Jenny Morelli

Besides plenty of rest and reducing stress, one of the ways Jenny Morelli treats her autoimmune disease, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, is by eating fresh, organic produce.  

Jenny Morelli, who turns 66 this month, grew up healthy.

Her mother, Doris (Smith) Rooks, taught home economics at both Citrus High School and Inverness Middle School, and her father, the late coach Bob Smith, was the elementary school physical education teacher.

Through her nonprofit, Food Generation Inc., she brought a “back-to-basics” approach to health and wellness into the classroom, teaching kids about the benefits of eating “real,” nonprocessed foods and getting regular exercise.

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In April 2018, just as she was set to launch a City Garden Project with the Inverness City Garden, getting kids and teens to grow their own food and get excited about taking control of their health, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disease, and had to put the brakes on everything stressful in her life.

Even the good stress, she said.

Today, added to her message of healthy eating and exercise is the warning: Stop. Slow down. Rest. Breathe.

Deal with your stress before it damages your health.

“I’ve been healthy all my life, but there’s all kinds of autoimmune issues throughout my family -- thyroid issues, cystic fibrosis, scleroderma and others,” Morelli said. “My doctor told me genetics plays only a small part...and he thought stress, taking on more than I should and ‘burning the candle at both ends’ was what turned those genetics on.

“My immune system became compromised from not slowing down like I should have,” she said. “It was good stress, but it was still stress.”

In layman’s terms, she crashed. She had little energy, put on weight, experienced ‘brain fog.’

“I even gave up riding my bike,” she said.

A 2018 Harvard Medical School study looked at the link between stress and autoimmune diseases, which are described as conditions where the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues.

Researchers analyzed more than 100,000 people diagnosed with stress-related disorders and compared their tendency to develop autoimmune disease at least one year later with 126,000 of their siblings, plus a million other people without stress-related disorders.

The study found that people diagnosed with a stress-related disorder were more likely to be diagnosed with one or more autoimmune diseases, nine per 1,000 as opposed to six per 1,000.

Harvard researchers emphasized that their observational study does not conclude that stress-related disorders actually cause autoimmune diseases, but that they could be a factor.

“For me, my doctor said I was exhausted and called it adrenal fatigue,” Morelli said. “So, we tweaked my diet and got me off gluten and dairy, and I eat as organic as I can.

“But the biggest change has been slowing down and giving myself permission to rest,” she said. “I make lists of things that make me happy, focus on what I can do to alleviate stress. My go-to ‘happy place’ is the Withlacoochee Forest, and I love Fort Cooper (State) Park and I do my power walking at Holden Park.”

She said her bloodwork results are improving, but she hasn’t ruled out having to take medications, which, she said, would be for the rest of her life.

“I just want to tell people to slow down,” she said. “Everybody’s in such a hurry, and we’re all connected to our phones. It’s OK to unplug. We need to unplug.”

Contact Chronicle reporter Nancy Kennedy at 352-564-2927 or nkennedy@chronicleonline.com. Read more of Nancy's stories at tinyurl.com/yxt69grh