Around 2012, I started feeling terrible all the time. I have always been a pretty active person and by then I was already an avid runner. But I was also working insane hours in the finance industry where I existed on little sleep and the takeout I ate at my desk every day for nearly every meal. I had gained weight, was exhausted, and got to a point where I intimately understood the cliche of being sick and tired of feeling sick and tired all the time.
I decided I needed a change. Because I was already exercising regularly, when New Year’s rolled around I resolved it was time to eat healthier.
I pored through the popular nutrition books of the day and religiously read sites like Well + Good. The trend at the time called for eating multiple smaller meals and cutting out carbs and dairy as much as possible. My diet was focused around eating loads of veggies and greens.
The changes made a huge difference. I went from being someone who had a hard time pulling herself out of bed every morning to waking up full of energy. My need for a daily two o’clock nap vanished, and my morning runs were easier and more enjoyable. I felt better, I was losing weight, and I thought I was the healthiest I had ever been. There was no reason to stop what I was doing.
Fast forward several years, and suddenly I found myself in a doctor’s office being blindsided by the diagnosis of Hashimoto’s disease. While I had symptoms of hypothyroidism, like period irregularity (or, in my case, no period at all) and infertility, I didn’t fit the traditional profile of a Hashimoto’s patient. I wasn’t overweight, a typical symptom caused by the under-active thyroid hormones, and I didn’t know of any family history of the disease.
While I began treatment so that I could get pregnant, I also became obsessed with how I developed the disorder in the first place. I did what I normally do in these situations: I buried myself in research.
What I learned shocked me. Every January, many of us make resolutions to eat healthier or to lose weight, and we often adopt the prevailing wisdom of the day to help us succeed. We decide to try intermittent fasting or to go keto or, in my case, to cut out all carbs.
While these diets may be the ones touted by all the top magazines and social media influencers, including many with actual nutrition credentials, they are not universally healthy for all women in all stages of life. What is not as widely known is that much of the medical research done on things like intermittent fasting often doesn’t include women as it’s harder to control for our monthly hormonal fluctuations. If women are studied, the focus is generally on the immediate results of the program, like weight loss, rather than any additional side effects like fertility issues.
For instance, as a woman who was interested in getting pregnant in the not too distant future, eating a strict diet that limited carbs in every form was hurting me more than it was helping. Women considering having children one day need a healthy amount of carbs to support their hormones.
I know I didn’t cause my Hashimoto’s disease. But I suspect the lifestyle choices I made contributed to triggering it’s activation. When your body detects stress and conditions of insecurity — whether psychological, physical, or with food — it begins to conserve energy. Our bodies are all about survival. I will never know for sure, but I wonder if the way I was eating caused my pituitary gland to slow down thyroid hormone production, which in turn led my body to decide, “Hey, this isn’t a healthy time to ovulate and make a baby.”
Today, I am a much better listener when it comes to my body. I give myself opportunities to do honest check-ins about how I’m feeling and if there are any red flags or persistent problems that seem to be symptoms of something larger going on. And I keep an extra close eye on my skin, which is often where symptoms, like dry flaky patches that are a characteristic of hypothyroidism, first present themselves.
But beyond being more aware of what my body needs and what it is telling me, I am also more careful when it comes to defining what “healthy” is for me. Eating healthy and being healthy are two very important things — I want that endless energy and invigorating feeling of wellness. But I no longer subscribe to any fad diets or workout regimes that are too restrictive, no matter how many glossy mags they’ve been featured in.
And as for New Year’s resolutions, today I focus on things that motivate and excite me, not things that feel like a drag. I no longer look at my resolutions as grueling rules that I must follow for the next 12 months. Instead, I focus on setting intentions for my life and my closest relationships that will help me live a joyful and fulfilling year.