Oh, this poor little post.
I’ve sat down to write this maybe 10, maybe 20 times? Never got past the first sentence.
I haven’t posted anything, really, on my site since the beginning of February. Before that, I had couple posts in three or four months. I’d love to say I’ve been busy with my job, or traveling, or a new hobby – but the reality is none of that is true.
What has been happening, though, is I’ve been struggling with my health.
Since arriving in Japan, I haven’t been feeling 100%. For the first year or so, I attributed that to settling in and trying to get used to a new climate. I figured some of my just wanting to stay in bed was due to the fact that I was in my appropriately-temperate home, instead of out in the sauna that is Japanese summer, and the bone-cold winter where buildings are either left unheated or the people in them feel the need to crank the heat to a sweltering +35C (never mind the fact that no one will turn on the fucking A/C in the summer).
During my first year in Japan, I gained almost 10kg. I guessed this was because of quite a few reasons:
- Japanese food is the most delicious in the world.
- I had enough money to buy whatever groceries I wanted/eat out wherever I wanted.
- I have to drive everywhere so I barely walk anywhere.
- Did you see what I said about the weather? For like 8 months of the year I refuse to be outside.
- 800 calorie school lunches that I was forced to finish everyday.
Kinda makes sense, right? Combine that with me not being able to use the local gym or swimming pool (Japanese people have a real hang-up about tattoos…) and it’s a perfect storm for weight gain.
But then, I started walking for an hour every day after school in a lovely park near my schools. I quit eating sugar, and stopped eating so many delicious deep-fried foods. I did online workouts when it was too hot or cold to walk outside.
I gained 5 more kilos. And I felt like shit.
Finally, last December around Christmas, I saw a photo of myself and was shocked. My weight had ballooned to 83kg (over 180lbs) on my 5’7″ frame. My face was not only chunky, but super puffy, sallow, and my skin was constantly broken out to a horrific degree. The corners of my mouth were permanently cracked open and sore. I had started going to bed as soon as I got home from school, and not being able to get back out. My hair was falling out, and all my joints ached. I was absolutely exhausted and hated going to my elementary school classes because my students were sapping all of the tiny bit of energy I had each day. My FitBit was telling me I was sleeping 10-12hrs a night.
I sat myself down and really checked in. Was this depression, rearing its ugly head? Was this some sort of severe culture shock, setting in a year and a half after arriving? Was I just being a lazy piece of shit? Or was something else going on?
After talking with my family about what was going on, one of my aunts reminded me that thyroid disease ran in the female side of the family. The the ones who were diagnosed with it all found out in their early 30s, and had the same symptoms I was having. She encouraged me to at least get it checked to rule it out. As I started Googling, I realized she was right – I was exhibiting literally every symptom of low thyroid function (hypothyroidism).
I have some gripes about daily life in Japan, but the way you see a doctor here is not one of them. I told my supervisor that I wanted to see an endocrinologist who specialized in thyroid disorders, and the next day she told me she had booked me an appointment with the top guy in the big city near where I live. The appointment was the next week. No messing around with going through a GP first, no wait list. Just call the specialist you want to see and make an appointment.
I made a list of symptoms and the tests that I wanted run, and asked my supervisor to look at it in case I needed her to say it in Japanese. I looked up the reasoning for all the tests to have ready in case the doctor didn’t want to do them – I had seen so many North Americans online struggling to have their doctors run a full panel.
When we went to my appointment, the doctor greeted me in flawless English, read my list of symptoms in English, looked at the tests I wanted, said “ok, no problem” and sent me down the hall for bloodwork. I came back to the examination room and he wheeled in an ultrasound machine, did a thyroid exam and ultrasound right then and there, and then by the time I sat up, the bloodwork results were back from down the hall. I was literally speechless. In Canada, the doctor / lab / ultrasound are all different places where I’d have to make three different appointments. We wait WEEKS for bloodwork results, and have to make another doctor appointment for them to tell us the results. I was shocked at how quickly everything happened.
The doctor looked over my results and announced that I had Hashimoto’s Disease. My thyroid was inflamed/enlarged on the ultrasound, and my antibody levels were sky-high. “Your body is attacking and killing your thyroid”, he said, “which means you have an autoimmune disease”. I left the office after discussing treatment plans and the schedule for bloodwork (I’ll have to get my thyroid levels checked every six months for basically the rest of my life). I sat in my car for 20 minutes before driving home, feeling betrayed by my body for getting confused and attacking itself. “Why are you destroying your own thyroid? You need that! Get your shit together, immune system!”
The first thing I did when I got home from the doctor was call my supervisor, told her the news, and asked her to advise my schools immediately that I would no longer be eating the kyushoku (school lunch). I had a feeling for a long time that the school lunch was making me sick, and I was right. You might have an image in your head of the school lunches in Japan, and for some schools you might be right if you’re picturing broiled fish, pickled veggies, salad, miso soup, and a bowl of rice. However, in my area, they are not like that. Common lunches include: yakisoba noodles with a baguette and fruit salad in sugary yogurt sauce; fried fish with cheese on it, a tablespoon of shredded cabbage, oily soup full of chikuwa (processed fish cake) and a bun; rice, deep-fried bean & fried tiny whole fish, super mayonnaise-y coleslaw. The kids’ favorite school lunch is the one where they get agepan – an entire fried roll the size of a huge hamburger bun and covered in sugar.
The school lunches are usually 700-900 calories and super high-carb (designed for kids who don’t eat anything else from breakfast till dinner – no snacks allowed at school – and who are playing sports for two hours after school) and designed to be as cheap as possible. The school lunches got even worse when the kitchens in the schools were closed last year and my city opened a school lunch center. Now all meals for every student in the city are exactly the same. They’re prepared in the same place and trucked out to the schools. They are carbs on carbs on carbs on sugar. I don’t think they’re healthy at all. And since I had to eat with the students at my schools, that meant I was forced to eat everything on my plate. It was making me sick, and I knew it.
I’m not saying that the school lunches caused my autoimmune disease – this disorder usually has a genetic predisposition plus often seems to be “activated” by a virus (interestingly enough, I was able to trace back some of my symptoms to getting dengue fever in Roatan), but they certainly weren’t helping, and I feel like they were causing damage and making me feel unwell. I also had markers for celiac disease in my bloodwork, which means I should not be eating any gluten at all, and I was eating it daily.
As soon as I got home, I adjusted my diet. I knew from all the research I’d been doing into Hashimoto’s Disease that the following things were out: gluten, sugar, corn, soy, dairy, legumes, millet, and processed food. What was in: meat, veggies, oils, nuts, a little fruit…. and that’s about it. The main idea is low carbs, more protein, and more fat. Anything inflammatory is out, as that makes autoimmune disease worse. My days of drinking chuhais (canned highballs) after a hard day of work are over. I try to stick as close to the autoimmune protocol / autoimmune paleo diet as possible.
It was a really sad day for me when I tried to eat ramen, my favorite food of all time, and broke out in hives. I tested it two more times just be suuuuuuuper sure, but every time I eat gluten now, I end up itchy and miserable.
I started meal prepping on Sundays. I make 5 breakfasts and 5 lunches to take to work. It’s become a therapeutic time for me, as strange as that sounds. On Saturdays I plan out the menu and go grocery shopping. Sunday mornings are for cooking. It’s a challenge and kind of a puzzle to get everything made in my little Japanese kitchen. I have extremely limited counter space (like about 10 inches by 20 inches), and only one burner. No real oven (just a microwave oven with convection). I can’t have my toaster oven, microwave oven, and pressure cooker all on at the same time or my kitchen breaker blows. But I just put on Spotify and cook like hell for a few hours, and then I feel really accomplished once I have everything in 10 little containers in the fridge! Here’s a couple examples of my breakfast and lunch from last week:
I also take supplements recommended to me by my endocrinologist. The thyroid is the “master gland” of the endocrine system, so if it’s disrupted, usually all the hormone systems (adrenal system, reproductive hormone system, etc.) are affected. (You should have these personally recommended to you by your MD / naturopath / functional or integrative medicine doctor / etc. based on your situation so please don’t ask me for what I’m using. I can’t give medical advice.)
I changed my lifestyle a bit. I was never a super busy person, but I started saying “no” to things that stressed me out or would end up in me being out super late and not getting a good sleep. I made peace with the fact that I was now pretty difficult to go out for dinner with due to my food restrictions, so I concentrated on other activities with my friends and stayed home to cook myself delicious dinners. I cut down my Japanese lessons to once a week, and started hosting my weekly Terrace House viewing parties at my house earlier so that I can go to bed at a reasonable time. And I stopped stressing myself out about writing posts for this blog (especially since I haven’t really been doing anything interesting anyway)!
If it’s of interest to you in hearing more about how I’m handling this in Japan, please let me know in the comments below or by email. I can do a more detailed post about having an autoimmune disease here in Japan, if people want it. It was very difficult for me to find English information about food / restaurants / groceries / ingredients / etc. or explaining my condition in Japanese, so I’ve had to figure all that out by myself. I’m happy to write about it if it will help someone else.
So, that’s the reason I’ve been disappearing and reappearing for the last five months. As things level out, I’m feeling better and better each day. I’m still not at 100% and have had a few backslides as I get my new life figured out, but overall things are feeling positive. I’ve lost 5kg, my hair is starting to grow back, my skin is clearing, I have a little more energy, and I’m not sleeping 11 hours a night anymore. I hope to be writing more soon – I still have a few posts from Roatan last summer hanging around, as well as a few trips I took around Japan in the last few months. But they’ll get here when they get here, because I’m taking as much time as I need to get myself sorted out.
Thanks for all the support and for those who have stuck around! I can’t tell you how great people have been. I was talking to my friend Katie about all this recently, and she came back after our conversation with a Google Drive link – she had gone through her favorite cookbook looking for recipes that I could eat and snapped photos of them, and uploaded them to a folder for me. So sweet. My girl Alex checked in with all the food providers on her upcoming Wander Women Retreat to make sure I’ll always have something I can eat. (And yes! That’s an announcement that I will be attending Alex’s retreat in Thailand in August!!!!! There’s still a couple spots left, come scuba dive & do yoga with us!)
I also have to give props to my fellow ALTs here for being amazing. One of them often spends time scouring the internet for my random requests like gluten-free beer or preservative-free meat. He translates ingredient lists for me, and gives me a heads up when he sees something at the grocery store that I can eat. All of them have changed dinner plans to go somewhere that I can eat the food, and usually check the ingredients before recommending something to me. They’ve been great, and it helps me a lot to have people who care close by too (Japanese people have been overall sympathetic but not great at understanding my condition). So I do have a good support circle, both far and wide.
With much love… see ya when I see ya 🙂
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