No treatment. No cure.

December 11th, 2014: My doctor dropped the bomb on me that would change everything.

I had been experiencing trigger thumb for 8 months following a bad case of carpal tunnel during pregnancy. The carpal tunnel resolved but the trigger thumb was still causing me daily pain and the week of my doctor’s appointment I had also developed pain in the knuckles of my hands.

When I explained my symptoms, also mentioning that my chronic knee pain had been getting worse over the last few months and the tendonitis in my shoulders didn’t seem to be going away, he dropped the “R bomb” on me: rheumatoid arthritis. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, all I remember was that I sent my husband a text message from the exam room and he said, “Let’s pray it’s not RA.”

So of course the first thing I did when I got in the car was google RA and what I found was absolutely devastating. I read the words autoimmune, bone erosion, chronic pain, joint deformity, rheumatoid arthritis destroys the cartilage and bone within the joint.

No treatment. No cure.

That word “destroys” still makes me cringe. I saw pictures of mangled fingers and hands. I learned that usually RA occurs in women age 40-60 and every article and website talked about adults who struggle to playing with their grandchildren. But I was only31. And what about raising my own child? Will I be able to play on floor with him? If I already feel this miserable, what will I feel like in 10 years? Even 5 years? Or 6 months? My fingers already hurt when I tried to teach my son to wave “bye bye” and I couldn’t pick him up without wincing from the pain in my shoulders, so how bad would it get? How am I going to live like this if it only gets worse? I sat in my car and cried.

At the time I didn’t even know what “autoimmune” meant but I would quickly realize I was considered “high risk” because of my family/medical history. My dad and older brother have Crohn’s Disease, my mom has allergies and used to get migraines, my older brother had persistent acne as a teenager, and my younger brother has a history of IBS-like symptoms. For years I suffered with IBS symptoms only to discover about 2 years ago that I have a gluten intolerance. Around the same time I also learned that I am allergic to nearly all trees, grasses, animals, and dust. These issues had always seemed to me like they were unrelated but unfortunately that’s not the case. Realizing all of these were related to autoimmune and knowing the risk of other more significant issues increases with this kind of history, my heart broke knowing that a diagnosis of RA wasn’t that unrealistic.

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THE DIAGNOSIS:

Diagnosing RA is done with a simple blood test. Unfortunately that blood test is not very reliable and even if you have a negative blood test you can still get diagnosed with RA based on your symptoms. So I looked at the list of symptoms…

  • Fatigue.
  • Joint pain.
  • Joint tenderness.
  • Joint swelling.
  • Joint redness.
  • Joint warmth.
  • Stiffness of joints, particularly worse in the morning.
  • Many joints affected (polyarthritis)
  • Both sides of the body affected (symmetric)

Unfortunately I have them all. Every single one.

I also looked at other similar autoimmune diseases to see if there were any other unexplained symptoms that I was experiencing that could be explained by another illness and everything I read kept pointing me back to rheumatoid arthritis. Immediately, I started looking into treatment options.

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THE TREATMENT: 

While there is no treatment or cure for RA, there are a number of medications used to manage the disease. Thank God! Relief is on the way! These medications include immuno-suppressants to decrease the immune system’s over-active response, prescription pain medicines to manage pain, and a number of other medications to slow cell reproduction. Each one has some not-so-pleasant and often dangerous side effects and will frequently lose its effect with the progression of the disease over time. Here are the most common medications prescribed for RA:

  1. Chloroquine Phosphate – immunosuppressant, used for the prevention and treatment of Malaria, side effects include permanent damage to the eyes and heart.
  2. Leflunomide – immunosuppressant with common side effects of liver damage and lung disease.
  3. Methotrexate – used in cancer treatment as it decreases the body’s ability to produce new cells. This is a good thing when we’re talking about cancer cells but bad news for blood cells which fight infection. Add to that your immunosuppressants above and it can lead to “serious life-threatening side effects to the liver, lungs, and kidneys.” To top it all off, it Inhibits the body’s ability to process folic acid leading to possible birth defects.
  4. Sulfasalazine – also lowers folic acid levels leading to possible birth defects.

All of a sudden my options seemed a little less hopeful.

But that’s when I learned about functional medicine.

“Functional Medicine addresses the underlying causes of disease… By shifting the traditional disease-centered focus of medical practice to a more patient-centered approach, it addresses the whole person, not just an isolated set of symptoms.” And so began my journey, foregoing conventional medicine for a new type of treatment: FOOD.

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THE PROCESS:

The range of autoimmune diseases is vast and includes nearly every bodily organ and system imaginable but as unlikely as it sounds, each patient can be treated or at least have significant relief of symptoms with the same diet. The “Autoimmune Protocol” (Autoimmune Paleo, AIP) is becoming one of many recent elimination diets which helps to rid the gut of infections such as yeast overgrowth (which can also contribute to RA especially after pregnancy), provides necessary nutrients for healing, and also eliminates any possible food allergies and sensitivities that can worsen an already unhealthy system. The biological explanation is far too advanced for me to try to explain but when you get right down to it, most of us are eating toxins in our food and we’re exposed to an overwhelming number of toxins in our environment. We are quite literally poisoning ourselves. I am one of those whose bodies does not tolerate these toxins very well which resulted in my severe allergies, IBS/gluten intolerance, and RA symptoms.

The “treatment” for all autoimmune diseases is the same, but it’s not an easy one.

What would it take to put my RA symptoms into remission?

A total diet overhaul.

My husband has always said he is amazed by my determination and self-control when it comes to food. I’ve been gluten free for over 2 years and dairy free for the last 9 months since we discovered Brantley’s sensitivity to dairy, but I was in no way prepared for this kind of change. The AIP diet is restrictive to say the least but at the end of the day it promised to give me some relief of my symptoms and if I was lucky I had the potential of being completely pain free.

The list of foods encourages a variety of meats, fruits, and vegetables, while removing common food sensitivities, foods that often lead to inflammation, and a number of other substances that our bodies don’t process well including sugar, caffeine, and toxins found in non-organic foods. The diet is strict for the first 30 days and then whenever you become pain free (whether that’s at the 30-day mark or weeks/months later) you can choose to begin reintroducing foods back into your diet to see how you respond to them.

_______________________________________________________

THE RESULT:

I have only just begun my autoimmune journey and as of today I have successfully completed 29 days of healing. I have not yet attacked the dreaded process of clearing out toxins from my environment – drinking only filtered water, buying a high quality air filter, using unscented cleaning products and organic this and that – the list goes on and on. But I will say that my diet in addition to a number of supplements I’ve added has made a HUGE improvement in my overall daily pain level.

And while many friends and family have wondered and maybe even second guessed my decisions to fire my doctor and take a stab at this beast of a diagnosis without a physician overseeing my care, I stayed the course and believed in the possibility of treatment through food. I believe in the notion that we are living in a world that is toxic to our bodies. We subject ourselves to substances that have been proven in one lab test after another to be poisonous and cancer-causing but these very products are still sold on the shelves of our grocery stores. I believe in the idea behind functional medicine: get to the root of the problem, don’t just treat the symptoms.

I am absolutely thrilled to report that today is Day 1 of no pain.

And to all those who question and wonder, worry and doubt… it really does work.

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