Rheumatoid Arthritis is an autoimmune disease. In the case of autoimmune arthritis the body’s immune system attacks its own joints. When my new patient Janice asks me why her immune system is attacking her joints there is a brief pause before I answer. I pause because I want Janice to feel inspired by the information I have for her and yet I know the road ahead to recovery will change the way she lives her life. I know that she will have to choose to engage in new lifestyles that include diet changes, nutritional support, sleep modification and an exercise routine. I know that under the care of a naturopathic physician Janice will get better, her immune system will calm down, and I want her to understand that she will feel better.
No matter how sick a patient is and how hard they are trying to recover, there are always alternative choices that a consumer of medicine can choose. As a naturopathic physician, when someone like Janice shows me a piece of paper with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis on it, I know that her treatment will need to be catered to who she is as a person. Naturopathic physicians have access to many individualized treatments to modify her health and to stop the degeneration of her joints.
Janice was not unique in the ways she had treated her disease. She had an excellent rheumatologist treating her with immune depleting drugs and anti-inflammatory prescriptions. She had been educated about the risks of frequent painkillers. She also had heard all the risks of constantly suppressing her immune system with the usual rheumatoid arthritis prescription drugs- cancer, decreased life span, opportunistic infections.
Janice had been able to get through her work-week. She used pain-killers but her joints were worse in the night, before bed, and she sometimes found herself unable to attend social functions due to pain. The worst part of her disease was that she feared picking up her grandchildren when they came to visit. Janice knew she wanted more than this,, and she felt her diagnosis was holding her back from enjoying life. At the age of 50 she wanted to be able to travel in Europe and carry her two year old grand-daughter through Disney Land. Her medications were expensive and she wasn’t sleeping well. Her sex life with her husband had all but disappeared and she missed spending quality time with old friends.
At her first visit to our integrative health clinic, Janice commented on the differences between the care she received here compared to the medical care she was accustomed to at her usual health clinic. The first visit was an hour long and included a long discussion on dietary choices, sleep patterns, exercise routines, and the stresses in her life. Within minutes it became clear that although Janice was very health-conscious she was choosing the wrong foods for her on a regular basis. She was sleeping poorly, waking tired, and she was not exercising due to fear and a misunderstanding about her disease. Janice was not unlike many arthritis patients who came to visit my clinic.
In our first visit, we were able to modify her diet, excluding foods that she was not digesting well or which provided little nutrition. We performed a food allergy assessment with a blood test for genetic enzyme deficiencies, and then we found solutions to make it reasonable to eliminate these foods.
We discussed the concept of sleep hygiene. Lack of good sleep is a too-often ignored component of disease; with autoimmune disease, improving sleep can greatly decrease pain. For example, research has shown that sleeping in complete darkness can repair exhausted adrenal glands, thereby moderating the immune system. Sleep can calm an immune system that is overly excited, telling the body that all is well and it can direct its efforts elsewhere. Janice was instructed to sleep in the dark and to sleep without background noises like a television or radio. We discussed the importance of routine, and Janice agreed to sleep at regular times each night and to wake at a regular time each morning. Establishing routine would eventually help Janice to sleep better and to wake feeling more rested.
Already Janice’s energy was starting to improve. During our second visit we discussed types of exercise that would be specific to Janice’s health. For example, while it may be a relatively bad idea for a patient with rheumatoid arthritis to regularly run, daily swimming would be an excellent alternative. As well, light weight-bearing exercises would be ideal to help build bone mass. More importantly, naturopathic physicians create plans for rheumatoid arthritis patients to maintain a healthy weight because excess weight can increase the destruction of joints due to wear and tear.
Janice’s pain was improving after removing her specific food sensitivities, addressing her sleep and choosing new exercise routines. Having an ongoing discussion with a board-licensed naturopathic physician helped her to feel confident that she was doing the best she could to stop any further deterioration of her joints. The symptoms of her disease and the blood markers that indicated serious disease began to improve. We developed a nutritional supplement schedule, because rheumatoid arthritis patients are often unable to digest the vitamins and minerals in their food. The supplements were temporarily added until we could decrease the inflammation in her gastrointestinal tract so that she could digest better on her own.
While it may be impossible to help Janice’s body increase bone mass where her joints had already deteriorated, there are many ways to prevent further deterioration using the right lifestyle choices, nutritional support and the advisement of a board licensed naturopathic physician. It is almost always possible to reduce the use of pharmaceutical medications, and to even eliminate them on occasion.
Janice visited with her grandchildren this last month, they went to Disney Land and she was able to take them on the rides and carry her youngest granddaughter while she napped on a walk. Later that night she slept well and did not need to use the painkiller medications she would have previously been dependent on to sleep. Janice considers herself recovered from the worst parts of rheumatoid arthritis and her blood work confirms that her disease is inactive. Let our practitioners help you feel better.