Missoula woman co-founds website to support healthy living for thyroid patients
Ginny Mahar is a chef on a diet.
That may sound like an improbable – even impossible – situation, but Mahar believes her entire skillset has led her to this point.
And she knows her lifestyle changes have made her feel better.
Diagnosed with hypothyroidism after the birth of her son in 2011, she experienced chronic symptoms for five years from an autoimmune disease she didn’t know she had: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
The diagnosis was an epiphany, helping Mahar realize that food and lifestyle were major factors in how she felt. By itself, a pill wasn’t going to make her feel better.
She set out on a journey that changed her life, and hopefully other lives too.
Now Mahar and Danna Bowman have created a membership website called Thyroid Refresh. The site shows how lifestyle changes, diet and guidance from a doctor can improve a thyroid patient’s health.
The website, headquartered in Missoula, offers resources to improve a person’s lifestyle through recipes, podcasts, exercise videos, blogs, articles written by experts and more.
“I think that’s why that lightning bolt moment struck us so hard, because we know what it’s like. We live with thyroid disease, we know how challenging and isolating and daunting and overwhelming it can be,” Mahar said. “We really had this clear vision of, let’s set out to create what we need as thyroid patients because we know we’re not the only ones who need this.”
The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped endocrine gland that secretes hormones into the blood and helps the body use energy and keeps organs working as they should.
Hypothyroidism occurs when the thyroid gland can’t make enough hormones to keep the body running properly. Hyperthyroidism is the opposite, secreting too many hormones and putting the body into overdrive.
“I always describe the thyroid as the gas pedal of the body,” Mahar said. “Hypothyroidism is [when] there is not enough pressure on the gas pedal, and hyperthyroidism is when there is too much.”
The thyroid affects every aspect of the body.
Still, major lifestyle changes aren’t easy, Mahar said.
One of the site’s main goals is to host a 30-day wellness adventure called Thyroid30 set to launch this September, where members can join a team and focus on improving one or more aspects of their health.
With each daily accomplishment, the member receives a point and is closer to better managing their lifestyle choices.
With four challenges scheduled during the year, participants try to focus on one of eight key areas, like eating healthy foods, getting at least 10 minutes of daily activity, reducing toxins in the body or home and improving on sleep.
What a participant focuses on depends on guidance from their doctor and their personal goals. Members receive gold, silver or bronze medals on their profiles once they’ve reached certain benchmarks.
“It’s an opportunity to break down the barriers that are standing between you and your optimal state of health. It’s like Thyroid Refresh – there’s a lot out there about what to do, but we’re here to tell you how to do it with Thyroid30,” Mahar said. “You take those expert recommendations and we give you the means to implement them so you can get to the other side and make that progress in what really is a lifelong journey of living well with thyroid disease.”
Mahar attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco with dreams of becoming a chef and writer, and later worked as a cooking instructor in Missoula.
After her hypothyroidism diagnosis, a few students from a cooking class told her about how their new diet reversed their thyroid disease.
This encouraged her to do more research on thyroid-friendly recipes and launch her blog, Hypothyroid Chef, in 2015. She modified her diet, but still experienced symptoms like brain fog and chronic fatigue from an underlying cause she hadn’t known about.
In 2016, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s after asking her doctor to test for it. The nurse stated that the doctor suspected she had Hashimoto’s but never tested Mahar for the disease.
“In other words, unbeknownst to me, my thyroid was quietly being demolished by my own immune system, for FIVE YEARS, without my doctor testing or educating me on what that meant,” Mahar wrote on her Hypothyroid Chef blog. “Knowing what I do now, about the huge difference that diet and lifestyle interventions can make for us, this was upsetting to say the least.”
Many patients with Hashimoto’s are misdiagnosed or underdiagnosed, and some doctors, including Mahar’s, have also dismissed the benefits of diet and lifestyle on thyroid diseases, she said.
Now living with the autoimmune disease, she decided to hire a naturopath and learned about food sensitivities, nutrient deficiencies and a gut infection she didn’t know she had. She pinpointed the foods that affected her.
She removed gluten, dairy, sugar and alcohol from her diet, and as a chef with a bookshelf full of cookbooks in her office, she took baby steps in eliminating certain inflammatory foods.
“It was like somebody took my palette of colors and took half of them away. I had to completely change my relationship with food,” Mahar said.
But the changes were necessary and soon she felt like her old self after years of feeling sick and tired. She could lead an active life again – hiking, biking and skiing with her family.
“This is why I am such an advocate, this is why I’m so passionate about this is because my story isn’t unique,” she said.
Mahar believes that the blood test was a catalyst that turned her health around. Since then, she has made it a livelihood to share her story with other patients like herself, and assist them in finding a diet and lifestyle routine that works for them.
The online communities soon connected her with Bowman, who had created a podcast called Thyroid Nation.
Bowman started the blog while living in Costa Rica for eight years. Thyroid Refresh seemed like an important thing to put her time and effort into after that.
About 60 members have enrolled in Thyroid Refresh since it launched five months ago.
“It was a real shot in the dark, but it felt necessary. One main reason was because, I started Thyroid Nation when I lived in Costa Rica because I felt very isolated and I couldn’t get the medicines that I needed,” Bowman said. “I didn’t really realize there was this online world of people feeling the same way until I got online and I got on these groups and I was like, ‘Wow, there are so many people around the world who can’t get what they need. They can’t get the doctors they need and they end up getting undiagnosed and misdiagnosed.’ ”
According to Bowman, women are more likely to have a thyroid disease, and one in 10 Americans struggle with thyroid dysfunction at some time in their life.
“That’s what we decided to put together, a site that’s mindset and lifestyle oriented, that’s very empowering for women, because women are five to eight times more likely than men to have it,” Bowman said. “I’d say there are about 30 million Americans who have thyroid disease in one shape, form or another.”
Mahar attributes a lot of her ambition to her upbringing in Saginaw, Michigan, where the family’s industrial distribution company began. Her grandfather started by selling cutting tools out of the trunk of his car to automakers in 1947, and eventually founded Mahar Tool Supply. The company was passed down to her father.
She was still an infant when Mahar’s father died from leukemia, and her mother was left to care for four children while taking over her husband’s company in a predominantly male industry.
Her mother, who she refers to as Wonder Woman, learned the ropes of the business and is still the CEO today. Even when she struggled with hypothyroidism and lyme disease, Mahar Tool Supply became one of the largest international industrial distribution companies in the world.
“All of a sudden, my mom who had never been to college, was a sewing teacher and a mom, had the decision of whether or not she was going to take over the company or sell it. And she really wanted to try and carry on his legacy because she knew how important it was in his history and in our family, and she wanted to provide for us,” Mahar said. “That’s what she did.”
Even when times were tough, the family pulled through.
“She always taught me a lot. I always thought I was my father’s daughter, I’m a lot like him. But in the last year, I’ve really realized how much I’m my mother’s daughter too,” Mahar said. “She just had this unshakeable sense of optimism. It’s going to be OK, and you have to just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going. Because that’s what she had to do.”
Mahar felt she had the resources to start Thyroid Refresh because of her upbringing and from her family’s support.
Her sister, Kim Mahar, doesn’t have a thyroid disease, but has a membership and takes advantage of the recipes that are on the website.
“I’m involved in the restaurant industry so it can be easy to get involved in an unhealthy diet. But to keep it organic and fresh and knowing why this is beneficial to body health and mental health [has] been incredible,” Kim Mahar said.
As a pastry chef, Kim and Ginny hope to collaborate in the future and make thyroid-friendly recipes.
Divania Timmal-Jones, a copy editor for the website, said that her hair loss diminished after eliminating gluten from her diet and said that Mahar has taught her about meditation and other daily routines that help with thyroid-related symptoms.
“It’s a difficult journey and people just need to be more patient and gentle overall, I think,” Timmal-Jones said.
As the brand grows, Mahar, Bowman and her staff hope to share what they’ve learned with the world, and to educate patients about how they can change their lifestyles through Thyroid Refresh.
“It was one of those moments where you get a call to do something and I made a conscious choice to heed it and to trust this other person that I didn’t really know very well,” Mahar said. “It felt like everything in my life has led me to this point – my whole skillset and finding the right person to work with – all of it lead me here. So I’m going to put one foot in front of the other and see if we can help some people.”