by Emily Kopek PA-C
Hello everyone! I wanted to take this time to share my personal health journey with you and what inspired me to begin practicing functional medicine. When I was 13 years old, I rapidly lost a lot of weight because I couldn’t eat. I started sleeping 12 hours a night and still not feeling rested, and literally came home from school and just sat on the couch and couldn’t move. I developed dark circles under my eyes, stopped having menstrual cycles, and my hair started falling out! It was a very scary time. Luckily, I had a great family doctor who ran a bunch of tests on me and diagnosed me with Hashimotos thyroiditis right away. Hashimotos is a condition in which the body’s immune system mounts an attack on it’s own thyroid tissue. I remember getting a call from my doctor on new year’s eve night (yes he is that great of a doctor!), telling me I must go to the drug store and pick up the thyroid medicine he had called in for me. For those of you that know ranges for thyroid levels, my TSH was 191!! Let’s just say that is off the chart high and hence the urgency of his call.
I was relieved to have found a cause to all my problems. However at the time, I had no idea the lifelong struggle that would ensue from this autoimmune condition. I assumed I would just take thyroid medicine for the rest of my life and be fine. I beg to differ on that one, because if all I had done was taken thyroid medicine, sure I would have “survived”, but all of my symptoms would not be resolved. Also, having one autoimmune condition puts you at risk for having other autoimmune conditions in the future if you do not take the right steps and be proactive with your health. Of course, I knew none of this for a long time.
I look back on that time often and wish I would have known then what I know now. But hey, who knows much of anything at 13, let alone as a teenager in general! For those of you wondering, I did feel better on thyroid medication for quite some time, but heck, I had nowhere to go but up. I noticed after regaining some sort of normalcy, I still had problems with sleep, muscle pain, fatigue, terrible “thyroid hair” as I call it, and I was always cold. My menstrual cycles never regulated and hence what happened, I got put on birth control because I didn’t know of any other options at the time. So I continued to struggling through thinking I just had to learn to live with this condition.
Once I reached my sophomore year of college, my symptoms took a turn for the worse and I was calling my parents at 2 am wide awake often!! I literally could not sleep. At that point, I went to a specialist that recommended I change my medication regime, to include some T3 hormone. A little lesson about people with Hashimotos, is that often they have a problem converting over from T4 to T3 and the most commonly prescribed thyroid medication, synthroid, is only comprised of the inactive T4 hormone. With the addition of the T3 to my regimen, suddenly my mood got better, I started sleeping much better, and my menstrual cycle returned. I was so elated! However, even that change did not do the trick for my for long and even though I felt better, I still had many problems. Again, I settled to just learn to live with it.
All these years of struggle led me to look into becoming a medical provider. I was always fascinated with how the body worked and had a thirst for knowledge in this area. After completing my master’s in exercise science, I decided to apply to PA school. While in school, I learned more about the thyroid and medications, but still nothing about lifestyle factors and how these contribute to autoimmune disease. I still knew something was missing. After practicing medicine for several years and getting tired of just writing medicines for everything, even though I tried to counsel on diet and exercise, at least at the time what I thought was the right diet. About 2 years into practicing as a PA, I was introduced by a compounding pharmacist friend of mine into the practice of functional medicine. I immediately fell in love with this way of practice, getting to the root cause of the problem and encouraged lifestyle factors. I slowly started delving deeper and deeper. I learned about the thyroid’s connection with gluten and that often times, gluten intolerance is an issue in thyroid autoimmune conditions, along with other food sensitivities. I learned that 75% of your immune system lies in the gut and the importance of restoring normal gut function. I started practicing these things in my own life, along with switching over to bio-identical thyroid medicine and started noticing some lasting changes. So do I still have symptoms? Yes I do, I don’t know that I will ever be a great sleeper!! And still also struggle with muscle pain and dry skin, but my brain function is much better, the “brain fog” is lifted and my energy levels are much better. And really the most important factor is that my antibodies levels are almost in the normal range after years of chronic elevation. And that is big, because although I will be on thyroid medicine for the rest of my life due to years of an autoimmune attack shrinking my thyroid away to nothing, I am preventing future new autoimmune conditions. Even on days when I don’t feel well and get discouraged, I am reminded that I am in this field to help people. If I did not ever develop this condition, I would likely not be in this position, helping others live out preventative medicine. And for that I am thankful.
I say all of this to encourage you that if you have any autoimmune condition, or just suffer from chronic fatigue, brain fog, muscle and joint pain, or just generally do not feel well, do not give up and think there is nothing you can do!! Be your own health advocate, do your research, work with a functional medicine provider on the proper diet and supplements for your individual case, and stay positive. My goal is to empower patients to know it’s not about a disease state, but about a lifelong state of wellness.
Emily Kopek PA-C