After enduring years of chronic illness, Ryan Monahan had almost forgotten what it was like to feel good. He battled the kind of exhaustion that made it hard to get out of bed. He celebrated the days when he managed to brush his teeth or send an email. He was so tired that it made him depressed, and being depressed only made him more tired.
The Athens, Georgia, based musician was trapped in the hell of bad health and running out of places to turn. He saw countless doctors. He researched endlessly. He even presented his case to a group of doctors at Yale. He got no answers. He began to lose faith in Western medicine.
“During that winter of my life, I spent countless hours doing all this research and trying to understand how I might be able to approach this differently,” Monahan says. “Because I'd visited so many doctors and just wasn't getting answers.”
It was hard to explain the gravity of his symptoms, and he suspected that many doctors, not to mention friends weren’t taking him seriously. He came close to giving up.
“I was like maybe this is just how it goes; maybe this is just how I feel. But at a certain point I was unwilling to accept that as the baseline. I thought life could be so much better than how it was at that time. I just got fed up and decided to take my health into my own hands.”
He began to research functional medicine, and he sought a more open-minded practitioner. This pursuit led him to Dr. Moon, who is licensed in both Chinese medicine and as a traditional M.D.
On a hunch, Dr. Moon tested Monahan’s thyroid function and discovered what then seemed so obvious — he had Hashimoto Thyroiditis.
This inflammation of the thyroid gland causes fatigue, brain fog, weight gain, digestive issues, muscle aches, and depression — and Monahan had suffered through it all. But the diagnosis alone brought him hope; now that he’d identified what was wrong, he could begin to deal with it.
Dr. Moon placed him on a prescription medication, and at first it brought him enormous relief. For the first time in years, he felt like himself again. He had the energy to do the things he loves. He was able to play music again, and to engage with his friends and community.
But his improvements plateaued and soon his health began to spiral back downward. He returned to his research.
He read “Hashimoto’s Protocol” by Izabella Wentz, and it changed his life. “The revelation that I had is that the thyroid malfunction is not the problem, it's the symptom. It's the result of the problem,” he says.
He learned the hard way that his own body must be treated like the complex, interconnected organism that it is. He discovered a truth that the medical community is embracing more and more: his illness originated in his gut.
“Once your gut becomes permeable through either infections or a poor diet or a combination of those diet and lifestyle factors, suddenly you've got toxins and undigested protein and bacteria leaking through your gut, and it causes your immune system to go on red alert,” he says. “Your immune system can become so overactive that it becomes confused and it starts attacking your body's own tissue — and that can manifest as fibromyalgia; it can manifest as cirrosis; it can manifest as arthritis; it can manifest as an autoimmune thyroid condition — but it all starts in the gut lining.”
Monahan attributes leaky gut (in his own case and the general prevalence of the condition) to our modern lifestyles being far from the how our bodies were meant to exist. “Our genetics are programmed over millions of years to expect certain kinds of food and expect a certain amount of movement and expect to be in line with our circadian rhythms, with cycles of light and dark. So the problem is now we're all sitting in chairs and eating Doritos and staying up well past when the sun goes down and that totally confuses the body.”
Using Izabella Wentz’s book and further research, Monahan began to heal his body. He cut grains, processed foods, and sugar out of his diet. He started eating grass-fed meat and butter, bone broth, sauerkraut — many foods we’ve culturally dismissed in the generations since agricultural industrialization.
“One of the reasons that we're seeing higher instances of chronic disease is that we're just not seeing the same amount of nutrients per calorie as we used to,” Monahan says. “What would happen if you put sand in your gas tank? Your car doesn't run on sand. But that's what we're doing to our bodies.”
After making some big changes, Monahan got his life back. In fact, he felt better than he ever had. He picked back up his musical endeavors and restored his relationships. It impacted everything he did. “Your health is at the bottom of that needs hierarchy. You can't fulfill those mental, emotional, spiritual goals until you have that physical health as the foundation.”
But he observed a pervasive culture of unwellness, and wanted to catalyze a much broader change than just his own. “Most people don't even realize that they could feel so much better, even if you're relatively healthy,” he says.
He became a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner and launched a business, The Mindful Nutrivore. He guides clients through intensive diagnostics and helps them reset their lifestyles and diets.
He’s had a profound impact on many of his clients, taking them on the same journey he endured from chronic, crippling illness to better health and energy than ever before.
There are many paradigms Monahan hopes to break as his practice grows. He hopes to open eyes to how our daily choices impact our health. He hopes clients with chronic illness will be treated as a whole person, with all of their systems taken into account.
But perhaps most importantly for his own holistic existence, he hopes to shatter the illusion that being an artist, and especially a musician, means that you have to be unhealthy.
For many professional musicians, there’s no getting around that opportunity comes from a life on the road. Playing dingy bar venues late into the night, for little to no pay, spending hours a day in a van, and sleeping on floor makes healthy choices seem infeasible. But Monahan questions this status quo.
“I really hope that I can do my small part to remove the stigma that you go on tour and eat Taco Bell and drink beer, because it's stupid, and it's not sustainable. And if you want to be a career artist, sooner or later those choices are going to catch up to you,” he says. “To people in the music world, it's almost seen as kind of like a joke. And it's just not funny.”
Monahan is defying the odds himself. He tours the country with his band Easter Island, and he still manages to prioritize his health, even though it isn’t always easy. He packs food thoughtfully, he scopes out places where he knows he can eat well in every city they visit, and he does whatever he can to get good sleep. He even manages to consult his clients while on the road, which serves as a great motivator to walk the walk himself.
“If your goal is really to be a musician, then truly your goal should be to try and share that music with as many people as possible. It takes a lot of stamina,” he says. “You have to be pretty healthy to go on the road and tour and constantly be performing and interviewing.”
Ryan Monahan makes health his top priority. He bravely embraces a lifestyle that flies in the face of what our culture tells us to do. Although at first glance it seems restrictive, it’s actually life-giving.
“I guess what it comes down to is that I'm all about getting the most you can out of life. I don't know what happens after we die, I don't think any of us can answer that for sure, so that kind of motivates me to want to experience everything I can.”
Story by Jodi Cash
Photos by Elliott Fuerniss