressing a nerve in my foot.

Originally, the doctor thought it was a nerve tumor called a neuroma. But after I had surgery to remove the growth, the pathologist found the growth to be more consistent with a rheumatoid nodule, which is a symptom of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that attacks the joints. I wasn’t having any other symptoms of RA, but my surgeon recommended I see a rheumatologist anyway. After another year of testing (and more issues with my foot, even after surgery), I was ultimately diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

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That was a few months ago. Before I go any further, I want to acknowledge that I am very, very lucky. We caught my RA in the very early stages and I was diagnosed pretty quickly, which isn’t the case for a lot of patients. I’m also not experiencing a ton of symptoms: Other than the issues I’m having with my foot, all my other joints seem to be doing just fine. Basically, the RA hasn’t progressed very far — and the hope is that with the right treatment, we can keep it that way.

That’s encouraging — and overall, I feel like I’ve been able to keep a positive perspective around this new diagnosis. 

But that’s not to say I don’t have my moments. Sometimes, the thought of dealing with not one, but two autoimmune diseases for the rest of my life feels completely and totally overwhelming. What if my Hashimoto’s symptoms start flaring up again? What if the RA gets worse? What if both of those things happen at the same time — and it prevents me from living the life I want to live?

Focusing on what I can control

Some moments can feel pretty dark. But when I’m spiraling in a sea of “what ifs?” and worst-case scenarios, the best way to bring myself back to the light is focusing on the things I can control. I’ve made some big diet changes (more on this in a minute) but in addition to these, I’ve also started doing yoga every day. Not only does yoga help with flexibility and mobility (a huge benefit for people living with RA), it also helps me feel less stressed and more at ease — which isn’t just a benefit to my mental health, but to managing my autoimmune diseases as well. This is because stress has actually been shown in scientific studies to contribute to chronic inflammation.

Transitioning to an anti-inflammatory diet

One aspect of life I am in control of is my diet. Inflammation plays a major role in Hashimoto’s (inflammation of the thyroid) and rheumatoid arthritis (inflammation of the joints), so I’ve been working on incorporating more anti-inflammatory recipes into my weekly meal plan. Here are some of my current favorite anti-inflammatory meals and drinks, which feature ingredients that have been shown to reduce inflammation:

Breakfast: Blueberry smoothie

Smoothies are one of my go-to breakfasts. Not only are they delicious, but they also offer the opportunity to get in a host of anti-inflammatory foods first thing in the morning. While my smoothie recipes change based on my mood (and what’s in my fridge!), they almost always include some sort of berry — like blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries. Berries are packed with anthocyanins, antioxidants that have been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects in humans (and, fun fact, also give berries their color). 

This blueberry smoothie recipe is quick, easy, delicious, and packed with anti-inflammatory ingredients. 

Lunch: Kale salad

Salads are a great way to incorporate a variety of anti-inflammatory foods in a single meal. But while I love fancy salads with tons of ingredients, I rarely have the time, energy, or skill to put one together — so, if I’m going to reap the inflammation-fighting benefits of a good salad, it needs to be quick and easy to put together.

That’s why I love a simple kale salad. Leafy greens, like kale, are packed with nutrients and antioxidants that fight inflammation, like vitamins A, C, and K. I just toss some kale in a bowl, drizzle with a bit of lemon juice and extra olive oil (which also fights inflammation!), and top with whatever vegetables I have on hand. (I added carrots, broccoli, red onion, and almonds to my last salad — and it was fantastic.) But if you have time to fancy-up your salad a bit more, this recipe is a great one. 

Dinner: Kitchari

One of my all-time favorite meals to make for dinner (or any meal, really) is kitchari, an Ayurvedic recipe that’s packed with anti-inflammatory ingredients like turmeric, ginger, carrots, and spinach. 

Basically, to make kitchari, you throw a bunch of vegetables and spices into an Instant Pot with some rice and moong dal lentils, then pressure cook until everything comes together into an almost porridge-like consistency. Then, you top the kitchari with whatever you’d like (I usually go with cilantro and chopped tomato) and voila, your delicious, nutritious, anti-inflammatory dinner is ready to go. 

Drink: Ginger tea

I’m a big water drinker. But I love having a warm cup of tea before bed — and recently, I’ve been making that nightcap a ginger tea, since ginger has a host of anti-inflammatory properties

Basically, I’m taking the steps I need to take to make myself feel the best that I can. And while there’s a lot that I can’t control about my diagnoses, making positive changes where I can makes me feel empowered and strong — which helps me continue to make positive changes.

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if my autoimmune diseases will get better or worse or a combination of both. But what I do know is that today, I’m feeling pretty great, and I’m doing what I can to continue feeling that way — and that’s enough.

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