Many of us eat with healthfulness in mind, choosing foods to nourish our bodies and promote our good health. But have you ever tried to use your diet to actually fight a disease? I have, and despite my extreme skepticism, it worked. So I now feel compelled to share this experience, in case anyone else out there is hitting the same brick wall I was in battling a chronic condition, and wants to try a new strategy.
A little background: I have psoriasis. Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition where inflammation of the skin often results in raised white "plaques". Basically your skin keeps thinking you have an injury and starts making new skin cells like crazy to repair it, but since there is no injury, the skin cells just pile on top of each other. If the plaques cover a large area, they can be extremely uncomfortable, and sometimes painful. They are also frequently itchy. And, let's face it, they're unsightly. Having large patches of white skin, usually on an inflamed red background... yeah, not the look most of us are going for.
Some people with psoriasis also develop a form of arthritis called psoriatic arthritis. (Lucky me!) The symptoms are similar to rheumatoid arthritis -- joint pain, swelling, and stiffness that flares up and subsides in cycles. I have it in my hands, my shoulders, and my feet. Most of the time, it doesn't affect my life that much, except when I get a bad flare and can't use an arm for a week or two. And the fact that I can no longer open jars. Handwork (knitting, embroidery), which I very much enjoy, is now routinely painful -- but I work through it.
About a year ago, I had a really bad flare-up in my shoulder that was agony. I couldn't use that arm at all, and the pain was excruciating. I went in to see my doctor for a stronger anti-inflammatory medication, and during the course of the conversation, she suggested an anti-inflammatory diet.
I did a little research on anti-inflammatory diets, and, while there are many approaches, the basic formula seemed to be a diet of whole foods including whole grains, cutting out chemicals and processed food as much as possible. Hey, it couldn't hurt, I thought. Seriously, this isn't some "eat only watermelon for a week" goofy diet, this is a pretty non-contraversial healthful approach. So I took it one step at a time, and slowly started changing my eating habits.
Step #1: Cut out aspartame. I was drinking a fair amount of this, not just in diet soda, but in a diet iced tea I really liked and bought in bulk. I cut it out cold turkey and have not had any aspartame in almost a year. And those headaches I used to get all time? Gone. Just sayin'. I know a lot of people who have discovered they have a sensitivity to this stuff. Cutting it out was easy and I saw almost immediate benefits.
Step #2: Cut out high fructose corn syrup. OK, this one was harder. Way harder. Do you know how much stuff has HFCS in it? Did you know it was in peanut butter? Jam? Maple syrup? Ketchup? Every single processed food in the grocery store??? But I did it. I'd say I've cut out 99% of the HFCS in my diet, because every once in a while I still do have a little soda, and it's very hard to find soda with neither aspartame or HFCS. But for the most part, when out at a restaurant, I drink unsweetened iced tea. And over time, I've lost some of my taste for sweetness. When I do have a sip of a regular soda, it seems so overpoweringly sweet to me that I can't believe I used to drink that stuff all the time.
Step #3: Cut out processed food, especially refined grains. This is where I am right now; this is my current work-in-progress. I have cut out much of the processed food from my diet, and am eating whole grains more often than not. I see it as a continuum, and I am moving in the right direction, so I'm not going to beat myself up about eating a processed cracker or store-bought granola.
So, since I embarked on this journey almost a year ago, where has it gotten me?
A year ago, my knees were covered with psoriasis, as were my elbows. I had a large noticeable patch on my forearm, and I had recently developed a large patch on my leg. I had tried all manner of prescription creams, and never found much success from any of them. When I started this whole diet thing, I stopped using prescription medication for my skin at all. All I did was moisturize heavily twice a day, every day.
Today, you can see an outline of paler skin where the psoriasis used to be, and a few tiny dots of remaining plaques. In some areas, the pale outline is the only evidence that there used to be psoriasis there. In the past year, 95% of the areas that had been affected by psoriasis cleared up completely. And people, I've been dealing with this condition for 16 years.
The arthritis is still there. Better, but still there. And that's what motivates me to keep going with this. The psoriasis is so easy to see... it is such a dramatic demonstration of the power of diet in controlling a chronic, inflammatory condition. And it has spurred me on to continue with this project and see if I can get the joint pain under the same kind of control. Because now, I actually believe it can happen.
Have you used diet to battle disease? How has it worked for you? I'd love you to share your experience in the comments. In the past year I have gone from skeptic to true believer, and it all just keeps driving home the same point that I keep coming back to everywhere I turn:
What we eat matters.