I bounced from doctor to physiatrist to chiropractor trying to figure out what was happening to me. I underwent all sorts of tests—an MRI of my brain and neck, an array of blood tests, and x-rays of my neck and spine.
The results were all normal, although I felt anything but. Fast-forward to April 2012, when I noticed a small bald spot on my scalp. More panicked trips to more doctors. More tests. Multiple rounds of cortisone injections on my scalp. A biopsy.
When the results came in, I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease Alopecia Totalis and told that “aside from your hair falling out, you’re otherwise healthy.”
By July, nearly all my hair was gone, including my eyebrows and eyelashes. I sure didn’t feel healthy. And I definitely didn’t look healthy.
The only solution the doctors offered was a Prednisone prescription to suppress my immune system and “confuse” it with the hope that my hair would grow back. The success rate for this type of treatment was less than 20 percent, and the side effects were severe.
I grew up in El Salvador eating green mangoes and receiving a bilingual education and ballet training. During a time when my country was plagued by civil war, my parents sacrificed to send me to the San Francisco Ballet School to pursue my dream. But as a 13-year-old girl alone in a foreign country, life was a struggle. I felt pressured to keep my weight down for my scholarship and developed severe eating disorders.
By age 20, I stopped dancing but continued my battle with food. I joined the corporate workforce and eventually advanced to a high-stress position, working long days and weekends. I pushed through, fully functional and outwardly successful.
Of course, it’s obvious to me now that all the stresses I had put on my body throughout the years finally caught up with me in the form of poor health and nearly total hair loss. When I realized this, I knew that simply trying to treat the hair loss was not the way. The hair loss was just a symptom—I needed to understand the underlying cause(s).
The work with the functional doctor revealed a myriad of underlying issues, and there was no “magic pill” on offer this time. I learned that in order to heal, I needed to:
● change my diet to eliminate food triggers,
● reduce chronic stress in my life,
● heal my gut,
● eventually address toxicity issues (complicated—path was not clear),
● find and treat underlying infections, and
● for a while, take supplements to help my nutrient-starved body.
Aaaand I needed to figure out how to do all this while feeling sick, with limited finances, while working a demanding job and coping with the devastation of losing all my hair and having to face the world with the “new me.”
No big deal, right?
I’m not going to sugarcoat it: it wasn’t easy and there was no “quick fix.” But it was empowering, because I was back in control of my own health.
I tackled my diet immediately, and I’ll admit, it was a challenge. If you’ve ever tried to eat “healthy,” you know how much conflicting information is out there. I discovered that so-called “healthy” foods often are not—or could be damaging in your particular situation.
However, after tons of hours of relentless research, I learned about the healing power of food and how eating the right foods could help me heal my gut, detoxify, eliminate numerous stressors, and balance my hormones. Food could play a major role in supporting my immune system by healing and nourishing my body, eliminating the need to take excessive amounts of supplements long term.
While I was neck deep in research, I discovered that I loved learning about nutrition and wanted to learn even more. So I enrolled at Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts and graduated with honors as a certified Nutrition Consultant.
Changing my diet was paramount, but it was just one piece of the puzzle. I also needed to make lifestyle changes and shift my mindset. To reduce stress and infuse more joy into my life, I got into edible and ornamental gardening, practiced transcendental meditation, went salsa dancing, and started raising five happy chickens in my backyard (that’s Pepita pictured above!).
Real change takes time. But it can yield powerful results.
Altagracia McCoy is a nutrition consultant, certified by Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition and Culinary Arts of Berkeley, Calif. She’s also a member of the National Association of Nutrition Professionals. She is passionate about educating and inspiring people to nourish with nutrient-dense whole foods, a renewed attitude, and lifestyle choices.
In her spare time, she enjoys hanging out with her supportive husband, gardening, cooking healthy, and tending to her five backyard chickens.