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.

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The Scleroderma Chronicles: Year 3.0

My, how the time flies. Not that I’m having a good time here, but it is hard to believe that it has already been three years since my diagnosis of limited systemic sclerosis (AKA scleroderma). I’ve been reflecting on the last year while planning this post, and decided that I should start out with a little info about my disease, share the highlights of my three years, and then give unpack this year a little.

Butterfly
But first, a butterfly picture! Butterflies have hard skin, and they are doing OK. Be like a butterfly, I tell myself. This little lady was part of a massive migration of butterflies that came through our state in the fall. Seriously, there were so many of them that they showed up on the weather radar and the NWS put out a bulletin asking the public to identify the bird species: not birds, but butterflies.

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that is chronic (no cure), progressive, disabling and possibly fatal. It is rare, which is why you probably never heard of it. The name itself means “hard skin”, and that is one of the most distinctive features of the condition. The widespread scarring and buildup of collagen protein that causes the hardening of skin also occurs in internal organs in patients with the “systemic” form of the disease like me. Most of the damage is hitting my intestinal tract, but my lungs, kidneys and heart are also sustaining damage. In the background, hard to see, but never to be ignored, is damage occurring in blood vessels that can cause blood pressure to soar and places me at risk for blood clots.

I have collected several doctors over the last three years as damage continues to slowly accrue in my lungs, kidneys and intestinal tract.

Here are the highlights of my first three years:

  1. My first year was one of shock and horror. I was so worried about tightening skin and the use of my hands that I didn’t ever think about the bigger picture. I was started on drugs, stabilized, and felt much better by the end of the year.
  2. The bottom fell out my second year. I was using my hands okay, but I developed breathing problems, had to be placed on oxygen, and my heart started to misbehave. Adjustments were made to my medications to compensate for my lowering lung volume and to slow the rate of lung damage. At the lowest point I was sent to palliative care and told to make final decisions.
  3. This year, the third, has been one of highs and lows. The new medications kicked in, I came off oxygen and my chest pain stopped. I was discharged from palliative care. I developed gastroparesis and had to move to a very stomach-friendly diet. I stabilized and sailed through the first rounds of appointments in the spring only to develop kidney problems in the summer along with higher pressure in the artery that goes from my heart to my lungs. This blood pressure, which is called pulmonary arterial hypertension, is extremely damaging to the heart and will need to be addressed if it gets any higher. Fabulous. Another doctor.

My summer this year was really hard. I got very dizzy, developed joint pain and sore muscles, and eventually got so brain fogged that I was afraid to drive. My knees were swollen and developed sharp, shooting pains; I will need to buy a new car if this keeps up as I can’t manage the clutch much longer. I struggled on the stairs and my face turned blue on a regular basis. My neighbors stepped in and took over the yard work for me, and my knitting buddies began to drive me to all fiber related adventures as I wasn’t sure I should be trusted on the road. See, highs and lows. My illness is kicking my butt, and the people around me are stepping in to make sure I’m OK.

Early this month I met with my new internist to see if there wasn’t something that I could take to beat some of these symptoms back. OK, I’m going to be honest here. I cried. We agreed that I would start the tart cherry extract again, but at a much lower dose than I took previously in the spring. (Tart cherry has anti-inflammatory properties and is easier on my stomach than NSAIDs. Unfortunately, my kidneys were damaged the first time I tried to take it.) I’m going to have my kidney function checked every month, but I’m already so much better (brain fog, goodbye!) that I’m really hoping that I can tolerate it OK. In the meantime I’m getting lots of chores done in this golden period while I feel so much better. I’ve moved furniture, completed some projects, and have driven to many, many stores that were ignored last summer.

Wizard Hat
And I made a crocheted had for my niece to wear this Halloween. Really, I’ve been a bundle of energy the last couple of weeks.

So, this is the end of the third year. I feel pretty good, I’m getting things done and making plans, and I am making hay while the (tart cherry) sun shines. Next week I get my blood drawn for the kidney function test and after that I see the rheumatologist.

I’ve been thinking about butterflies again. The day after I took that picture of the butterfly it snowed. A lot.  It took a couple of days for it to melt as the temperatures climbed back up into the 60’s and 70’s. I wondered if the butterflies would make it. As I walked out of the office building after seeing my internist (and still recovering from my crying fit in her office…) I found butterflies swarming around one of the shrubs by the parking lot.

Those butterflies. You can kick them, but they come back. Be like a butterfly, I tell myself.

And the fourth year begins.