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My autoimmune journey: I lost all body hair, but gained inner strength

Pulkit Goyal
8 min read • 
16 February 2024

Editor’s Note:

How would you feel if you were diagnosed with a disease but no medicines seemed to work? You’re trying your best, but the disease doesn’t stop. What if that’s tied to your visual appearance, leading society to continually inquire about what’s happening with you, making you question your identity?

Pulkit Goyal, 26, has faced this head-on and is here to share his exceptional journey with remarkable honesty, courage, and deep self-awareness. Read it through to the end: you will learn about autoimmune diseases and receive a compelling reminder of the importance of health, the often-underestimated effects of stress and lifestyle, and the power of resilience. You can connect with Pulkit on LinkedIn or email at pulkitmgoyal@gmail.com.

— Samarth Bansal (samarth@thewholetruthfoods.com

I believed I was healthy and in control of my health until one fine morning in the last week of December 2021, when my mother noticed a coin-sized bald patch on my head while she was oiling my hair. The discovery left me shocked and confused, as it didn’t resemble the typical patterns of hair loss.

I took a haircut—a buzz cut—and visited a dermatologist. He inquired about my COVID-19 vaccination status and mentioned an increase in similar cases post-vaccination, though he offered little detail on the condition or the expected duration of treatment. He prescribed a month’s worth of medication.

Once home, I learned I had Alopecia Areata, an autoimmune condition—a term unfamiliar to me at the time. Despite the confusion, we were somewhat comforted by the belief that medication would resolve the issue.

Throughout my life, I had always trusted in the efficacy of following a doctor’s prescription, never truly considering the seriousness of illnesses as long as medication was an option. This time, however, I was in for a surprise. 

A month passed without any regrowth of hair, and I began to lose an eyebrow, which was distressing. It looked ugly.

Not long after, an allergic reaction to something I ate led to severe eczema—a condition where the skin becomes red, itchy, and inflamed, often as a result of a hypersensitive reaction. Which led to further hair loss. 

I got extremely stressed and sought medical advice once again. The doctor increased my medication and prescribed a course of antihistamines—drugs designed to counteract the body’s allergic responses by blocking the action of histamine, helping to alleviate the itching and discomfort associated with my condition.

While the eczema began to subside, my hair showed no signs of returning. Living with a bald patch on my head was one thing, but the loss of an eyebrow made things stressful. 

The fact that the condition was worsening made me dive deeper into understanding this disease. This time, I tried to understand what an ‘autoimmune condition’ means and was shocked by what I discovered: my own body was attacking itself. The idea that such a thing could happen was beyond my imagination.

Autoimmune conditions are disorders in which the body’s immune system fails to perform its regular role — protection against infections and harmful external bacteria and viruses — as it can’t distinguish between its own cells and foreign invaders. So it mistakenly starts attacking normal healthy cells in the body. 

Autoimmune diseases occur when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks its own healthy cells.

In my case of Alopecia Areata, my immune system was mistakenly attacking healthy hair follicles, causing them to shrink and dramatically slowing down hair production. 

There are over 80 known autoimmune diseases, including common ones like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Psoriasis, Lupus, Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Inflammatory Bowel Syndrome, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and Vitiligo.

The realisation that I was suffering from such a unique condition led me to do everything I possibly could to fix what was broken, which also meant focusing on my physical health.

Despite being active for most of my life—beginning with rigorous morning PT and sports in boarding school, excelling in Football and Table Tennis, becoming notably fit during my college years—I had let exercise fall by the wayside throughout 2021, largely due to relocating to a new city, the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a tendency to procrastinate.

I decided to get back into shape and joined a gym again. But this time, my stint ended after just four days, as curious stares and questions about my hair loss became too uncomfortable to bear.

The fact that medicines were not working, combined with my family’s recommendations for a more reputed doctor, led us to question the effectiveness of the prescribed medications.

More hits and trials with doctors happened over the next couple of months, with various ointments and remedies tried but to no avail: my hair loss only got worse—including facial hair—to the point where I started wearing a cap after several polite comments about the unsightly bald patterns.

🫂Share to inspire others facing similar challenges.

In July 2022, we sought out Fortis, hopeful for a breakthrough. The specialist there diagnosed me with Alopecia Universalis, an advanced stage of Alopecia Areata, characterised by total body hair loss.

He mentioned a new medication, tofacitinib, which had shown promising results. Before starting me on this medication, he ordered some tests and prescribed mild steroids for the initial two weeks. 

The test results were encouraging, and I soon began the tofacitinib treatment. However, not long after starting the twice-daily doses, I experienced severe knee joint pain. We couldn’t pinpoint the cause of this pain, but it was severe enough to make us reconsider the medication. 

Upon consulting the doctor again, he mentioned something about liver enzyme activation and suggested switching to a powerful immunosuppressant. After doing our own research and weighing the potential side effects, which seemed daunting, we decided against the new drug.

Our trust in the doctor declined, especially after his reaction to the knee pain issue, leading us to discontinue both the medication and our visits to him.

Nine months into the journey, I was losing more hair and felt an overwhelming amount of stress. It reached a point where I stopped recognising myself in the mirror. (I still don’t sometimes.) I became acutely aware of the looks and stares directed my way, leading me to navigate life with increased caution. I avoided unfamiliar places and people, steered clear of parties, and more.

My confidence was shattered. I avoided the camera, resulting in very few photographs from that period.

Pulkit no longer felt familiar with the reflection in the mirror.

In a final attempt to find a solution, we turned to what many consider the Mecca of medicine in India, AIIMS Delhi. We visited around September 2022, again hopeful for a breakthrough.

The consultant there suggested a return to tofacitinib, with the intention of closely monitoring my health markers to understand the cause of the knee pain and to observe if it would recur.

I resumed taking tofacitinib, only to experience the onset of slight knee pain once again, which led me to discontinue its use.

In hindsight, this decision seems to have been driven more by my frustration and the overwhelming stress of the situation. Today, I’m aware of individuals for whom tofacitinib has been effective, leaving me to wonder if perhaps I gave up on it too hastily.

It became increasingly clear that modern medicine, as it stood, offered no definitive cure for my condition. Despite my hope for a dedicated research effort towards finding a solution, I understood that the medical community’s priorities were, justifiably, focused on combating life-threatening diseases like cancer.

Meanwhile, I got multiple recommendations for Ayurvedic treatment centres. I don’t believe in the magical promise of Ayurveda, so I brushed them off. But because nothing was working, I decided to give it a shot. (‘A treatment worked for my cousin, so maybe something’s going on there?’ I thought.) But I tried, and again, nothing worked for me. 

By that time, I didn’t even know what a solution even meant: Is it when the current hair loss stops, or slows down, or new ones come up? I had no clue. 

Throughout this time, my family and I were under a lot of stress. I was dealing with a depersonalization disorder while trying to keep everyone’s spirits up. I found myself cranky and struggling to think clearly.

The journey, filled with uncertainty or rather a reluctance to accept the certainty of my condition, was incredibly tough. The stress was amplified by questions about my marital status and other aspects, revealing the broader impact of my condition on different areas of my life.

What do you do when you’re stressed? You keep yourself occupied with consuming content. Which is what I did. On that endless path, one day, I came across a YouTube recommendation on health by Dr. Eric Berg. 

That single video led me to spend hundreds of hours watching and reading about health. I learned about what triggers autoimmune conditions and the lifestyle factors contributing to poor health, and it felt like a personal attack as it all resonated with my lifestyle leading up to my condition. 

Throughout 2021, my sleep was poor, I didn’t exercise at all, faced mental stress from work and the COVID-19 second wave, suffered from vitamin and protein deficiencies, underwent multiple rounds of antibiotics for frequent colds, had poor metabolic health, low lean muscle mass, among other issues.

Pulkit went through a lot of antibiotics.

The insight that mental stress is a primary factor triggering autoimmune conditions helped me see the vicious cycle I was in: I was stressed because I was losing hair, and I was losing hair because I was stressed. I was stressed because the medications weren’t working, and perhaps they weren’t working because I was stressed. 

Since this realisation, I’ve noticed many people stuck in this cycle of being sick because they’re stressed and stressed because they’re sick. If you are sick, please fix your stress first.

Another realisation, confirmed by a friend in molecular biology, was the lack of correlation made by doctors between my condition and mental stress, sleep, and lifestyle issues. In fact, some doctor visits only increased my stress.

I believe a more holistic approach by the doctor, suggesting lifestyle changes, stress reduction, and sleep improvement, could have prevented my condition from worsening. 

In an effort to alleviate my mental stress, I turned to meditation in November 2022. Within a few weeks, I came to a profound realisation: I was trapped in a false image and the hope that my hair would return—clinging to a reality that no longer existed.

It became clear that I needed to retrain my brain to accept my new appearance without hair. This mental shift was compounded by the uncertainty surrounding the results of ongoing treatments.

By the end of 2022, determined to escape this mental trap, I decided to stop chasing after new treatments. I gave up wearing my cap and started to accept the bald me, the new me. Living bald in public led to inquiries from people wondering if I had cancer, among other questions. 

The questions and stares increased, but this time, answering them paradoxically boosted my confidence. Through this process, I navigated the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance—finally reaching a place of peace with my new self.

If you entered into this article expecting I will go on the heroic journey of overcoming disease through an innovative cure, then sorry—no such resolution occurred: my body continued its autoimmune response, it continued to attack itself, and I lost all my body hair.

I did everything I could possibly do to fight it: sought out the best doctors, sought second opinions, did my own research, tried different medications, reluctantly tried traditional medicine, and yet, nothing. The disease won. 

In retrospect, I don’t think of myself as a victim, because this whole journey taught me so much about health. I no longer look at life and people the same way I used to—it transformed me as a person. 

In fact, I consider myself lucky that my autoimmune condition only affected my appearance: it had a big psychological and emotional toll, but at least my bodily functions and organs were not affected.

But so many others face far more severe cases of autoimmune diseases—some without any existing treatments, participating in clinical trials in hopes of finding relief or a cure. 

It can trigger widespread inflammation and affect multiple body systems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, which can impact joints and organs, or systemic lupus erythematosus, which can affect the skin, joints, kidneys, and brain.

So it would help if more people understood this condition. A new population-based study in the UK published in The Lancet revealed that autoimmune disorders now affect about one in ten individuals

📩Share to spread awareness about autoimmune diseases.

The exact trigger for my autoimmune condition remains unclear, but there are a few things that I can say for sure.

1) There is a genetic component to autoimmune conditions. Certain genes make individuals more susceptible to developing specific autoimmune diseases. I’ve known people with a family history of vitiligo or type 1 diabetes. Yet, a healthy lifestyle might prevent these genetic risks from manifesting.

2) Chronic stress is a catalyst for autoimmune diseases. Extended periods of physical and mental stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which in turn may trigger autoimmune responses.

3) Is it possible to reverse autoimmune conditions? Probably yes. Can they be reversed with current medical knowledge? Maybe.

4) Is there a single magic pill for all autoimmune conditions? My understanding is that different autoimmune conditions affect different gene pathways. Much like cancer, autoimmune diseases are not a singular condition.

For me, the greatest transformation after breaking out of the vicious stressful trap and accepting my new self was making health a priority—something most of us know, yet fail to put into practice. I decided to take control of my health to avoid any further surprises. 

Since the beginning of 2023, I’ve been actively working towards achieving peak fitness every day, with a focus on:

Diet: My approach to eating has changed; I stopped eating to entertain my tongue. I stick to what many would call boring stuff, making sure I get enough protein, fats, and essential nutrients and minerals. I also keep up with an intermittent fasting schedule of 14-16 hours and have also experimented with Keto and prolonged fasting.

Exercise: I run and hit the gym regularly. I’m now focused on metrics like body fat percentage, biceps size, and running speed.

Sleep: I actively track and optimise sleep quality to ensure I’m getting the rest I need.

Stress management: Deep breathing and guided meditations through Headspace have become invaluable tools for me. Meditation has been a game-changer for me. It offers me a sense of control I hadn’t felt before. I use an app that reminds me to take deep breaths every hour.

Thanks to these efforts, symptoms like acne and eczema are in control, I’ve noticed periodic hair regrowth, I rarely get sick, and overall, I feel the healthiest I’ve ever been. 

So, even though the disease won, I didn’t let myself feel defeated. I didn’t—and won’t—submit to the notion that I am sick, or will remain sick for the rest of my life.

As the famous adage goes: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I guess sometimes it takes an accident for one to realise that they can be in the driver’s seat of their health rather than being in the backseat. 

That was the case for me. I have always been on the hunt to find my purpose in life, and after this experience, I believe mine is to help others stay healthy—through my work and in everyday life. I am on it. 

Know someone who feels defeated? Sharing this should do the trick🙂

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