I'm a Fitness Influencer with an Invisible Illness That Causes Me to Gain Weight
Katie Dunlop of Love Sweat Fitness opens up about how her hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's disease has impacted her life and career in fitness.
Most people who follow me on Instagram or have done one of my Love Sweat Fitness workouts probably think fitness and wellness have always been a part of my life. But the truth is, I've been suffering from an invisible illness for years that makes me struggle with my health and weight.
I was about 11 years old when I was first diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition in which the thyroid doesn't release enough of the T3 (triiodothyronine) and T4 (thyroxine) hormones. Usually, women are diagnosed with the condition are in their 60's, unless it's generic, but I didn't have a family history. (Here's more about thyroid health.)
Just getting that diagnosis was incredibly difficult, too. It took ages to figure out what was wrong with me. For months, I kept exhibiting symptoms that were very unusual for my age: My hair was falling out, I had extreme fatigue, my headaches were unbearable, and I was always constipated. Concerned, my parents started to take me to different doctors but everyone kept writing it off as a result of puberty. (Related: Doctors Ignored My Symptoms for Three Years Before I Was Diagnosed with Stage 4 Lymphoma)
Learning to Live with Hypothyroidism
Finally, I found a doctor who put all the pieces together and was formally diagnosed and immediately prescribed medication to help control my symptoms. I was on that medication through my adolescent years, though the dosage changed often.
At that time, not a lot of people were diagnosed with hypothyroidism-let alone people my age-so none of the doctors could give me more homeopathic ways to deal with the illness. (For instance, nowadays, a doctor would tell you that foods rich in iodine, selenium, and zinc can help maintain proper thyroid function. On the other hand, soy and other foods that have goitrogens can do the opposite.) I wasn't really doing anything to fix or change my lifestyle and was completely reliant on my meds to do all the work for me.
Through high school, eating poorly caused me to gain weight-and fast. Late-night fast food was my kryptonite and when I got to college, I was drinking and partying several days a week. I wasn't conscious at all about what I was putting in my body.
By the time I was into my early 20's, I wasn't in a good place. I didn't feel confident. I didn't feel healthy. I had tried every fad diet under the sun and my weight just wouldn't budge. I failed at all of them. Or, rather, they failed me. (Related: What All Those Fad Diets Are Actually Doing to Your Health)
Because of my illness, I knew I was destined to be a little overweight and that losing weight wouldn't to be easy for me. That was my crutch. But it had gotten to a point where I was so uncomfortable in my skin that I knew I had to do something.
Taking Control of My Symptoms
Post-college, after hitting rock bottom emotionally and physically, I took a step back and tried to figure out what wasn't working for me. From years of yo-yo dieting, I knew that making abrupt, extreme changes to my lifestyle wasn't helping my cause, so I decided (for the first time) to introduce small, positive changes to my diet instead. Rather than cutting out unhealthy foods, I started introducing better, healthier options. (Related: Why You Should Seriously Stop Thinking of Foods as 'Good' or 'Bad')
I've always loved cooking, so I made an effort to get more creative and make healthy dishes taste better without compromising nutritional value. Within a few weeks, I noticed that I'd shed some pounds-but it was no longer about the numbers on the scale. I learned that food was fuel for my body and not only was it helping me feel better about myself, but it was helping my hypothyroidism symptoms too.
At that point, I started doing a lot more research into my illness and how diet could play a role in helping with energy levels in particular. Based on my own research, I learned that, similar to people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), gluten can be a source of inflammation for people with hypothyroidism. But I also knew that cutting out carbs wasn't for me. So I cut out gluten from my diet while making sure I was getting a healthy balance of high-fiber, whole-grain carbs. I also learned that dairy can have the same inflammatory effect. but after eliminating it from my diet, I didn't really notice a difference, so I eventually reintroduced it. Basically, it took a lot of trial and error on my own to figure out what worked best for my body and what made me feel good. (Related: What It's Really Like to Be On an Elimination Diet)
Within six months of making these changes, I lost a total of 45 pounds. More importantly, for the first time in my life, some of my hypothyroidism symptoms started to disappear: I used to get severe migraines once every two weeks, and now I haven't had one in the last eight years. I also noticed an increase in my energy level: I went from always feeling tired and sluggish to feeling like I had more to give throughout the day.
Being Diagnosed with Hashimoto's Disease
Before, my hypothyroidism left me feeling so fatigued most days that any extra effort (read: exercise) felt like a serious chore. After transforming my diet, though, I committed to moving my body for just 10 minutes a day. It was manageable, and I figured if I could do that, I could eventually do more. (Here's a 10-Minute Workout to Help You Feel Better Instantly)
In fact, that's what my fitness programs are based on today: The Love Sweat Fitness Daily 10 are free 10-minute workouts you can do anywhere. For people who don't have time or struggle with energy, keeping it simple is the key. "Easy and manageable" is what transformed my life, so I hoped it could do the same for someone else. (Related: How to Work Out Less and Get Better Results)
That's not to say I'm entirely symptom-free: This whole last year was tough because my T3 and T4 levels were super low and out of whack. I ended up having to go on several different new medications and it was confirmed I have Hashimoto's Disease, an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakenly attacks the thyroid gland. While hypothyroidism and Hashimoto's are often considered the same thing, Hashimoto's is usually the catalyst for what causes hypothyroidism to occur in the first place.
Luckily, the lifestyle changes I've made over the past eight years all help me deal with Hashimoto's as well. However, it's still taken me a year and a half to go from sleeping nine hours and still feeling incredibly exhausted to finally having the energy to do the things I love.
What My Journey Has Taught Me
Living with an invisible illness is anything but easy and will always have its ups and down. Being a fitness influencer and personal trainer is my life and passion, and balancing it all can be challenging when my health gets sidelined. But through the years, I've learned to really respect and understand my body. Healthy living and a consistent exercise routine are always going to be a part of my life, and luckily, those habits also help combat my underlying health conditions. Plus, fitness not only helps me feel my best and do my best as a trainer and motivator to the women who rely on me.
Even on days when it is really hard-when I feel like I literally might die on my couch-I force myself to get up and go for a brisk 15-minute walk or do a 10-minute workout. And ever time, I feel better for it. That's all the motivation I need to continue taking care of my body and inspiring others to do the same.
At the end of the day, I hope my journey is a reminder that-Hashimoto's or not-we all have to start somewhere and it's always better to start small. Setting realistic, manageable goals will promise you success in the long run. So if you're looking to take back control of your life as I did, that's a good place to start.