Science and the Scleroderma Girl: Supplements and Me

Let’s be honest: everyone with scleroderma wants to feel better. We trade info constantly, and almost everyone has a supplement that they have found is really helpful. It’s tempting to load up on everything at Vitamin Cottage that might be helpful, but you should know me (geeky science girl here!) by now… if it doesn’t have promising research studies to back up the claims, I’m going to pass it up.

Supplements
The big three! These are the ones that I have found are most helpful for me. Yellow Boy is a terrible model… he kept head butting the bottles and this is the only shot I got.

Tumeric (and Curcumin)

So many people have advised me to try turmeric. Cruising the internet I found lots of information from sites that are devoted to nutrition, health, or supplements, but I wanted to see hard data. Yep. Pretty darn easy to find. This controlled experiment found curcumin worked better than a traditional pain med following a dental procedure. Another study looked at migraine pain and the levels of two inflammatory markers (IL-6 and C-reactive protein); the result was that curcumin and omega-3 fatty acids did reduce inflammation. Wow. That sounds pretty promising. Finally, since one article I read suggested that curcumin could help with renal disease I hunted for that…this research showed that curcumin is beneficial for kidney disease. I scored myself some curcumin and I think that it is helping, but I have to be careful with my gastritis-prone stomach lining.

Vitamin D

“Under no circumstances are you to let the sun hit your skin!” directed my dermatologist. “Are you getting enough sun?” asked my rheumatologist. “You need the vitamin D and the natural kind you make in your skin is best…” Ugh. How am I supposed to figure out stuff like this? Because I keep a symptom journal I have discovered that sunshine makes me sick: rash, fatigue, pain. Sorry rheumatologist, the dermatologist wins this round. I started taking the vitamin D supplement not long after I was diagnosed and noticed that it helped me with depression. Who knew? My internist monitors my vitamin D levels to make sure that my current supplement is enough.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids (Fish or Krill Oil)

I was really late to come to this party. Struggling with an out-of-control Sjogren’s flare last winter my ophthalmologist suggested that I take fish oil to improve my tear production. Okay, my tears are just horrible. Not only do I barely produce any tears, but what I have flash evaporates right off my eyeballs lickity-split. I didn’t even bother to check the internet before I gulped down some fish oil tablets from the grocery store. Wow!! The next morning I woke up to eyes that didn’t hurt. Then I noticed that my neuropathy was better.  Oh, yeah. There was that one study that said that omega-3 oils helped with migraines, and my ophthalmologist mentioned that he took it for tinnitus… It gets even better: it helps reduce blood clots too! Every time I end up in the ER they go on a blood clot hunt… this is probably a good supplement to add to my diet, huh. It also helps with Raynaud’s, but the effect was seen with people with primary Raynaud’s. Hey, it was a small study. I’m taking the krill oil anyway!

Tart Cherry
Another unhappy cat model… Okay, he is unhappy because he loves me and he knows that this tart cherry really did a number on me. Bad tart cherry, bad!!

Tart Cherry

Things were really bad for me last spring. I had brain fog and dizziness that left me afraid to drive. The fatigue was unreal and everything hurt. My BKB Deb advised me to try tart cherry. Off to the internet I went. Oh. It is a real thing. I found this article, and this one, and one showing memory improvement in rats. Since I was miserable and couldn’t remember what a memory was, I took tart cherry out for a spin. Woohoo! I woke up the next morning feeling *normal*. I had energy, and the brain fog was gone. In the days and weeks to come I continued to feel pretty darn good until… the kidney function tests came in. My kidney function dropped 15% in just 6 short weeks and the tart cherry fun came to a screeching halt. The notation “chronic kidney disease” was added to my chart and that was the end of that. I stopped the tart cherry, accepted feeling like road kill every morning, and my kidney function crawled back up to a higher score. Whew! Talk about dodging a bullet!

There is a lesson here. Take the supplements that your doctors suggest. Check out other supplements before you start taking them, and let your doctors know before you start. I talked over the tart cherry with my internist and rheumatologist before I started, and they caught the kidney function drop pretty quickly because I was going for bloodwork every month. Just because I ran into trouble doesn’t mean that you will. Keep a symptom/food log and monitor like crazy. If your doctors know what you’re up to they can order testing just like mine did. Saved by the blood test!

Knitting
Oh yeah. I also do a daily supplement of knitting. 🙂

If anyone has another great supplement I should check out, let me know!

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MacKenzie Speaks: Knitting in the Time of Thunder

Hi. I’m MacKenzie.

Cat
Once again the Mother of Cats has been disappointing in her priorities…

It has been horrible here for days and days. The days have been dark, there are huge booms, and so much water has fallen out of the sky it makes my tail curl. Seriously, Yellow Boy has been hiding in the closet for days, and I have to admit that I’ve been going to ground there myself.

Does the Mother of Cats come to comfort me the way she should? Does she double up the number of cookies to help me deal with all of this stress? No, she does not. She has been a big disappointment for days!

Yarn and knitting.
She found all of this yarn in the yarn playground (she calls it a stash…) that she decided to make into a sweater.
Cat and Knitting.
She has been knitting away on the sweater for days and days…

Normally I would love to hang out with the Mother of Cats while she is knitting, but this yarn is made of cotton and tencel. It is boring. It tastes terrible when I chomp it. The Mother of Cats did give me some pieces to play with, but why bother? Now if she would just take a few minutes to knit me a cute little mouse stuffed with catnip out of this yarn… I would even share it with Yellow Boy. Really, the Mother of Cats needs to be more caring of others, don’t you think?

Growing sweater.
Just as the sweater was getting to an interesting length she became bored with it…
Sock yarns.
…and pulled out these sock kits that she bought one day when she left me alone to go play with sheep and other funny smelling things up in the mountains.  

She struggled with her decision, but finally she picked the yarns in the middle of the picture and I helped her get them all wound up into cat toy cakes. What would the Mother of Cats do without my help?

Sock knitting
Before you knew it she was making a sock!

That sock yarn is superwash wool, but did she let me chomp it? No, she did not! It thundered and rained again this weekend so I hid out with Yellow Boy in our safe zone in the closet for just hours and hours, and when we came out…

Sock
The first sock was done!

Yay! I think that the sock would be fun to play with too; a little catnip seasoning would make it perfect! Did she give it to me? Nope! Always, with the Mother of Cats, it is nope, nope, nope. I even ask nicely, too!

Cat sleeping on bed.
Tonight it is nice and calm outside and it is even cool.

This evening the thunder has stopped and it is nice outside. The birds are singing like crazy and Yellow Boy has come out of the closet and is standing by the back door hoping to see a bug. Not me. I’m just exhausted by all the thunder excitement and the knitting. I’m taking advantage of the break in the weather to catch a little cat nap.

Maybe when I wake up the Mother of Cats will give me some cookies.

I’m such a good boy!

>^..^<

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

  • The sweater is the Throwback Tee on Ravelry, and my project notes are here.
  • That wonderful sock yarn is from Western Sky Knits, and I bought it all when I lost control in her booth at the Estes Park Wool Market.
  • The sock pattern is a vanilla sock called Dave from Rachel Coopey. I am going with a really simple sock to show off the yarn, because, hello! It is so gorgeous!
  • Today should be the last day in a cycle of thunderstorms and rain. Starting tomorrow the sun will be back out and the heat machine is back on! Welcome to summer, kitties.

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: What a Cell Wants… (AKA the Sugar Rant)

I’ve been pressured repeatedly to “give up sugar” to control my inflammation. Really, people have been pretty darn aggressive in this messaging both in person and online. To be fair, the people pressing this message must have felt they were improved when they cut back on sugar, but every time it happens I am torn between tears and frustration.

I’m sorry, but this is like telling me that I can’t put gasoline into my car anymore. The car simply can’t run on air alone, and neither can I.

Eukaryotic Cell
Cutest drawing of a cell ever!! This little guy, an idealized animal cell, needs many essential components to stay alive, including a constant supply of glucose and oxygen. That’s what a cell wants, what a cell needs… 

Okay, to be clear, we do need a component of air for energy: oxygen. I was running short of that commodity earlier in my scleroderma career and had to be placed on supplemental oxygen for about 6 months waiting for my drugs to kick in and save my ass. If you are short on oxygen, as I can attest, you are also short on energy and you can’t think very well. I was in trouble, as my pulmonologist put it, because my “engine” (my lungs) was too small for my body.

The other essential energy component is sugar, or specifically, glucose. Cells, and by extension, bodies, use an amazing system of biochemical pathways to convert biological materials to glucose, maintain a steady concentration of glucose in your blood, and then pack away the excess for storage in your muscles and liver. If blood glucose levels drop too low your body releases glucose from storage. If the stored glucose gets used up, your body begins to cannibalize other tissues. Why is glucose so important? Because it is used in the mitochondria located in body cells along with oxygen to produce the energy molecules (ATP for you geeks out there) that are used to run the whole biological show. If there is no ATP, the whole show stops. That’s why it is critical to keep people breathing and their blood pumping, but also why it is important to consume glucose.

My relationship with glucose is pretty darn complex. Too much sugar at a time isn’t a good thing: it can dehydrate and damage tissue, and high blood sugar can cause blood pressure spikes. Take home lesson for me: don’t binge on milkshakes, sugary pops, and French fries. Because I had hypertension and a family member with diabetes, I have spent years developing a diet that has a low glycemic index. I eat yellow potatoes instead of white ones, recipes with half the flour replaced with oatmeal, and little sugar. I also eat fresh fruit in my yogurt smoothies, and rice mixed with veggies. I am eating sugar every single day in my meals, and it really is essential for me to function properly; the trick is to try to consume it in a way that helps maintain good blood sugar levels. Frosting loaded cinnamon rolls… NO!! Banana and strawberry smoothie with yogurt… YES!!

So, every time someone insists that I have to “cut out sugar” I can feel my head getting ready to explode. I wonder if they understand that potatoes, bread and rice are also “sugar”. Have they given up fruits? If they are also cutting out gluten they may be actually spiking their blood sugar with rice-based alternatives. It is kind of crazy talk… It also is kind of “it’s your fault you are sick” talk. Not nice!!

Knitting
It makes me go sit in a corner somewhere to knit away the frustration…

The research is mixed on the link between sugar and inflammation. There are lots of articles on healthy eating sites that say it is bad, but I wanted to see actual controlled experiments looking at the link between sugar and inflammation. There are several ways to check for inflammation but most look for inflammatory markers in the blood and cell permeability. This controlled research study found that there was no link between excessive sugar intake and inflammation. It’s kind of a small study, though, so I went hunting for more. This study showed that sugars obtained from food were not inflammatory, but when people consumed free sugars (spooned sugar into coffee or cereal, or drank sugary fruit juice) they did increase inflammatory markers. Cool. That totally makes sense, and explains why other people are reporting that they feel better when they “cut out sugar”. My sugar canister goes months without being opened… I don’t add sugar to anything unless I’m baking. Still on the hunt for info, I found this meta-analysis of research studies that showed that high-fructose corn sugar wasn’t any worse than any other in terms of inflammatory marker increases.

Okay, I think that the rant is over. Sugar is your friend, but don’t get crazy people…

Back to the knitting!

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Dairy Rant

It happened again just last month; I was advised by another scleroderma patient in a most assertive and authoritative manner that I could not eat any dairy because it “was inflammatory”. She followed up with a lecture on how cow milk is not appropriate for humans, and that most people were lactose intolerant because it wasn’t good for us once we become adults. In her defense, there are numerous sources on the internet that argue that dairy is inflammatory (like this one, and this one), and many people accept this as common knowledge.

Sigh.

Cat face.
This was not a message that the Mother of Cats wanted to hear…

I get it. We are all in the grips of a chronic disease that refuses to behave itself, and we all want regain some control through our diets. I just have trouble accepting these blanket arguments without working the problem first. Hello, Science Girl! Here’s a little unpacking of the inflammatory dairy argument:

  • Inflammation: for me, the easiest way to think of this is the heat, redness, swelling and pain that is associated with trauma or irritation. It’s your body’s first level response to a possible invader; the local temperature is raised, fluid moves into tissue to allow defensive white blood cells to move around, and signals are sent out to activate other parts of the immune system. One of these signals is C-reactive protein, which can be measured in blood. Mine gets measured every month.
  • Cow milk: cow milk is inappropriate? What?! Does that mean I can’t eat chicken eggs, or even bananas for that matter?  Moving on…
  • Lactose: this is a disaccharide, a two-unit sugar made from the simple sugars glucose and galactose. In our digestive system we need to use the enzyme lactase (made in the lining of your small intestine) to break the two units of lactose apart so that the single sugar units (glucose and galactose) can be absorbed. Lactose itself is too big to be absorbed.
  • Lactose intolerance: if your body no longer produces the enzyme lactase  that lactose ends up in your large intestines where it is food for the bacteria that live there. Yep! Bacteria party time! The byproducts that they produce as they grow cause the unhappy inflammatory outcomes (gas, bloating, pain, diarrhea) that all lactose intolerant people know only too well.
  • Allergies: if you are allergic to casein, found in milks, then you need to avoid dairy as it will be an inflammatory agent for sure!
Dairy products.
Dairy that I eat… 

So, here is the take home lesson from my unpacking: if you are allergic to milk or have lactose intolerance, then consuming dairy products will make you sick… they are inflammatory. Cool. I get it. What if you are lactose intolerant though… can’t you just avoid the lactose and keep the dairy? Armed with my food log, more curiosity than is probably good for me, and a tendency to use myself as a one person experimental animal, I kept looking for safe food to eat.

I have to be frank here. My intestinal woes are so bad that I have developed a fraught relationship with the refrigerator. Seriously, I open the door, look inside, and view the contents with a jaded eye as I ask myself: what can I eat in here that won’t make me sick? I keep a food log, and anything that makes me sick more than once gets tossed. I throw out lots of food. I have also discovered that there are some foods that are the safest to fall back on when I’m struggling.

Dairy. No matter how bad things are, I can rely on yogurt and cheese, along with a few other mainstays, to get me through a rough patch and stable again.

Here’s the trick: I choose my dairy very carefully. My milk is the kind that has the lactose removed. I only eat yogurt that has live cultures in it; they already snacked on the lactose and it’s gone before I eat it!

Cheese label.
I only buy natural cheese, and as you can see it is made with almost no additives. The enzymes were used to create curds in the milk, and that cheese culture took care of the lactose for me.

I read a lot of labels these days as I shop, and slowly I have discovered products that are safe and reliable. There is a sour cream with cultures that is safe. There is a safe cottage cheese. I haven’t found safe ice cream, but I’m still on the hunt. It’s best to stick to natural products, but even that isn’t good enough.

Cheese label.
This is natural cheese that says it has no sugars. I still won’t risk it because it was not made with cultured milk.

For me, always on the hunt for food that I can eat, dairy is my fall back safe zone. It will get me through a bad time, and if I eat yogurt every day I actually seem to improve. My C-reactive protein level drops. It’s almost like dairy is anti-inflammatory…

There are now numerous studies that show that dairy is anti-inflammatory. This review of clinical evidence showed that dairy reduced inflammation in individuals without a milk allergy, and here is another presentation arguing that dairy is anti-inflammatory. Check out the references!

So I told this woman that I had discovered that I needed to eat yogurt every day or I would run into trouble. Her response? You can’t eat that type of yogurt… it has sugar!!  Sugar is inflammatory!

Sigh.

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: Get Ready for the Rants!

Yep. This has all been about me needing to vent about all the alternative medicine and false information out there that is directed at people who are seeking to manage chronic conditions, lower their cancer risk, improve their lives, boost their immune systems, or just be more healthy.

There is so much coming at me that I would be a total victim if I didn’t have a way to sort through things. It is all presented as “scientific”, backed by “studies”, and supported by numerous testimonials. Often I am pressured by other people to adopt their products, treatment plans, or dietary guidelines, sometimes to an unacceptable degree.  The message “it’s your fault that you’re sick because you won’t do what I say” is out there, and I am surely not the only person to have been targeted by this.

Knitting.
Mostly I just ignore them and knit on. What do you think about my newest Close to You shawl? This yarn is from Western Sky Knits, and the colorway is called Nova.

Here’s the advice that comes my way:

  • Stop taking your drugs. The doctors don’t know what they are doing, and the side effects are unacceptable. (Really… this happens a lot!)
  • You can get well if you:
    • Follow the AP Protocol by going to an alternative medicine doctor
    • Never eat any processed or artificial foods
    • Only use natural products and eat organic
    • Only eat alkaline foods
  • You cannot consume any:
    • Salt
    • Sugar
    • Alcohol
    • Gluten
    • Dairy
    • Processed foods
    • Transfats
    • Seeds
  • You have to supplement your diet every day with :
    • Probiotics
    • Prebiotics
    • Turmeric
    • Cinnamon
    • Fish Oil
    • Vitamin D
    • Alkaline water
    • Tart cherry
    • Natural cider vinegar
  • You can treat your symptoms with:
    • Essential oils
    • Reflexology
    • Exercise
    • High fiber foods
    • Heat
    • Cold
    • Amber beads
    • Magnetic bracelets
    • Herbal tea
    • Aloe vera
  • Your disease was caused by:
    • A chemical exposure
    • Vaccines
    • That viral illness that you had sometime in the past
    • Leaky gut

Truly, if I wasn’t feeling overwhelmed by the fatigue, brain fog and all the other things that I deal with, having this all come my way is way over the top. Ugh. It is a lot of information, some reliable, some not so reliable, and some just plain false, for me to sort through.

Get ready!! The mini-rants are just ahead as I unpack as much of this as I can for you in the days ahead.

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Only Point in Common

Two years ago I was getting bounced around between several doctors as they tried to figure out why I was struggling to breath. The rheumatologist felt I should see a cardiologist. The pulmonologist felt that I needed to be treated by the rheumatologist. The internist insisted that the pulmonologist needed to intervene. The rheumatologist was very reluctant to give me an inhaler even though he had ordered the PFT that indicated that I needed one.

I was getting close to pulling out my hair! Literally, there were too many cooks in the kitchen and no one could manage to get the meal assembled. I was the cake in the oven, and I had just collapsed into an ugly, doughy mess…

“Look”, said the rheumatologist in the middle of this, “you are the only point in common between all of your doctors. Each one of us sees just one slice of your health, but you are the one getting all the info…” In effect, she was telling me to take charge of my health. Uh…

Spock: He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking… (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn)

Seriously? I’m expected to organize this circus? I have skills, but to suggest that I should run this show is ludicrous…

Except, from a certain viewpoint, I am running the show; I AM the show. I have a serious illness, and I have a team of doctors to address my symptoms and halt my disease’s progression. I need to be proactive and ensure that I get the treatment that I need. Clearly, I needed help to sort through the conflicting advice and to assign priorities to the elements of my treatment plan.

There needed to be one doctor who knew me well, understood the big picture, who could also cut through the red tape and facilitate immediate medical response from the most appropriate provider if needed.

I made an appointment with my internist, who was also my primary care physician, and laid out the problem. I told her that I needed someone to review all the notes and test results from the other doctors on a regular basis to understand the big picture. I shared with her my concerns about differing information from the other physicians: I needed an expert to work with me to coordinate my treatment plan. There needed to be a doctor who saw me on a regular basis, who knew me and my situation, who could take a “snapshot” of my health situation, and who could see me almost immediately if I got into trouble. One of the problems that I struggle with is knowing which doctor to call when I develop problems; with this arrangement I have a designated first contact who will decide which specialist needs to be contacted next.

We agreed that I should come in every three months for the medical review and snapshot of my current status.

Everything changed for me. My internist reads everything from the other doctors at these appointments, and she answers questions that I have in a cross-disciplinary way that the other specialists can’t. It’s more like a consultation than the usual medical appointment. She looks to see what has been missed by the other doctors, and facilitates communication between the doctors. She has sent me for immediate testing, cut through the red tape so I could get oxygen when I needed it, and makes sure I get the complete text of all testing reports.

I make an appointment with her before I see the specialists to plan for those appointments, and then I see her afterwards to debrief on what happened and to see if anything was missed. When I go to my appointments with the specialists I can talk about test results, my prescriptions, and the symptoms that are concerning me; I have become an informed patient. Because of this I am a better conduit of information between the doctors, and the coordination of care and smooth communication has greatly increased. My doctors and I are now collaborative partners working to manage my disease.

From a collection of 6 doctors I now have a smoothly coordinated team to jointly treat my illness. For me, this is a huge difference! I’m now in much better shape, and I feel more in control of what is happening. I AM the only point in common, so I had to activate my hidden superpower of facilitation and coordination to make it work.

And knit. I had to knit a lot.

Have a good weekend everyone.

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: Hard Choices (Part 2)

Last week I wrote a post about trying to make a good decision about what drug I should be treated with for my systemic sclerosis. My rheumatologist had offered me methotrexate and CellCept; after trying to gather info about the drugs and their symptoms I unhappily picked methotrexate.

Cat
the Mother of Cats chose badly…

The first weeks of the drug seemed okay. I had a couple of hard days after taking my dose on Monday, but then I would feel much better for the rest of the week as the pain and brain fog receded for several days. The crazy thing was, my knees hurt REALLY badly during those two bad days. I checked online and other people had experience a similar phenomenon, so I soldiered on. Then one week the pain was pretty bad in my lower chest and right side and I was having trouble walking and breathing…

IV in arm.
Off to the ER I went where they hunted for lung damage and blood clots… 

It was an inflammation of the cartilage of my ribs, a condition called costochondritis. I called the rheumatologist’s office to see what I should do next, but didn’t hear back for a couple of days. I then emailed, and called again.

Finally the call came back; I was having a rare bone reaction and needed to stop the methotrexate. He was starting me on CellCept immediately.

Oh, that was an adventure. So much stomach pain… scratch that… stomach fire! Not just my stomach… my intestines were on fire too!! I gulped down spoonfuls of coconut oil trying to baby my stomach lining. I added food with the pills. I started vomiting in the middle of the night. It didn’t matter what I did, my stomach was going to be very upset. I stopped the drug and shot off an email to the rheumatologist again.

Hence began the two month battle to get me onto another form of drug in CellCept, which is mycophenolate mofetil. A stomach gentle version called Myfortic did exist, but it was not approved for systemic sclerosis, so the pharmacy refused to fill it. My rheumatologist filed an appeal. It was denied. My rheumatologist doubled down. Another rejection. Eventually I drove down to the Kaiser pharmacy and talked to the pharmacist as calmly as I could. I reminded him that Myfortic as just another salt of the approved drug, I had failed the approved form, my rheumatologist had appealed for this drug, and that I had a letter on file from another doctor in the Kaiser system stating that my gastritis prevented me from taking NSAIDS or anything else that would damage my stomach lining. I must have looked pathetic, because he gave me the pills.

Three years later I have greatly improved because of this drug that we had to fight for. In the meantime I have discovered (by hunting for info on PubMed Health) that while methotrexate helps with symptoms like inflammation and fatigue, the better choice in the long run is the drug that I am now receiving as it is associated with skin, lung, and heart improvements and better survival rates. I do have a higher lymphoma risk with this drug, and infections are a constant concern, but I think that I’m with the best drug available for me right now.

There is a take home lesson here. If you aren’t happy with your treatment, speak up! I should have contacted that doctor about those hurting knees long before I ended up in the ER. It’s easy to take a passive course when you are dealing with busy doctors and unhelpful pharmacists, especially when you aren’t sure if your symptoms are significant, but it is worth the time to shoot off a fast email anyway.

And let’s be honest. There are no easy choices, only hard ones. But even a bad choice can be corrected down the road with some luck,  persistence, and a dash of science.

Rose
I bet you wondered where the rose was, didn’t you. Here it is, a little beat up by the hot weather, but still looking great!