Battling Rheumatoid Arthritis With a Paleo Diet
Written by: Meagan Holden
Let’s start at the beginning. Sorry folks…this may take a few minutes!
In spring of 2007 I was diagnosed with Bursitis in my shoulders. Bursitis is an inflammation of the bursae sac. We have bursae sacs in joints like our knees, shoulders, hips…it allows for smooth rotation and movement. When my bursitis flare up occurs, I cannot move my shoulder. I am usually in so much pain, sometimes to the point of tears, that I can’t even drive my car, I can’t lift my arms to wash my hair, put my shirt on or my bra.
Catch my drift?
When flare ups happen… life is pretty miserable. Quality of life sucks, to say the least. This diagnosis was just the icing… allow me to introduce the cherry on top.
In the late winter/early spring of 2008, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. At the time, I was 22 years old, a junior at Western Washington University, studying Kinesiology (Exercise and Sport Science). I realized it was probably time to see a doctor when I couldn’t even pull down my own pants to go to the bathroom because my fingers ached so badly, or after trying to unscrew the toothpaste cap and couldn’t because it was too painful and I’d have to ask my roommates do it for me, or when I couldn’t participate in swim class, or hardly walk from one class to the next without taking about 20 minutes, and finally I couldn’t even hold a pencil and write to take notes because the stiffness and tenderness were so great. Mornings were always much worse with the joint pains and aches. I decided that my quality of life had gone from awesome to grim in about 3-4 months and I could not bare another minute of it.
RA for short, Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease. Basically, my body attacks its own tissues because it can no longer tell the difference between me/myself/I vs. foreign invaders. RA has no ”cure” but can be treated with various drugs like disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), corticosteroids, or biologic agents. I was put on Prednisone for the first few weeks after my diagnoses to combat the pain, discomfort and inflammation. One of the downfalls of this corticosteriod is weight gain…not to mention the long term effects like osteoporosis. From there I went off of prednisone and was prescribed a DMARD called Methotrexate. This drug has so many SCARY side effects. Here is a brief section of the long warning for methotrexate:
Methotrexate may cause very serious side effects. Some side effects of methotrexate may cause death. You should only take methotrexate to treat life-threatening cancer, or certain other conditions that are very severe and that cannot be treated with other medications…
Methotrexate may cause a decrease in the number of blood cells made by your bone marrow…
Methotrexate may cause liver damage, especially when it is taken for a long period of time…
Methotrexate may cause lung damage…
Methotrexate may cause damage to the lining of your mouth, stomach or intestines…. If you experience any of the following symptoms, stop taking methotrexate and call your doctor right away: mouth sores, diarrhea, black, tarry, or bloody stools, or vomit that is bloody or looks like coffee grounds…
Taking methotrexate may increase the risk that you will develop lymphoma (cancer that begins in the cells of the immune system). If you do develop lymphoma, it might go away without treatment when you stop taking methotrexate, or it might need to be treated with chemotherapy…
Methotrexate may cause serious or life-threatening skin reactions…
Methotrexate may decrease the activity of your immune system, and you may develop serious infections…If you experience signs of infection such as a sore throat, cough, fever, or chills, call your doctor immediately…
Tell your doctor if you or your partner is pregnant or plan to become pregnant. If you are female, you will need to take a pregnancy test before you begin taking methotrexate. Use a reliable method of birth control so that you or your partner will not become pregnant during or shortly after your treatment. If you are male, you and your female partner should continue to use birth control for 3 months after you stop taking methotrexate. If you are female, you should continue to use birth control until you have had one menstrual period that began after you stopped taking methotrexate. If you or your partner become pregnant, call your doctor immediately. Methotrexate may harm the fetus.
I know! Scary, huh?
I was on methotrexate for an entire year. I had to give myself a shot, with a needle, in my thigh once a week. Yes, it gave me the creeps! Still does.
Since methotrexate stopped being effective for me after about a year, I went and ”upped the ante” and was put on a biologic drug called Enbrel. Biologic drugs treat more severe cases of RA. The side effects are similar to methotrexate, except you CAN consume alcohol and enbrel won’t cause birth defects like methotrexate will (at least as far as the pharmacuticals know).
I also give myself a shot with this medicine. It comes in a pre-filled syringe, and I am SUPPOSED to give myself this shot once a week. If I eat ”right”, I can go roughly 6-8 weeks in between shots.
Ok, ok… I’ll get to the paleo stuff. Soon. I promise.
A girl at work mentioned to me in 2009, that she ate ”gluten-free”.
”Ummm…WTF is that?” I asked her. In a nutshell, gluten free is essentially eating only foods without gluten, wheat, rye, barley, and oats in them. Rice and corn or fine with gluten free diets. My co-worker discovered that by eating gluten-free she felt less moody, her mind was less fogged and she was less bloated.
I thought, ”Is she for real?”
I decided if diet can make her physically, emotionally, and mentally clearer…I bet diet could have an influence on RA? Right?????
I immediately approached my doctor, the MD, the Rheumatologist, the ”all-knowing” about diet and it’s possible effects on my RA.
Here’s a funny story…She answered my question aboud diet with a non-chalant, ”No. Just… you know, everything in moderation.”
What a bunch of bull shit.
Since I didn’t have her guidance on this, I just went for it on my own. I tried out my own gluten-free experimentation. And guess what…success!
There were nights, even after going gluten free, where my roommates would comfort me at my bedside because I’d be in tears, agonizing over the pain and immobility of my body. I recall one night specifically where I was icing my hip or my foot (not sure which…probably both!) and they were on my bed seated next to me, offering to help get me anything I needed. They wanted to be there for me in any way they could.
When we are in pain, it’s so nice to have the support and companionship of friends and family. It’s hard to bare a burden all on our own. It’s hard to be vulnerable and ask for help, but I truly believe when we do, our friends and family are more than happy to step up to the plate. It’s so much easier to OFFER the help then it is to ASK for help. But sometimes we get to a point where our pride doesn’t even matter anymore and we are grateful for any consolation that is given. This is the point I had gotten to…I was devoid of pride and let my walls crumble down. I could not even walk downstairs on my own to get water or something to eat.
I’d played around with eating gluten free for a few months… then when my flare ups were far and few in between, I’d forget how bad those nights of pain were and decided I could eat whatever I wanted. Nope. And to this day, I still battle eating perfectly…I’ll go months without a flare up and decide that I deserve that donut in the break room at work. Eeek. Bad idea!
Gluten free definitely helped my RA but I’d still get horribly painful flare ups, they were just less frequent. But less pain is much better than more pain, so I tried to stick to gluten free foods.
In April 2010, when I became pregnant, I talked with my Rheumatologist and we decided that I could go off my Enbrel medication. She didn’t push me to take it, which was surprising. She said several of her patients had continued taking Enbrel through their pregnancies though… and had healthy, full term babies.
”But, f*ck that!” I thought.
Enbrel had only been recently approved and with all the side affects it could cause me, I wasn’t going to risk my baby’s well being as well.
It was time to be super strict about being gluten free.
My husband supported me in this and ate gluten free with me at dinner. He ate his own thing for breakfast and lunch, but dinner time was a meal we always shared together and he wanted to help make this process easier for me.
There were nights I’d wake up in such pain that the only way to get comfortable would be to sit up in bed, and rock back and forth. Even though I was sobbing from such pain, I couldn’t help but giggle inside thinking how nutty I probably looked if someone were watching me from a window or something.
After our son was born on January 4th, 2011, my husband and I did a bit of research. I didn’t like the idea of, ”Ok, I’m not pregnant… let’s jump right back into taking my medicine.” The thought of giving myself a shot every week made my stomach turn. I didn’t want to have to rely on drugs to keep me healthy. Gluten free was ”OK” but Jason and I had been reading up on something called the Paleolithic Diet.
Jason bought Loren Cordain’s book called, ”The Paleo Diet”.
Jason and I also purchased the Robb Wolf book, ”The Paleo Solution”. I read the ENTIRE book. I’m actually re-reading it now.
But, back to what I was saying…
So my husband and I agreed to try the 30 day challenge of eating like our primal ancestors. We refrained from not only gluten, including wheat, rye, barley, oats but also from rice, corn, vegetable oils, artificial sweeteners, legumes, dairy, beans, and night shades (due to my autoimmunity).
To keep it simple, we ate a lot of protein, vegetables, some fruit, nuts and berries.
We wanted to see if we truly felt a difference in how we felt and looked after just 30 days of following Paleo.
We started February 21, 2011.
It’s been just over a year since we started, and I haven’t taken my Enbrel shot since the end of November 2011. It’s been nearly 17 weeks. The longest stretch yet!
The first 3 weeks of starting Paleo were the hardest. I felt pretty good about life, considering the fact that I was recovering from a C-section, had a 1 1/2 month old and was sleep deprived… I felt really good about myself for plugging along with this paleo diet. I only anticipated doing it for just 30 days. But then… 60 days went by and then it was 3 months later and I realized I still didn’t need to take my Enbrel.
Was this truly possible? Did I really not need to take my medicine anymore!?
Well, after following Paleo strictly for about 3 months, I gave myself a cheat day. Well, that cheat day turned into a cheat week that really lasted for an entire month. Phew! It’s true what they say, ”Cake is the new crack!”. It was like once I ate some candy, well then I couldn’t say no to the pizza…and then it was my birthday too, so I could do what I wanted, right?
I got away without any Enbrel for a few months and then my aches and pains slowly started creeping back. Now, maybe this is because I re-introduced lots of sugar, gluten, and dairy (hello to Ice Cream!) back into my diet. Even if it was only periodically, it was and is enough to ruin my drug free streak. I had a couple of really bad flare ups that caused my hips to hurt. I couldn’t walk very easily and to get in and out of a car was extremely troublesome.
Having a baby added more stress to the matter…these flare ups didn’t just ruin my mobility, but they interfered with picking up my son, and going on walks or even trying to button his onesie. My fingers and joints took turns playing ping-pong around my body. One day my fingers were incapable of buttoning a button and then the next week I couldn’t use my leg to push the clutch down in my car.
I decided I’d done the damage with eating bread, that I needed to fix this problem quickly (I couldn’t wait 30 days to reset my inflammation with diet… I needed to be better NOW).
Yes, sorry to say it…but I took my enbrel.
After my cheat month, I turned on my paleo button again. Still to this day, I enjoy an occasional ice cream splurge, or add creamer to my coffee (but I use creamer without corn syrup, just FYI).
If I do have a cheat day, it’s typically gluten-free. And cheat days do happen for me. I am human. I do have a craving once in a while. But it’s not for lack of being prepared. We never have ”bad” food in our house. We don’t buy Jack n’ the Box or get take-out because we don’t have anything to cook. It’s a conscious decision that our family makes. We know what we’re doing…and we know the consequences.
We have to ask ourselves…”Is it worth it?”
Sometimes we order a gluten-free pizza and we love it. And then we’re like, ”Ok, that was our cheat meal for the month.” And we move on.
I still take my Enbrel.
My rheumatalogist has me prescribed to take it once a week, but I don’t. I’ve told her this, too. However, I did keep it from her for about 8 months. Simply put, I was scared to tell her I didn’t want to take her drugs and that I’d found a better alternative to suppress my RA.
I would say that’s pretty friggin’ awesome!
I would rather eat paleo, feel great, look my best and give myself a shot every 8 weeks than take a shot every week and deal with pain in the meantime.
What if I were a lot more strict, never added creamer to my coffee, removed ice cream from the picture? or never ate a smarties candy, and avoided chocolate like the plague?
I might not need to take my Enbrel…ever.
But…alas, I just haven’t committed myself to that degree quite yet.
Paleo is about eating the way our bodies were meant to be fed. What we were born to do…
Like Lady Gaga says ”You Were Born This Way, BABY!” haaa.
The farther we remove ourselves from the natural state of our ancestral diet, I think the more we’ll feel sick and be sick.
Cut out the refined sugar, processed foods. High fructose corn syrup…hell no.
That sh*t it’ll kill you. Honestly.
Do your own research. Try it out.
I was about 136 lbs before Paleo (post baby too) and now I’m about 120 lbs. I’ve never had to work so little to look in shape. Does that make sense? I don’t work out that often… I really want to change that and at least I get a workout in every Sunday. But as long as I eat right, I feel good and getting exercise in is only a bonus. I had my body fat percentage taken by a trainer at my local gym. My body fat is 11.7 %, with lean body mass at 105.9 lbs and fat mass at 14.04 lbs.
Have you heard of skinny fat? It’s where people are skinny on the outside, but their blood work says the opposite…they’re sick on the inside.
I know a lot of people who fall into this category.
So, it’s not just what we look like that matters either, is my point.
It’s how we feel. How well we perform when we do exercise and it’s about living a more fulfilling life. Disease free.
But, if nothing else. Take control of what you put in your body. Read the ingredient labels on your food. You’ll be shocked to find out what’s in them. If you can’t pronounce half of what’s on the label, maybe you shouldn’t eat it, ha.
In a nutshell:
Try Paleo for 30 days. I bet you’ll feel pretty friggin’ fantastic.
It’s not easy. But it’s definitely worth it.