Wildling co-founder Britta Plug opens up about how her holistic approach to wellness has helped keep her symptoms at bay and connect with herself, no matter how she's feeling.

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Gua Sha
Credit: Wilding Beauty

I've never really known what it means to be truly healthy. I was 5 years old when I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's thyroiditis (HT). The autoimmune disorder involves chronic inflammation of the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the front of your neck that's responsible for releasing hormones that help control many vital functions in your body. Over time, this persistent inflammation can impact the gland's ability to produce hormones, causing a gradual decline in function and, eventually, an underactive thyroid (aka hypothyroidism). In some cases — such as mine — the inflammation can lead to the development of a goiter, an abnormal enlargement of the thyroid gland. So, at 5 years old, I was placed on hormone replacement therapy, which is typically the first line of treatment for HT and involves taking medication to compensate for the lack of hormones secreted by my thyroid gland.

While the medication helps curb some symptoms, there are several that aren't remedied by the treatment. For instance, growing up, I was always significantly more tired than my friends. (In fact, for as long as I can remember, I've been perpetually exhausted.) I'd often get sick because I'm immunocompromised, and I dealt with muscle aches, sensitive skin, even anxiety, and serious bouts of depression — all of which are common symptoms of HT, according to the Mayo Clinic. It came to a point where I was taking pills to wake up, pills to focus, pills to sleep, and pills to treat my illness. I knew I had to find a different way — something other than taking a plethora of pills — to feel better and more in control.

Then I found the power of self-care. At this point, I was already well aware of the importance of recharging my batteries and showing myself some love. And it was only a matter of time until I realized that beauty and wellness practices were some of the best ways for me to do just that. Throughout middle and high school, I'd lock myself in the bathroom to take super long baths and play around with face masks, body masks, and peels. I got into yoga, and I started getting massages. The more kneading I received, the more I started to believe the phrase "our issues are in our tissues." I found massage to be so beneficial to me both physically and emotionally. Not only did it relieve tension in my muscles, but it also allowed me to zone out, relax, and focus on myself. That combined with yoga gave me the strength to work with my doctors and wean myself off of nearly all of the medications I was taking — with the exception of my necessary thyroid-specific meds. And while this protocol isn't necessarily doable for everyone, for me, self-care made it possible to rely less on pills, and I've maintained that balance today. (Related: Practicing Self-Care Could Boost Your Immune System — Here's How)

Starting a Career In Beauty

After graduating from high school, I became a licensed esthetician, and I quickly developed a passion for the cocoon of care that's created in a treatment room. I was also particularly drawn to traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Since I deal with chronic inflammation due to Hashimoto's, I appreciated TCM for its long history of understanding the inflammatory patterns in your body. Studies have shown that various natural herbs incorporated within TCM (e.g. Coptis chinensis, Flos Lonicerae, Isatidis folium) have long been used to safely suppress inflammatory pathways and control inflammation-associated disease in the human body. The same can be said for practices such as acupuncture and acupressure. (Related: Trying Acupuncture for the First Time Helped Pull Me Out of My Quarantine Fog)

A few years into my career, I began working within an existing acupuncture practice where I was surrounded by TCM experts. I was always trying to interpret what I was noticing in clients' skin and tissues through a TCM lens. When it comes to your face, so many people are drawn toward surface-level treatments — e.g. microdermabrasion, laser or light treatments, etc. — but I was interested in a more holistic approach and wanted to know what was going on underneath.

I was convinced that there were ways in which you could sustainably improve the health and vitality of facial tissues through facial massage. There are more than 30 individual muscles in the face, and each can hold a ton of tension, be it caused by emotions (e.g. stress) or simply the functioning of sensory organs (e.g. eyes, nose). And while, for the most part, this tension is a completely normal part of everyday life, if prolonged, it can lead to pain (think: tension headaches) and aging skin. Addressing and releasing this built-up stress through facial massage can help reduce your risk of developing such dull, aching sensations and promote younger-looking skin. So, if you're, say, trying to maintain a youthful appearance, why focus so much on the surface?

Today, of course, the holistic approach of facial massage is widely accepted. But back in 2008 when I started inquiring about it, no one really seemed to care. So much so, in fact, that I got laughed at during a couple of job interviews after saying that I wanted to learn more about facial massage techniques vs., say, the latest chemical- and laser-based treatments.

Finding Gua Sha

In 2014, as I was looking for classes to take at the Swedish Institute in New York, I came across a course about gua sha. ICYDK, gua shua is a therapeutic practice — which literally translates to "scrape" — rooted in TCM that dates back thousands of years and was originally developed as a part of acupuncture therapy to relieve chronic pain and inflammation in the body. Unlike acupuncture, however, gua shua is a needless procedure that involves using oils and a jade or quartz massage stone to scrape the skin in short and long downward motions to help release tension, sculpt skin, and reduce inflammation. Typically, the practice is performed on the back, glutes, neck, arms, and legs. (See more: Can Gua Sha Scraping Therapy Alleviate Muscle Pain?)

But facial gua sha is something estheticians, acupuncturists, and the like kind of stumbled upon. It's not clear exactly when facial gua sha became a "thing," but when experts began performing the practice on the face in a much gentler fashion than was being done on other, larger parts of the body, they noticed its rejuvenating effects. On top of simply helping you glow, facial gua sha can help address dermatological difficulties such as breakouts (including blackheads) as well as hyperpigmentation. It can also help firm up the skin and reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

These effects are primarily received through lymphatic drainage. Your lymphatic system plays an important role in facilitating the removal of infections and bacteria out of your bloodstream, making it an essential part of your immune system. Sometimes, however, factors such as surgery, medical conditions, and stress can cause waste to build up in your lymphatic system causing you to feel puffy, achy, sick, and exhausted. That's where lymphatic drainage comes in. It's a massaging technique that accelerates the sanitation process by stimulating the removal of the excess liquid and residue in your lymphatic system — and it can be performed using gua sha. (Related: How to Mimic a Lymphatic Drainage Massage at Home)

The fact that this completely non-invasive approach could achieve so much inspired me to take the gua sha course. The results I saw the very first time I tried the practice on myself were just as satisfying as I'd imagined. I remember working one side of my face for just a few minutes and noticed such a release in tension that the treated side of my face looked substantially firmer — and felt incredibly smoother — than the other side, which felt loose and puffy.

After completing the course, I immediately implemented facial and body gua sha into my practice — and I couldn't believe the positive feedback. People were leaving the treatment room saying they felt unbelievably relaxed and couldn't believe they were holding so much tension in their faces. Not to mention, many of them said they could see their cheekbones for the first time in years, which was a win-win. Some clients even told me they stopped doing Botox because they found gua sha to be equally effective.

I love beauty and feeling radiant, but I'm also passionate about healing and feeling like my best self. Gua sha was the magic formula, and I wanted to share it with people. My client base began growing super quickly and the word about my holistic approach to facials spread like wildfire. I even started getting some press and my work was spotlighted in several national magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Goop, Vogue, and more. Before I knew it, I grew out of my one-room treatment studio and began thinking about opening my own brick-and-mortar business. I was getting ready to take the big step when out of the blue, I became very sick.

Battling Another Illness

In January 2018, I got Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), a virus that can cause fatigue, fever, inflamed throat, and swollen lymph nodes, amongst other symptoms. EBV is the most common cause of infectious mononucleosis, aka mono, which I also contracted. Mono stays in your system for life. Both functional and western medicine says that mono is self-limiting, meaning symptoms can go away on their own. However, since Hashimoto's thyroiditis compromises my immune system, I still struggle with symptoms of EBV to this day. For a long time, I tried to convince doctors that I still don't feel well, but no one seemed to believe me. So, I tried managing my symptoms on my own.

I couldn't have gotten sick at a worse time given that my business seemed to be budding. But no matter how miserable I felt, I kept going — otherwise, everything I built would've collapsed. So I went forward with my business plan and started Studio Britta in New York City in the spring of 2018. For the next year and a half, I slowly grew my team and onboarded an acupuncturist, four estheticians. During this time, I also co-founded Wildling Beauty, a holistic beauty brand focused on gua sha.

At this point, gua sha had been a part of my life for years, but as I continued to hustle to build my businesses while battling symptoms from HT and mono, it became a pivotal part of my healing web. When I was feeling exhausted — which was still all the time, BTW — and lifeless, gua sha was my medicine. Because of both of my illnesses, I had so much stagnation in my body, and performing both body and facial gua sha did wonders to clean out my system, thereby helping reduce tension, lymphatic buildup, and my lingering symptoms.

My wellness journey has also reminded me of the importance of self-care and really put my life into perspective. I was going 100 miles an hour every day, and I recognized that if I was to keep that up, my health would just continue to deteriorate. So, in the fall of 2019, I decided to move to L.A. — a city that offered a more relaxed, nature-filled environment where I could still focus on my business. My plan was to go back and forth from New York and hire a full staff in L.A. to help run things. But then the pandemic hit.

COVID-19 forced me to close my brick-and-mortar business in NYC and lay off my team, which was really, really hard for everyone involved. Wildling Beauty, however, survived because my co-founders and I were able to run it virtually, given that we sell gua sha products for people to use at home. Despite the challenges, however, gua sha continued to always be there for me. It helped release the tension from my jaws and shoulders and the stress in my forehead and brought me back to center again...and again...and again.

Looking Ahead

Today, along with gua sha, I've implemented several other self-care practices into my healing routine, such as Qi gong, an ancient Chinese health exercise that promotes a healthy flow of energy and reduces stagnation of the muscles — both of which help me feel more like myself on the day-to-day. I also make a concerted effort to rest and meditate to help keep my nervous system calm, which, in turn, allows me to function as best as possible despite some of my lingering symptoms. And then there is the slew of alternative treatments I receive weekly, including (but not limited to!) LED light therapy and acupuncture.

Now gua sha and alternative medicine may not be the answer for you — and I get that. But whether you're dealing with chronic illness, mental health issues, or something else that's caused you to lose your spark, I highly encourage finding a practice that helps you feel like yourself again. (Related: What Happened When I Prioritized Self-Care for a Week)

I've realized that there are two ways in which I can look at things. I can wake up and say that this sucks, I have no energy, there's so much I need to be doing and want to be doing, but I'm just not operating at the pace that society is dictating. Or I can be grateful for the fact that despite all the hurdles and challenges, I have something to come back to day-in and day-out that helps me connect with myself. And thanks to the therapeutic effects of self-care, I continue to chose the latter.