From Debilitating Autoimmune Disorder to Pain-Free Blue Zones Life
By Lisa Monroe
Last summer, 56-year-old Joann Toppin was suffering from a lot of the pain and some of the same illnesses that had debilitated her parents as they grew older. She knew if she didn’t make a drastic change, she’d also continue to get worse with age.
“I have several autoimmune disorders and my mother has several. She suffers from lupus and vascular dementia, and my father died from Lewy body dementia,” said the Florida woman. “Several of my autoimmune disorders were causing me a lot of pain, discomfort, and suffering, and I didn’t want to go down the road that my parents went down. I also have several herniated discs in my back that contributed to pain.”
“Several of my autoimmune disorders were causing me a lot of pain, discomfort, and suffering, and I didn’t want to go down the road that my parents went down.”
“My autoimmune disorders go back to when my husband was extremely ill and needed a kidney transplant years ago and the stress that brought on. So, I’ve been suffering with many of them for years, two of them severely the last three years,” she said.
In a matter of months, Toppin succeeded in significantly reducing her pain. She also lost 37 pounds, increased her energy, and has improved the way she feels overall, all by switching to a plant-based diet. In addition, her two autoimmune disorders have gone into remission, and the inflammatory markers in her blood work have gone down tremendously. Having just turned 57, Toppin not only feels much better, but has a much brighter outlook on the rest of her life.
“My lab work, my cholesterol, my inflammatory markers, all of it – I had fatty liver too – all of it went down significantly and my fatter liver is gone,” she said, giving full credit to her switch to a plant-based diet.
Toppin got really committed to change during the 10-week Potluck Moai project organized by Blue Zones founder Dan Buettner and NCH Healthcare System, sponsors of Blue Zones Project Southwest Florida. However, she began changing her diet before the project kicked off.
“Reducing inflammation and obviously longevity and just improving my overall health were the main reasons,” said Toppin. “I had done some research on my own and watched the documentary that Dan had done on the blue zones, which piqued my interest about going to a more plant-based diet.”
Toppin said she was also pre-diabetic, with a genetic predisposition to diabetes because both of her parents had it. “It’s like you already have some strikes against you, so if you can control it by what you’re placing in your body and what you’re doing with your body, why not do it?” Her blood sugar and blood pressure are now both down to normal ranges.
“If you can control [your health] by what you’re placing in your body and what you’re doing with your body, why not do it?”
In addition to diet, Toppin has also learned to better manage stress and even to meditate, which she said she’d never tried before. A practice administrator for a busy dental practice in Naples, she said, “I do a lot of meditation and moving my body now, which I didn’t think I’d ever be able to do. But I’ve been very successful at that.”
Improvements Came Quickly When Her Diet Changed
Results began to show quickly, just a couple weeks after changing her diet, said Toppin. “I started feeling a little better and really feeling much more energy, like a fog had lifted off my brain.” Her digestive system also felt better.
Toppin’s diet is now about 95 percent plant-based. She occasionally eats seafood like shrimp and scallops, and very rarely, a grass-fed steak. To her surprise, she really doesn’t miss meat, and living with one kidney since she donated to her husband in 2014, she isn’t supposed to eat a lot of meat anyway.
One thing that was a big lesson for her was learning that carbs aren’t necessarily bad. “For years and years, any kind of carbohydrate was like the devil,” she said, explaining how she avoided foods like grains and potatoes. “Even a sweet potato, in my mind, was terrible for you. And so, there was a big change in my thought process and my eating, because now I eat grains every day.”
Toppin starts every morning with a big bowl of oatmeal with blueberries and seeds – hemp and flax – which keeps her full and provides her body with fiber it needs. She’s also incorporated other good grains like quinoa into her new diet. And contrary to her previous belief that carbs would only pack on more weight, she’s said, “It’s done the total opposite.”
In fact, Toppin saw a big drop on the scales in her first month of changing her diet, and then the weight loss tapered off a bit. She lost 37 pounds altogether in about four months and has kept it off.
She lost 37 pounds altogether in about four months and has kept it off.
Her pain level also dropped quickly, improving her overall quality of life. “My pain level is decreased immensely. And when your pain is not as bad, you’re more energized. You can do more things. You’re more active so you’re more engaged with people and in life.”
Toppin walks three or four days a week, usually before work. She modified her workday slightly to go in at 7:45 a.m. instead of 7, and she also schedules her exercise routines on her calendar. She and her husband have also taken up bike riding – on roads and trails on weekends – which they both really enjoy.
When asked about the point in her life where she made the decision to change, Toppin said, “You are at this fork in the road and you have to make a choice. Do you want to go down this path and progressively get worse or do you want to choose a life where you have control over your destiny by choosing what you’re putting in your mouth and what you’re doing with your body? And, I decided to take that fork that’s going to get me to a healthier place.”
“You are at this fork in the road and you have to make a choice…I decided to take that fork that’s going to get me to a healthier place.”
Lisa Oliver Monroe is a journalist and author of a travel book about America’s Historic Triangle (Williamsburg, Jameston, and Yorktown). Her writing has been published by Virginia Living, Boomer Magazine, Kirkus Media, Advance for Nurses, and Colonial Williamsburg, among many others.