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My Autoimmune Journey
I couldn’t believe this was happening to me.
I was lying in bed, clutched in the grip of a panic attack. I wanted desperately to continue with my second year of medical school. But I was struggling with the nightmarish symptoms of Graves’ disease, an autoimmune condition in which the thyroid gland attacks itself and overproduces its own hormone. Awful as the symptoms were, the helplessness was worse—the feeling that my life was no longer my own.
The first signs had shown up early into my second year of medical school. As happens with most autoimmune disorders, I had no idea what was going on. For the first time in my life I was seized by panic attacks. Despite barely exercising and consuming massive quantities of pizza and oatmeal cookies, I was shedding weight like a marathon runner. I went from a size 4 to a size 0 within a few months. Yeah, that sounds like the ideal weight-loss plan, but in fact, it was terrifying to suddenly drop so much weight for no apparent reason. I was always in a mild sweat. My heart never stopped racing. My mind was racing too, partly from the disease and partly because I was just so scared. My legs were so weak, they shook every time I went down a flight of stairs. When I picked up a pen to take notes in class, my hand shook with a tremor I could barely control.
Then the insomnia kicked in. I tossed and turned, night after night. I felt as though I were living in a prison of anxiety, dizziness, and fatigue.
Finally, my tremor got so bad that my friends noticed it. They were alarmed and convinced me to go see a doctor—who quickly brushed aside my concerns. “I think this is just stress,” she said briskly. “You’re a second-year medical student, and it’s very common to think you have every disease you’re currently learning about. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
Painful as her response was, it provided a valuable lesson. Today, when a patient comes to me in tears, insisting that there’s a part of her story that her physician has overlooked, I am always ready to hear her out. “You know your own body better than I do,” I tell my patients, wishing that first doctor had said something similar to me.
At least I knew enough to trust my own instincts. After all, I’d been through plenty of stressful times in my life, and I’d never responded like this. Like the feisty Louisiana woman I had been raised to be, I demanded a full workup and lab testing.
It turned out my instincts were right on the money. I wasn’t just panicking over courses and exams. I wasn’t mysteriously going insane. I had an actual, diagnosable condition: Graves’ disease. Finally, my misery had a name.
Learning the name of my condition was just about the last comfort I got, however, because the conventional medical treatments for Graves’ were pretty terrifying.
There were three choices on the menu, and none of them seemed like the route to a happy life. The first and least invasive choice was to take a drug known as propylthiouracil (PTU). The PTU was supposed to stop my thyroid from working so hard and keep it from overproducing the hormone.
That sounds good, right? Then I looked at the side effects. Here’s just a partial list: rash, itching, hives, abnormal hair loss, changes in skin pigmentation, swelling, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, loss of taste, joint or muscle aches, numbness, and headaches.
Okay. What were my other options?
Well, basically they were two different ways of destroying my thyroid gland. I could have it removed surgically. Or I could have a procedure known as thyroid ablation, which involves swallowing a radioactive pill to kill the gland.
Despite my enrollment in a conventional medical school, I believed there were other roads to health besides medications and surgery. For example, nutrition was clearly instrumental in short-term and long-term health.
When I was a kid, my mom made much of our food from scratch: whole-wheat bread, plain organic yogurt, granola and oatmeal cookies, and peppers and tomatoes that she grew right in our own garden. We didn’t go in for packaged, processed foods; we barely had any canned foods in our cupboards. We always ate our meals together, as a family—mostly 1970s health food, like brown rice, tofu, sprouts, and vegetables. We rarely got sick, and I was proud of the healthy diet that kept us well. At age fourteen, I even became a vegetarian.
Then my mom got cancer.
My mother had always been the vision of health. She looked ten or fifteen years younger than her actual age, jogged three miles each day, and even taught yoga. But out of the blue she had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, a disease for which conventional medicine has no cure.
That was a real wake-up call for me. I discovered that you can be doing all the right things—or what you believe to be the right things—and still get terribly ill. To some extent this is because most serious illnesses are multifactorial.
Genetics plays a role. So does our toxic environment. I also discovered—although not for several more years—that our “healthy” family diet had actually been poisoning us all. The whole-wheat bread, grains, and legumes that formed the basis of our family meals were full of inflammatory chemicals that might well have triggered my mom’s cancer, worsened my father’s autoimmune disease, and set me up for my own health problems. Meanwhile, Mom’s illness made it crystal clear how completely resistant most conventional doctors are to any unconventional approach, especially when it concerns nutrition, supplements, or something natural.
When I asked Mom’s doctor about some new healing foods I had learned of, her doctor simply scoffed, mocking the very idea that nutrition could play a major role. “Your mom could put a watermelon in her ear and jump up and down on one foot, and that might help too, but it probably won’t,” he told me. As I prepared for medical school, I understood that this response would be typical of the mind-set
I would encounter. My plan from the start had been to become an integrative physician who viewed the body as a whole and used diet and natural approaches as much as possible. Mom’s experience simply confirmed just how difficult it would be to integrate these two approaches.
Meanwhile, conventional medicine could offer my mother nothing except chemotherapy, which they didn’t even expect to provide a cure, only to delay the inevitable. My mother died less than five months after she was diagnosed. I entered medical school the following year—and one year later I was suffering from Graves’.
I now know that besides diet, stress is a big factor in the development of autoimmunity. The stress of my mother’s death had clearly helped to trigger my Graves’ disease. But there were other factors involved as well:
Diet. As a vegetarian, my diet was based on lots of gluten, grains, and legumes, as well as dairy products, nuts, and seeds. These seemingly healthy foods had actually inflamed my system, setting me up for problems with my immune system. If, like many people, I had a genetic predisposition to autoimmunity, this diet would virtually ensure that my predisposition would turn into a full-blown disease.
Leaky gut. My carb-heavy diet set me up for a condition known as “small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO),” which in turn created leaky gut, in which my intestinal walls became permeable, with dangerous consequences for my digestive and immune systems.
Toxins. Heavy metals are another factor in triggering autoimmune conditions, and I had had a lot of exposure to mercury: through the weekly vaccinations I got in the Peace Corps, in all the canned tuna I loved to eat, and on an extended stay in China, where the air pollution is loaded with heavy metals. Had I reduced my exposure to mercury, I could have lightened my toxic burden and perhaps my immune system would not have gone out of whack.
Infections. Certain types of infections are another risk factor for autoimmunity. And guess what. I had had one of them: the Epstein–Barr virus (EBV), which had given me a bad case of mononucleosis when I was in high school. The EBV is also implicated in chronic fatigue syndrome, which is why people who suffer from that condition are also at risk for autoimmune disorders.
If I had known then what I know now, I would have understood how many risk factors I had—and I would have known how to use diet, gut healing, detox, and stress relief to prevent my condition. Had
I still succumbed to an autoimmune disorder, I would at least have been able to treat myself, easing my symptoms, regaining my health, and avoiding the horrific options offered by conventional medicine.
But this was back in the year 2000, and functional medical approaches were in their infancy. My conventional doctors gave me the three unpleasant options, and as far as I knew, those were the only choices I had.
Despite my growing lack of faith in conventional medicine, I did not want to abandon it entirely.
So, reluctantly, I opted for the PTU. I got my first lesson in the potentially disastrous side effects when I developed toxic hepatitis a few months later as the prescription drug started destroying my liver.
The condition was so severe, I was sent for extended bed rest and nearly had to drop out of medical school. My choices were now surgery or ablation—remove my thyroid or destroy it. Meanwhile, I was still eating my “healthy” grain-based diet, which was still causing my immune system to attack my thyroid. I chose ablation and said good-bye to my thyroid, a choice I regret to this day. If only I had known about functional medicine, I might still have my thyroid today, living symptom-free and healthy with my body intact.
At the time, though, I knew no other way. Yet even then I intuitively knew that there was a better way—an approach to health that worked with the body’s natural healing ability instead of attacking the body with harsh drugs and invasive surgery.
I had entered medical school committed to finding this other type of healing, and I sought out every possible place where I might learn more about integrative and alternative medicine. I was even president of my medical school’s complementary and alternative medicine interest group.
But no approach I found seemed to get to the root of the problem.
I moved to Austin, Texas. As an emergency room physician, I had the opportunity to treat people in the most extreme conditions, and I was proud of the lives I helped to save. Bringing a child back from the verge of death, and knowing that I had helped not just him but his entire family, made me remember all over again how powerful the right treatment can be.
Yet the vast majority of the people I saw were not coming in for trauma but because of something related to a chronic disease. This was truly heartbreaking, because conventional medicine could do so little to help them. Not only had conventional medicine failed me, now it—and I too—were failing them.
Meanwhile, my own health problems continued. Even when the worst of my symptoms abated, I never felt really healthy. The best I could feel was “not sick.”
Then, finally, I found what I had been looking for. I discovered functional medicine.
“YOUR BODY” Principle
To help people gain an understanding of the benefits of becoming posture-conscious, Sifu Peter Newton has devised the “Your Body” Principle. This offers a succinct life guide on the essentials to enjoy a healthy Middle Path life and is central to his work outlined in his book, Healthy and Fit with Tai Chi: Perfect Your Posture, Balance and Breathing. Below is an excerpt.
When people are told they are “old” or “elderly”, or when the doctor tells them the reason why they are becoming stiff is “because of your age”, they believe it. By believing, they are in fact supporting the decline in the physical dexterity of their own bodies: “They say I’m old, therefore I must be.” To counter this self-defeating belief, it is
essential to disengage from
conforming normality and
instead embrace your inner
child spirit. This reintroduces
the spirit of vitality to cells in
the body and brain that
thought they had gone into
retirement. “Y”, therefore,
represents a “Youthful Mind and Outlook”.
In order for a misaligned posture to be corrected by self-directed conscious action, it must first be physically conditioned to be able to achieve what you are asking of it. The physical structural body is made up in a subtle balance of hard (skeletal frame) and soft
 (muscles, tendons, ligaments) tissues. Unless homeostasis exists between the hard and the soft, it      is impossible to tune in to the invisible force of nature. A force, which naturally self-levels and self-adjusts, creating structural balance. A tense body manifests through its soft tissues; tension originates in a stressed mind and therefore it is here that the road to a relaxed, self-adjusting body must start. “O”, therefore, represents “Openness” between “Mind and Body”.
When a hosepipe develops a kink and the flow of water becomes impaired, the only way to rectify the blockage is to straighten and stretch out the hose. In the human body exactly the same principle applies: for example, when you lie on your arm overnight and wake with pins and needles. The human
form, due to evolution, demands to be held in an upright position while sitting, standing and walking and to deny the body this is to introduce blockages. Additionally, when any structure, including a body, is vertically
upright it becomes structurally
sound and able to move safely,
reducing the potential for falling.
“U”, therefore, represents the
“Upright” frame that is essential
for good health and efficient
body mechanics.
Although the body is now structurally centered, upright and relaxed, the picture is still not complete. There must be an additional dimension in order to achieve posture perfection: this is tension-free, structurally sound, comprehensive joint movement. Even if the hard frame is gravitationally aligned, if full joint stimulation is ignored the Qi will remain sluggish and locked in the muscles, tendons, ligaments and the joints. “R”, therefore, represents the “Range” of joint movement that must be regularly explored.
When everything that gives the body shape is centered and settled in the optimum position for the mechanics of support and healthy motion to occur, other essential functions, such as circulation and respiration, are given a boost. The body is now free from internal conflict, giving the Dao unmitigated access to operate. This means, in Daoist medical terms, that the body can not only breathe with natural depth into the lungs, but also achieve the desired state of being known as “Grand Circulation” (whole body breathing). “B”, therefore, represents “Breathing” to the maximum potential.
Regulated breathing is just one of the many vital body functions needed to sustain good health. All the organs of the body have their role, their function in the deeply sophisticated body mechanism. The lungs, diaphragm and chest cavity are only able to perform correctly if they are located and motorized where (and in the way) the Dao wants them to be. That obviously makes sense, but what is often overlooked is that exactly the same principles apply to all of the body’s other organs. The bladder, sexual reproduction organs, small intestine, large intestine, kidneys, liver, gallbladder, spleen, pancreas, stomach, heart and lungs have to be maintained in their home locations in order for them to mutually communicate and individually function. “O”, therefore, represents the “Organs” being retained in their place, whether the body is in motion or at rest.
A body that is upright, open, breathing and in tune with gravity releases its inbuilt self leveling potential. A body that is directed by the Dao and free from stress and tension becomes self-regulating in respect of physical structure, internal circuitry and emotions. “D”, therefore, represents the free and equal “Distribution” of weight across the whole structure that allows it to find its Central Equilibrium.
According to the ancient Chinese, a body that is operating outside of the Middle Path is a body that has left home. By returning to the Dao both physically and emotionally, you have once again become a real person and only real people reside at home. “Y”, therefore, represents “Yourself ”, for this is what you find when you return home to the Dao.
About the author: Sifu Peter Newton is an Honorary Vice-President of the Tai Chi Union For Great Britain. Peter's extensive research and training in the medical applications of Tai Chi and Qigong led him to specialize in remedial therapy. His skills have attracted the attention of international soccer players, the medical care profession and the business world. Peter is a practicing therapist with Parkinson’s UK, Kick-Start Cardiac Rehabilitation, Macmillan Cancer Support and Leonard Cheshire Acquired Brain Injury Unit.