I have been trying to figure out a way to work exercise into my life since I was 16 and started packing on a few extra pounds due to a lack of any kind of sport in my life and eating half a bag of cookies in front of the TV after school each day. When I was a young child, my mom would round the kitchen corner and have to pry a stick of butter out of my greasy hands. I’ve been staring down this demon since I can remember.
The exercise dilemma and weight debate is my greatest frenemy. My desire to be thinner, to find adventure, and to have something to call my own has led me to do great things that my 16-year-old self never thought possible.
I took up cycling in my twenties (Thank you ex-boyfriend! I am forever in your debt.). I’ve cycled over 200 miles in two days from Portland to Seattle. I’ve done centuries in the wine country, I’ve hiked 40 miles in 3 days on the PCT, I’ve run a half marathon (Full marathons appeal to me about as much as that scene in Castaway when he has to perform a tooth extraction.). I’ve done jazzercise, step, pilates, yoga, hot yoga, PiYo, spin class, weight lifting, you get the idea. In fact, something tells me, I’ve seen you in class.
And yet, it hasn’t been easy or consistent. Rather, it’s been in spurts of youth, of singleness, of wellness, and of sheer drive. My desire to be thinner has also led me to fall into negative self-talk, emotionally eating and complaining about it to the ones I love the most who patiently nod and offer suggestions that I shoot down mid-sentence. Because, you know, I already thought of that.
The upshot of this is that an autoimmune condition (or any dis-ease) drops all of that balancing, scheduling, next-big-event-planning, training, and goal-setting on it’s keister. Upshot you ask? I don’t see it. I didn’t either. I’m only now beginning to get a glimpse of the plus side of maintaining fitness in the face of managing Hashis. Did you see what I just did there? I changed “thinner” to “fitness.” Sneaky, I know.
One particular episode in my life illustrates the upshot. Last summer, I started a spin class. I loved that class. The instructor ironically screamed amazing things in our faces, such as, “Yes, you can! Yes, you will!” And “If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!” I had a coach who cared, I made spin class friends who became my tribe, and I was in sync with this two-day a week morning routine. It fit into my schedule beautifully for the first time ever. I’d finally found that magic, elusive balance that crazy-fit, pre-med students discover at 25 while getting 3 hours of sleep and working 16-hour days. How do they figure that out at such a young age anyway?!
I was really hitting my stride in spin class in about October. I was four months in and was dropping weight, building muscle, no longer eyeing the clock or needing to sit back in the saddle with sore quads during an uphill sprint, when one week I just didn’t have the same gusto. I could barely get through class. I was tired and no longer on a high when I finished. The next week was the same. I started skipping classes for more sleep. At the same time, my new job (hello life stressor!) was demanding more of me, and I was getting up early to do work in effect, getting less sleep.
With this energy decline, I suspected the usual and went in for lab work. My TSH had climbed from a 1 in July to a 14 by December.
It wasn’t the first time a big spike like this happened to me, but it was the first time I’d spiked this high. When I reluctantly asked about exercise, my doctor wisely advised against spin class entirely. He recommended yoga and walking. The intellectual autoimmune patient understood completely. The aspiring athlete in me cried.
It is only natural to resist. I want to say “F$%* it! I’m going on a three-mile jog if it kills me!” And it doesn’t. But then after my awesome runner’s high and feeling of empowerment, three hours later I need a nap and I’m grouchy. Oh, that’s right. My body doesn’t want to do this. At least not right now.
If you don’t know by now, adrenal fatigue is real. It’s the body’s continued attempt to run at top speeds from the metaphorical tiger that is chasing it. And in this hectic, digital, go go go age, we are all running from tigers.
According to James L. Wilson, author of Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome, “Adrenal fatigue, in all its mild and severe forms, is usually caused by some form of stress. Stress can be physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, infectious, or a combination of these. It is important to know that your adrenals respond to every kind of stress the same, whatever the source.”
I think we know the causes of adrenal fatigue. Job, family (including the furry kids), friends, bills, car breakdowns, people breakdowns, never saying “no,” thinking you’re not enough or doing enough or doing it right. Reader, I think you understand me.
So, on the other side of adrenal fatigue are the symptoms. It can cause a general feeling of unwellness and spikes in cortisol levels. It affects insulin function, disrupts sleep patterns, and weakens the immune system. And if the adrenals are taxed, one cannot address thyroid problems. The adrenal glands must be healed first—they are a gateway to thyroid health. And we wonder why so many people have thyroid conditions?
To get well, you have to change who you spend your time with. Your new friends are sleep, stress reduction (mental, emotional, physical), good fats, and adaptogens. Your enemies are stimulants. Goodbye caffeine and booze! Goodbye nightlife! Say adios to sugar and carbs. Hello herbal tea and 9-10 hours of sleep a night.
And then, when you feel more human, you can work in some stretching, some short walks, some meditation, some yoga. It can take months or longer to heal the adrenals. On his web site, Dr. Axe distills adrenal fatigue to the basics and provides tips (including a wonderful infograph you can print and put on your fridge) to help heal your adrenals naturally: https://draxe.com/3-steps-to-heal-adrenal-fatigue/
And so I followed my doctor’s advice, and I have begun to feel better and better over the last several months. I’m heavier, yes. But I also don’t need naps each afternoon. I’m not suffering (nor is my husband) from mood swings. I’m in control and have energy. I’ll take the temporary weight gain any day to feel good. Besides, this is why we have several sizes of clothes in our closets, right Ladies?
The real goal has nothing to do with tight black dresses, skinny jeans (Who ever thought these were okay to invent anyway?), mileage, or trophies anymore. My father, a master of recovering from surgeries to be a warrior again, said this in his toast at my wedding, “It’s not how far you go or how fast; it’s how well you bounce.”
Resilience and loving myself are my goals. I’m attempting to transfer who I was as an eater and an exerciser and what I think of that person to who I can realistically be and love while managing an autoimmune condition.
This time to bounce back has forced me to look exercise in the eyes and to really see her. She’s not my enemy. I must find a way to keep her in my life. I need her. Because, like many of us, I need to exorcise the demons in me. Girl, I got some crazy-ass monsters in my brain. That runner’s high and the cycling peace-of-mind gets the demons out. Those endorphins and that serotonin kick those bastards in the balls. A nice side benefit is I’m less likely to harm those around me. And I get to be happy ol’ me again. It’s lovely. Really.
But what to do? Literally. What exercise can one do with Hashis and an un-ideal TSH?
I love yoga. I wish I could afford hot yoga because that is the bomb diggity. The sweat releases toxins, the poses encourage blood flow to the thyroid, and the list goes on. It’s like an ocean sunset for my entire body.
Pilates makes my hips and butt smaller and gives me abs of steel and amazing posture (also good for the thyroid). And I can do it in my living room.
But these exercises don’t give me a rush of cooling wind on my flushed cheeks. I don’t feel like Superwoman, conquering the evil of the world. I don’t hear the Rocky theme song in my head. It’s just not the same.
Will I ever again be able to kick ass, to feel the burn, to aspire to “no pain, no gain,” to feel the sweat run down my neck?
So I returned to Google, a loyal pal indeed, for some inspiration.
And I found this amazing lady. Tasha is a single mother of two, who discovered she had Hashis, Celiac disease, and many other food intolerances, leading her to the Autoimmune Paleo Diet (AIP). And the kicker? After years of being sick and fighting for wellness, she is now an ultramarathoner. There is hope. (https://spibelt.com/illness-ultramarathon-hashimotos-disease/)
Further research helped me understand how I could get from “Hey, I’m starting to feel like I can actually ride my bike now” to “I want to train for a metric century.”
Dr. Datis Kharrazian, research fellow at Harvard Medical School and the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital is the author of several books, including Why do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When my Lab Tests Are Normal? His advice to athletes with hypothyroidism and Hashimotos is to avoid overtraining (https://drknews.com/the-hypothyroid-athlete/).
Based on the research, clearly the new balance (pun intended) for an autoimmune sufferer is no longer a question of merely “fitting in” exercise. It’s much more complex. It’s getting well enough (adrenal glands! TSH.) to even begin an exercise program. It’s finding the right diet/nutrition plan for your body and disease, including addressing intolerances (gluten free, dairy free, ______). It’s approaching your fitness goals with body awareness, flexibility, compassion, and grace.
It’s being comfortable and feeling better each day in the body you have right now and believing the rest will come.
For those of you, like me, who are in the phases of trying to get off the couch, I recommend stepping into the fresh air and walking around the block. It’s that simple, and it’s so good. If possible, get into the woods or on a beach or near a river. Nature walks heal so much more than just the body and they get the blood flowing to your thyroid, your brain, your beautiful heart.
The best part is when the blood starts pumping, the demons get scared.
Below is a list of my favorite DVDs/videos that get the blood pumping with minimal effort and time but with wonderful effects.
Rodney Yee’s AM Yoga for Your Week
Any of the Mari Winsor Pilates DVDs, although starting with a beginners’ DVD is best if you’re still healing or have never done Pilates
This little gem I found on Youtube from YOGATX. It’s free!
Improve Thyroid Health – 20 Minute Yoga Flow for Thyroid Symptoms