Doctor with Autoimmune Disease Shares Her Story
My journey with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) started when I was 23 years old. I had just started medical school with plans to pursue general surgery as my specialty.
From the time I started having symptoms until I had a full diagnosis was 6 months. It was difficult to get into a rheumatologist but when I did, they diagnosed me right away with rheumatoid arthritis. The issue that I ran into was that my insurance required I start with less expensive treatments than the biologic drugs that were recommended for me. After 6 months, if they weren't working, I could then be approved for the more expensive biologic drugs.
During those 6 months, I severely suffered. I couldn't bend my arms to brush my hair. I had difficulty lifting my arms to my mouth to eat breakfast. And it took me a long time to get ready in the morning because I couldn't bend my knees when I first got out of bed. Unfortunately, this delay in medication led to permanent irreversible damage. Once I started the biologics, the aggressiveness of the disease slowed down immediately.
For the next 10 years, RA affected every joint in my body—from my neck and jaw, to my fingers and hands, to my knees and ankles, and even the joints in my rib cage. If you look closely, you can see some of the damage in my hands. Even without visible damage, however, I have spent most of my life living with some level of pain.
And I’m not alone.
Autoimmune Disorders Affects Millions
Autoimmune diseases affect 23.5 million Americans, and nearly 80 percent of those are women. If you’re one of the millions of women affected by this group of diseases, which includes lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and thyroid disease. You may be in need of better treatments than you currently have.
Your body's immune system protects you from disease and infection. But if you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake. Autoimmune diseases can affect many parts of the body.
Often, the first symptoms are fatigue, muscle aches and a low fever. The classic sign of an autoimmune disease is inflammation, which can cause redness, heat, pain and swelling. The diseases may also have flare-ups, when they get worse, and remissions, when symptoms get better or disappear. Treatment depends on the disease, but in most cases one important goal is to reduce inflammation.
This unfortunately is all too common. And the primary reason I shifted from surgery as my specialty to pursue rheumatology.
Treatment of Autoimmune Disorders Through Nutrition
Finding a treatment that works can be a long and difficult road. But after many years specializing and treating autoimmune diseases, one thing I’ve found that almost all my patients have in common is that their symptoms ease or even disappear completely when they practice getting a better diet and obtaining proper nutrition.
I helped heal many of my patients’ immune systems by supporting it with nutrients. I gave them the prescription of a nutritional diet that includes zinc, fish oil, vitamin D, herbs, and probiotics. I put many of them on a clean, whole-foods, allergen-free, anti-inflammatory diet.
For all my patients, for their next follow-up visit, I asked them how they were doing, expecting them to say that they felt a little better. However, most of their responses report to feel as if they didn’t have an autoimmune disease at all.
Now, as a rheumatologist, my direct concern is the health and wellbeing of my patients. But with the help of my nutritionist colleague, we’ve come up with the best way of managing your nutrition if you have an autoimmune disease. This could help with inflammation, flare ups, and even general symptoms you could be experiencing.
Best Way to Start Managing Your Nutrition
For most of us, changing unhealthy eating habits is a Herculean task. In fact, according to a 2012 study, more than 50% of Americans (that were polled) felt that doing their taxes is easier than figuring out how to eat healthy. From misconceptions like equating healthy eating with bland food to contradictory food studies and unsustainable fad diets, there are numerous factors that make healthy eating seem like a complicated affair. But it doesn't have to be so overwhelming.
A healthy eating plan should include foods you enjoy along with plenty of healthy, not-too-processed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meats, seafood, beans, and nuts. Thanks to their ability to satisfy, these low-calorie foods will actually help you stick to your diet. The most satisfying foods have lots of fiber like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Some are low-fat proteins found in meat, fish, dairy, and soy.
Ideally, you'll slowly wean yourself off favorite foods that are heavily processed and high in fat or calories, and replace them with more nutritious options. At any time during this process, feel free to come up with a new eating plan that increases some healthful foods and decreases others.
Superfoods like turmeric contain a high nutritional value that’s an easy and amazing starting point in your journey. This bright orange spice contains curcumin, a powerful healing compound that’s been shown to alleviate multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease by regulating inflammatory substances in the body. Curcumin is hard for the body to absorb, so to increase its availability, combine it with black pepper and try heating it, both of which make it easier for the body to use.
Matcha tea is also ideal if you can but it is more expensive. Green tea is nutrient-rich in large amounts of a catechin called EGCG, which are natural antioxidants, and also rich in polyphenols that fight inflammation. It also contains an amino acid called L-theanine which keeps you happy and relaxed.
Don't worry if you are a vegetarian, or have allergies or intolerances. Your healthier eating plan may not include all of the recommended food groups, but it will provide adequate nutrients. We recommend that everyone take a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement to fill in any nutritional gaps.
Count nutrients, not calories. If you want to improve the quality of your diet, focus on the nutrients in your food instead of calories. If you've tried all of the options that usually work, and you're still experiencing joint pain that interferes with sleep, mobility, or quality of life, it’s time to adjust your diet and talk to your healthcare provider.
Start making these simple dietary changes today and make this year your healthiest year yet!