“I started to feel incredible after removing the heavy metals, cleaning up my diet, and supporting my adrenals and thyroid. I finally felt like myself again.”
One autoimmune condition is enough to seriously erode your quality of life. But Joanne Pappas Nottage contends with four autoimmune diagnoses.
Since childhood, the symptoms have piled on one after another, from severe fatigue to hair loss to allergies and asthma. Since then, she’s been diagnosed with rheumatic fever, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, alopecia and mixed connective tissue disorder.
For 25 years, Joanne has looked for answers, seeking help from nearly a dozen different doctors. None could stop progressing symptoms – until she found help from Chinese medicine, naturopaths, and functional medicine nutritionists and doctors.
With help from practitioners, Joanne embarked on a years-long journey of healing both specific conditions and her overall health with a mix of natural and conventional medicine.
Today, at 58, she has more energy than she did in her 20s.
“I can play tennis for 2½ hours against 25-year-olds who are huffing and puffing – and I’m not!” she says.
Read on for the steps Joanne followed to take back her health despite her multiple autoimmune disorders.
From an Active Kid to Multiple Autoimmune Disorders
Joanne’s first health challenge, rheumatic fever, began when she was nine years old. One day she was an active, rosy-cheeked girl and the next she was pale and winded simply walking a few blocks. Doctors diagnosed her with anemia and a heart murmur.
The fever damaged her heart to such an extent that doctors ordered her to refrain from gym class, sports and strenuous exercise. And they told her that, someday, she would need to have open heart surgery to repair her mitral valve.
After her anemia was treated and she felt better, she went on to be active once more – despite admonishments from doctors against it. In junior high school, she joined gymnastics and cheerleading, and went on to play varsity basketball in high school.
Into college and beyond, she gained weight and began to develop allergies. Then severe, year-round allergies progressed to asthma, slowing her down. From antihistamines to nose sprays, nothing slowed the running of her nose and eyes.
Joanne had always been proactive about her health and exercise, so she continued to be active. She even took up competitive sailboat racing on San Francisco Bay!
Meanwhile, her weight kept going up, despite eating lean meals and staying active. Doctors kept checking her thyroid, which always fell within normal ranges on lab tests.
“I know now that they needed to check for thyroid antibodies, not just TSH levels,” she says.
The most alarming symptom came one Friday evening in her 20s while enjoying a baseball game. Her sister, sitting next to her, noticed a dime-size bald spot on her head.
“I started panicking, thinking I had a brain tumor,” Joanne says.
She did not, fortunately, have a brain tumor, but did receive her second autoimmune diagnosis: alopecia, an autoimmune condition that results in unpredictable hair loss.
To reverse hair loss, Joanne tried painful steroid injections in her scalp, as well as oral steroids. Each time, her hair grew back for a while, only to begin falling out again. Likewise, clinical trials failed to curtail the loss.
While on the roller coaster ride with alopecia, it was finally time to replace her damaged mitral valve. At age 43, she underwent open-heart surgery. Soon after her recovery, this now-bionic woman took up tennis and began playing USTA league singles and doubles matches for exercise, fun and stress relief.
Relief…by Reluctantly Cutting Gluten & Dairy
Joanne’s hair loss, fatigue, allergies and hives continued into her 50s until, finally, she met a Chinese medicine practitioner through a mutual friend.
“I asked how a Chinese medicine approach is different, and she explained that they look at root causes versus treating symptoms. That was exactly what I was looking for,” she says. “In Western medicine, we see one doctor for each thing, so no one is looking at the bigger picture of what’s going on.”
Suspecting food sensitivities, the practitioner referred her to a functional nutritionist, who listened to her full health history before offering recommendations that would prove challenging – and life-changing.
“She suggested that I go off gluten and dairy for three weeks and see what happens,” Joanne explains. “Gluten-free foods were just becoming a thing then and I thought it was just a fad. It seemed like another useless thing to do.”
But she was desperate to find answers, so this bread-and-cheese lover reluctantly eliminated gluten and dairy.
The first sign of progress came at the most unexpected moment: during a lunch meeting with a client. Typically, Joanne had to reapply makeup once or twice a day because her eyes and nose watered relentlessly. But on this day, she was surprised to look in the bathroom mirror and discover her makeup had miraculously remained in place. Her eyes and nose were no longer watery.
Yet, she still wasn’t convinced, and went on to do food sensitivity testing and allergy testing. For that, she had to be back ON gluten and dairy and off all of her allergy medications.
To celebrate her restriction-free diet, Joanne went out for gooey, cheesy pizza…and beer…and dessert.
“The next morning, I felt like I’d been run over by a truck or had had a whole bottle of tequila,” she says. “My whole face was puffy and congested. I had a pounding headache. I was bloated. In retrospect, I know it was the food – and specifically the gluten and the dairy.”
Food sensitivity testing confirmed she was allergic to beef, and sensitive to dairy, gluten, wheat, almonds and a few other foods.
Joanne went on a restrictive diet, plus took supplements to heal intestinal permeability, or leaky gut. With leaky gut, the tight junctions of the intestinal walls break down, allowing food particles to enter the bloodstream. That leads to an immune reaction, or sensitivity, to foods.
“By eliminating sensitive foods, I started losing weight like crazy, without doing anything else differently,” she says.
Finally A Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis Diagnosis
While Joanne found some answers, other symptoms remained a mystery. She still suffered with sleeplessness, dry skin, and now, overly dry eyes. A naturopath tested for thyroid antibodies and uncovered yet another autoimmune condition, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
To address Hashimoto’s, Joanne emphasized eating a nutrient-rich, organic diet full of colorful vegetables, high-quality animal proteins, wild seafood, nuts and seeds, and good fats such as olive oil, avocados and coconut oil.
Additionally, she takes Tirosint, a gluten-free, dairy-free thyroid prescription.
“I’m excited to report that my thyroid antibodies have decreased every year and are now almost normal!” she says.
Off-the-Charts Metals Levels
Through her naturopath, Joanne tested for heavy metals, only to find severe toxicity. “My naturopath who ordered the test said my levels were some of the highest levels she had seen – and was glad we tested as she felt we had just saved my life!” Joanne says.
To remove the metals from her body, she started eight weeks on Dimercaptosuccinic Acid (DMSA), a pharmaceutical for chelation detox. The DMSA chelation protocol is designed to draw the heavy metals out of your tissues and organs so that they can be “chelated” or clumped and removed via your standard detox pathways – and to make sure that they are not reabsorbed into your body.
Joanne combined DMSA with supplements, liver support, a detox diet (no seafood) and infrared saunas. Then, to replace the vitamins that were flushed with the detox, she received vitamin injections once a week, and ate leafy greens and good fiber. At the same time, she began taking supplements to support her adrenals.
When Joanne retested, she found her levels had come way down and were closer to normal ranges. She continues to eat detoxifying foods, takes supplements and supports her liver to facilitate ongoing detoxification.
“I started to feel incredible after removing the heavy metals, cleaning up my diet, and supporting my adrenals and thyroid,” she says. “I finally felt like myself again.”
Tackling Candida & H. Pylori
With all the work Joanne has done, it wouldn’t be complete without addressing her digestive system. Joanne discovered she had both Candida overgrowth and H. Pylori. She addressed Candida with diet and supplements.
But H. Pylori proved more stubborn. She tried two rounds of herbal supplements and diet, which brought down H. Pylori levels but failed to eradicate it.
Next, she attacked it with a combined approach – a triple antibiotic treatment, an herbal supplements protocol, and added probiotics and digestive enzymes to minimize the impact on her good gut bacteria.
“I made the difficult decision to add antibiotics to my attack this time around,” Joanne says. “According to several of the leading functional medicine experts in autoimmunity, although we could treat H. Pylori effectively with herbal and natural supplements in the past, today it seems that most people need to use the antibiotic approach to effectively address this persistent infection.”
Joanne took antibiotics in the morning and at night. Mid-day, she took herbal supplements and probiotics (Saccharomyces boulardii and others) to support the microbiome and help target the H Pylori.
“I felt great during my antibiotic therapy and my recent test came up negative!” she says. “I am now working hard to rebuild my gut with probiotics, fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, bone broth, and a nutrient-rich diet with lots of good fiber.”
“I don’t know if this is associated with the eradication of my H. Pylori – a coincidence, or the result of all the ongoing work that I’m doing – but, I have noticed regrowth on my eyebrows and just now some new (very small, but still!) hair on my hairline and scalp. I am hopeful and optimistic that as I rebuild my gut health and replenish my nutrients that my hair will continue to grow.”
No More Flares
On top of all her hard work, Joanne focused on managing her stress more effectively. She meditates almost daily, typically in the morning before even getting out of bed, and at bedtime.
Although she’s made significant progress with transforming her relationship to stress, she admits that prioritizing her own self-care is an ongoing challenge for her.
Through a mostly paleo diet and supplements, she continues to reduce inflammation to minimize the symptoms of her multiple autoimmune disorders.
With all this work, she has the energy to play tennis, hike and practice yoga.
While she’s still not 100 percent, she no longer suffers from autoimmune flares, sleeps better and is off all of her allergy medications.
Though tough, her journey enriched her life and inspired her to earn her functional medicine certified health coach (FMCHC) designation and become one of the first National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coaches (NBC-HWC). She then started Embrace Functional Health to apply that knowledge — and personal experience — to help others identify and address the causes of their symptoms so they can improve their health. She’s passionate about helping people improve their quality of life so they too can thrive…not just survive.
Joanne wants everyone struggling with hard-to-diagnose and hard-to-treat conditions to understand that, “Functional medicine is an exciting and refreshing new approach to health – it is all about the WHY and empowers people to take charge of their health! It emphasizes foundational aspects like nutrition, exercise and lifestyle combined with a personalized approach while leveraging state-of-the-art testing, genetic science with the best of what western medicine has to offer. I’m thriving today, despite multiple autoimmune disorders, as a result of functional medicine.”
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