“Once I went on whole foods, my symptoms went away. All of a sudden, I had freedom. I had total freedom from RA for months. I stopped having geographic tongue. My asthma went away. My Sjogren’s symptoms all went away.”
– Heather Aardema
Growing up, Heather was the kid who couldn’t stop moving. She played nearly every sport: soccer, tennis, swimming, track, cross-country and cheerleading.
She counted on her body and loved the feeling of using it.
But in college, her body began giving her clues that it wasn’t working right. She noticed strange spots on her tongue (geographic tongue), which she would later learn was a symptom of immune deficiency.
In her 20s, she suffered from constant sinus problems, dizziness, asthma, swollen glands, recurrent bronchitis, along with dry eyes and dry mouth.
At age 31, after a routine day of downhill skiing, she had pain in one wrist, and then a few days later pain that mirrored it in the other wrist – a classic sign of rheumatoid arthritis (RA). A few years later, she received the official diagnosis of RA after experiencing excruciating joint pain while pregnant with her second son.
The symptoms came on one by one, and so did the diagnoses. At 40, doctors told her she had Sjogren’s syndrome.
And last fall, after two mysterious rashes appeared on her hips and the small of her neck, she found she had psoriasis – despite having no symptoms before.
Doctors would advise her take pharmaceuticals to ease her symptoms, but she chose another route. Prescription medication are how – she believes – she got here in the first place. For years, she had taken proton pump inhibitor (PPI) medications for heartburn.
Heather points to studies indicating that sustained use of PPIs can throw off the delicate balance of good to bad bacteria. The good bacteria keep our immune systems healthy while the bad bacteria reduce nutrient absorption, increase inflammation and raise the risk of cancers and other diseases.
“These medications are FDA approved for only four to eight weeks depending on the condition,” she stresses. “I was on them for 18 years!”
While Heather, now 43, had a family history of autoimmunity, she suspects that spending years on these medications triggered her autoimmune symptoms to manifest.
“The functional medicine community says, ‘Genetics load the gun, but the environment pulls the trigger,’” she says. “What this means is that our genes don’t have to equal our destiny. Our health is in our hands! We can prevent the onset of disease, despite our genetics, with the right environment.”
Too Much Stomach Acid – or Not Enough?
As a child, Heather Aardema could burp louder and longer than anyone in her family – an act that regularly got her in trouble at the dinner table.
But what seemed like mischief from this middle child was actually necessary.
“My parents thought I was trying to get attention, but that series of burps was a release,” she says. “I felt better after.”
Heather’s post-meal discomfort continued into college, when finally, doctors treated her for GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), which caused heartburn, or an excess of stomach acid entering the esophagus.
They also diagnosed a hiatal hernia. Thus she began PPIs.
“Ironically, the problem wasn’t that I had too much stomach acid, but that my body didn’t make enough stomach acid,” she says.
Then why the burning sensation after eating?
“It’s a four-step process,” she explains. “Low stomach acid leads to bacterial overgrowth and carbohydrate malabsorption, which causes increased intra-abdominal pressure (gas) which drives acid reflux and GERD. If I had taken hydrochloric acid instead, I would have absorbed food better and not had this domino effect.”
Whole Foods – instead of Humira
Instead of treating her inflammation and autoimmunity with medication, she turned to diet and lifestyle changes. Heather resolved to try a paleo diet to ease her symptoms, despite admonishments from her doctor that it wouldn’t work. She ditched all grains, sugar, dairy and processed foods.
For 30 days, her body detoxed from years of less-than-stellar eating. Then, her symptoms seemed to melt away one by one.
“Once I went on whole foods, my symptoms went away. All of a sudden, I had freedom,” she says. “I had total freedom from RA for months. I stopped having geographic tongue. My asthma went away. My Sjogren’s symptoms all went away.”
Heather also watched her body closely after eating and began to identify specific foods that spike inflammation for her, such as peppers and tomatoes.
With such success, Heather has stuck with the diet, and kept most of her autoimmune symptoms under control. Her plate is always filled with numerous vegetables, and a small amount of grass-fed, free-range meat. And when she needs a mid-afternoon pick-up, she likely blends an organic green smoothie. She also supplements her diet with probiotics and vitamin D.
She’s also made major lifestyle changes to reduce inflammation-causing stress. She walks, practices yoga, mountain bikes, detoxes through sauna sweats, and quit a demanding job as VP of a marketing firm. Instead, Heather went back to school to become a functional medicine certified health coach (FMCHC) to bring her passion and first-hand experience to others looking to grow healthier.
With these approaches, Heather lives an active life as a business owner and mom to two boys – without any prescription medications for her autoimmunity.
“I went from flares every day to just a few times a year,” she says.
Breaking Up with PPIs
As for getting off PPI meds, she accomplished that as well. Heather had tried to get off PPI medications several times over the years, but always went back to them when the burning sensation returned.
“It was like a fire coming out of my chest by 10 a.m.,” she says. “I thought, ‘How in the world can I get off this pill?’”
Yet if she did not get off the PPI, she faced worsening symptoms, such as an increased risk for cardiovascular events, kidney disease and dementia.
“I was absorbing nothing because I didn’t have enough stomach acid to break down food. And I had very little diversity because the bad bugs were taking over,” she says.
Next, she did something that would shock many doctors. She added acid – hydrochloric acid (HCL) with pepsin, pancreatic enzymes and raw apple cider vinegar – as she stopped the PPI, per a protocol recommended by Chris Kresser.
“I bought the stuff, told myself I could do it, and it worked in three days,” she says. “Getting off the PPI was one of the biggest wins of my life.”
By adding acid, she no longer feels a burning sensation at all. Since then, her body has self-regulated such that she no longer needs to take the HCL and pancreatic enzymes anymore. Instead, she adds a teaspoon of raw apple cider vinegar to a 30-ounce bottle of water and drinks two of those a day.
The Best Possible Foundation
Heather’s coaching business, Root of Wellbeing, has given her a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment; she’s helping others grow healthier and live their best lives.
“Had this not happened, I wouldn’t be following my passion,” she says. “I’m a natural cheerleader at heart, a natural accountability partner and a natural strategist. I love co-creating the way forward with my clients through nutrition, diet and lifestyle experiments. I get excited when my clients achieve and surpass their health and wellness goals.”
Heather also passes her hard-earned health lessons on to her two boys, who prefer fruit and vegetables over anything else. Her whole family remains on a colorful diet of fruit, vegetables and meat, without grains, dairy or refined sugar.
“It’s been a blessing,” she says. “I truly feel that I’m giving my kids the best foundation they can possibly have. They eat the rainbow and know what it means for their health.”
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What works for one person may not work for another. Consult your health practitioner for professional health advice.