We are lucky to live in a time when the power and importance of nutrition is becoming widely known and accepted. I believe that virtually any condition can be improved by nurturing your body with the right foods, and scleroderma is no exception. I’m going to share a patient’s dramatic story to illustrate this. My goal is to not only inspire those with scleroderma to use nutrition as a powerful healing tool but to firmly establish finding the right diet as a necessary foundation for healing in any case of autoimmunity or other chronic disease.
A therapeutic diet means that for a certain amount of time you will eliminate or limit certain foods and also increase nutrient-dense healing foods that will restore your body to balance. Afterwards, you’ll transition to a long-term, whole-foods based diet.
What is Scleroderma?
If you are not familiar with scleroderma, it falls under the category of connective tissue autoimmune diseases. This category also includes:
- rheumatoid arthritis
Connective tissues are the parts of the body that connect everything together and are made up of two substances, collagen and elastin. Examples of connective tissues include bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons and skin. In scleroderma specifically, an aberrant immune system triggers too much collagen production.
While collagen is a lovely thing in the right amounts because it plumps up the skin to keep us looking young, in scleroderma the overproduction can be quite dramatic, causing the skin to become shiny and taut. Over time, the excess collagen can cause stiffening, tightening and contractures, and internal organs are often impacted as well.
Scleroderma: A Patient Story
Recently I had a new patient appointment with a young woman previously diagnosed with scleroderma. The autoimmune process was progressing largely unchecked and this was evident in her appearance. Her hands and fingers displayed a not uncommon finding of the disease: fingers curled downward in contracture. The skin covering her arms had become so shiny and taut from the tips of her fingers to her upper arm that taking her blood pressure and pulse was nearly impossible. The skin over her face had a similar look. You can only imagine how these physical changes impacted her life; she was unable to drive and could not continue her career that required the constant use of her hands.
Towards the end of this post I will share with you her remarkable and inspiring response to a therapeutic diet and simple lifestyle changes.
Scleroderma: My Healing Approach
Before doing extensive lab testing or prescribing herbs, nutraceuticals or homeopathy for a patient, I help you lay a foundation that includes nutrition and lifestyle habits that are instrumental for healing. My approach to the healing process is to address the root cause which alleviates my patients’ symptoms and helps them feel better than they ever have before.
This foundation of nutrition and lifestyle habits is indispensable. Here are just some of the reasons why…
Therapeutic diets clear the picture.
Every chronic disease has an inflammatory component, so it’s important to reduce systemic inflammation through diet. People with autoimmune diseases often have dozen and dozens of symptoms. Negative responses to certain foods aren’t limited to digestive symptoms only, so by utilizing a short-term therapeutic diet, we’ll be able to distinguish between actual disease symptoms and diet-related symptoms.
Therapeutic diets address a root cause of autoimmunity.
Leaky gut is often considered a prerequisite to developing an autoimmune condition. A good therapeutic diet will remove foods that promote a leaky gut, directly trigger and confuse the immune system, and at the same time provide nutrients to help heal leaky gut.
Healing through food choices puts the power in the your hands.
A person dealing with an autoimmune condition often feels disempowered because the only things that will help are external: the pharmaceutical prescribed by the MD, the needles placed by the acupuncturist, or the herbal formulas from the naturopathic doctor. There is great personal power when you help your body heal itself and maintain vitality by making good choices each day. I think there is deeper wisdom in the old adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.”
You’ll save money in the short run.
There’s no need to spend $600 or more for one round of supplements to address a bunch of symptoms that might be caused by your diet or could easily be improved by increasing your intake of healing and nutrient-dense foods. Supplements can be helpful and appropriate in some circumstances, but should be used as a “supplement” to the primary healing benefits of food.
You’ll save money in the long run.
By practicing preventative medicine using food, you will save on future medical bills. Often new patients leave my office with a treatment plan that consists almost entirely of dietary recommendations and a handout on Foundational Habits. If they are already following the best diet for healing and have stellar habits, we move on to the next stage of treatment.
How do these recommendations serve a person with a tough autoimmune condition like scleroderma?
Supremely. Let’s return to the patient story at the beginning of this post. In addition to what I’ve already described, her symptoms also included daily heartburn, fingers turning purple in cool weather, insomnia, itching skin and headaches. The first two symptoms are very common in scleroderma. My initial plan for her was relatively simple: the Anti-Inflammatory Paleo (AIP) Diet (eBook below), a handout on Foundational Habits, cod liver oil, a clinical grade probiotic and digestive enzymes with Betaine Hydrochloride (HCL). I asked her to come back in 2 or 3 weeks so we could create a good momentum for healing and because the big diet and lifestyle changes that were recommended are often most successfully followed when we meet again at this interval.
After following these foundational recommendations for 3 weeks, my patient experienced:
- the uncurling of her fingers from contracture,
- the ability to flex and extend her wrists with much more ease,
- heartburn only 1-3 times each week,
- compliments from her mother and friends about the changes in her skin, and
- increasing her nighttime sleep from 4 hours with supplements to six hours straight without supplements.
Amazing! All of these positive improvements in 21 days. While I did recommend a few supplements, clinical experience tells me that diet was most responsible for moving the needle here.
Working with Me
Depending on the patient and situation, I suggest a therapeutic diet specific for them and then tailor it by emphasizing some things or making specific recommendations for certain nutrients. My dietary recommendations are heavily influenced by the Weston A. Price Foundation (WAPF) and the diets of traditional cultures. My favorite therapeutic diet to use is the Anti-Inflammatory Paleo (AIP) Diet (eBook below). And I really like the quality of US Wellness Meats and Kettle & Fire’s Organic Bone Broth.
A therapeutic diet isn’t the be-all and end-all for treatment. It should be temporary to facilitate healing and eventually transition into a nutrient-dense, well-rounded but still whole-foods based diet. Just like I disagree with over-prescribed medications or supplements, I feel the same way when I hear about individuals staying on therapeutic diets for multiple years. Once the foundation has been laid, there are more layers of healing that can be addressed such as removing toxins like heavy metals and environmental chemicals, rebalancing the stress response in the body, addressing gut dysbiosis, healing trauma, and so forth.
A Word of Caution
While you do have a certain amount of power to heal your autoimmune disease, do not rely on diet alone or treat scleroderma as a DIY project. Make sure you are working with a medical specialist (usually a rheumatologist) and seek out care from a licensed naturopathic doctor (like me!) or a functional medicine practitioner to guide you through the deeper layers of healing. However, my bottom line is to never underestimate what can be accomplished through nutrition.
What about you?
Do you have an inspiring story of how food choices have changed your life? I would love to hear about it in our comment section. Please inspire each other! This story is dramatic but certainly not unique.