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Debbie Cockrell: Rheumatoid Arthritis

The fundamentals of the McDougall Program are simple yet often difficult to implement. Star McDougallers have either adopted the Program themselves by learning from our website and books or joining one of our programs. For personalized help, learn more about the 12-Day McDougall Program. For questions on whether a change in diet can help your ailment, learn more about our consultations.
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“I felt like the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz, rusting in place.”

It was a Saturday afternoon in February 2013. I sat down to write an email – a desperate plea for help – to Dr. McDougall. Within two hours I received a reply that outlined the McDougall Program, which he said had helped other patients with autoimmune and inflammatory issues, including rheumatoid arthritis. My immune system had experienced more than its share of abuse over the years. I was so sick, and felt I had tried everything to help ease my pain and suffering, which began so long ago…

As a child growing up in the Midwest, I had chronic bronchitis each winter, typically lasting from December to April. I took many sick days from school and I missed out on a lot of social interactions, such as sleepovers. One winter, as a teenager I had pneumonia, and coughed so hard that I cracked a rib. Being sick became an annual winter event for me.

In the 1990s because of my fear of cancer I had given up red meat, and eventually switched to a vegetarian diet; but I was a junk-food vegetarian with lots of processed fake meat products. By age 36, I was 20 pounds overweight, and my worst fear came true – I was diagnosed with breast cancer, which was followed by surgery and chemotherapy in 2003 and 2004. Avoiding red meat hadn’t stopped me from getting cancer, so I gave myself permission to eat whatever I wanted, and at that point went back to meat on a regular basis.

In 2006, after I came down with repeated bouts of pneumonia, I was sent to a pulmonologist who performed a bronchoscopy to test for lung cancer (thankfully, I didn’t have it). In April 2008 I was put on a powerful antibiotic. During that course of treatment, I started to develop severe joint pains.

What next? Rheumatoid Arthritis

My rheumatoid arthritis began in 2008 with pain in my knees, which soon traveled to my elbows and hands. Each day it got a little harder to walk. I felt like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, rusting in place. I could not roll over in bed and, I would wake up crying in terrible joint pain. I could not button clothes or tie my shoes. I was convinced that I was dying.

After my diagnosis, I was put on 20 mg of prednisone (a powerful immune system-suppressing steroid) a day to cope with the pain, and soon was on another medication that suppressed my immune system called methotrexate, as well. The arthritis pain had been brought well under control with the prednisone, but my rheumatologist did not want me on it long term because of serious side effects from this medication, including osteoporosis. So I started weaning myself from the prednisone: at first in 5 mg reductions, then 1 mg at a time. It wasn’t difficult until I tried to go below 5 mg. You wouldn’t think 1 mg would make much of a difference, but it did for me. It was like “The Princess and the Pea:” my body knew when I was shifting from 4 mg to 3 mg of prednisone daily. It took me a little more than two years after my initial diagnosis to get entirely off the prednisone.

But I was still taking the methotrexate (which required frequent blood tests to check for liver damage), plus my pain never completely went away. I felt like I had PMS most days, especially within 48 hours after my methotrexate dosage. I would crash so hard and feel so depressed. By the time I felt better, it was time for the next week’s dose. This cyclical process was the last straw, causing me to seriously seek other help in February of 2013. I researched “rheumatoid arthritis” on the Internet and this is what led me to the McDougall Program.

My Cure Began With My Diet Change

Before February of 2013, I ate the standard American diet, with plenty of dairy, meat, poultry, and alcohol. My favorite meals were macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and I loved fast food. My typical daily menu consisted of boxed sugary cereal with 2 percent milk for breakfast, a Stouffer’s frozen meal and salad for lunch, and maybe a soy burger with tater tots or baked potato (slathered in Earth Balance fake butter) for dinner; with a salad and canned corn because I wanted to boost my vegetable intake. Now when I look back, each meal to me seems like slow suicide. It is no longer a mystery as to why I hurt.

I made my major dietary change to the McDougall Program in February of 2013. Dramatic sinus relief came within 48 hours of quitting all dairy products. It took me about two weeks – I stopped the milk first and then all the cheeses. I no longer have the stuffy nose, which once started every morning upon awakening.

Within a month, the aches, pains, and stiffness in my joints from my rheumatoid arthritis diminished considerably. I also noticed a much-improved energy level, my menstrual periods became less painful and the heavy bleeding stopped. I was loosing excess weight too. I was discovering first hand that when you eliminate meat and dairy fats, vegetable oils, processed foods, and refined sugars with the McDougall Diet, it makes a huge difference in your waistline. I’ve lost one to two pounds a week since starting. I have lost more than 20 pounds so far. My blood tests have also improved with my platelets returning to normal, and my sedimentation rate (ESR) dropping to a normal level of 15 mm/hr, when in December of 2012 it was elevated to 28 mm/hr (normal for a woman is about 20 mm/hr).

After many years of taking methotrexate, I stopped it “cold turkey” in March of 2013. My rheumatologist never discussed my diet until I returned to see him for my annual check-up in July of 2013. I told him I was off all of my medications and was pain-free. He was surprised when I told him all I was doing was the low-fat, vegan, McDougall Diet. He said he’d seen one other person accomplish this with diet in the past, and that patient was a medical doctor. After my last annual visit in July, my rheumatologist told me to only call him “as needed,” and I no longer have to go in for checkups. He was impressed by my numbers and acknowledged my improvement, since stopping methotrexate.

One of the biggest reasons it was so easy for me to “hang in there” after making the switch was because I immediately started noticing improvements: I had a lot more energy each day, I slept better, and I actually felt younger within weeks; not months, but weeks. In May I started exercising daily, and I now walk for an hour or more each day, seven days a week. I am now on no medication and am in no pain.

Getting Others with the Program

A few of my friends have taken to trying to live a healthier lifestyle, after watching the video “Forks Over Knives.” But many still think a healthy diet does not apply to their special conditions, and they would rather stay with the medications. As one friend explained to me, “Why would I give up cheese when I can just take a pill?” That is how I used to feel when I finally realized the pills were not my answer.

I just keep plugging away trying to live by example, sharing through my blog. My friends and family see me doing great. They tell me that I look like the smiling people in the TV advertisements that sell various arthritis medications, except I take no drugs.

My husband has joined me in my new diet. He feels better overall and has much more energy. It took a few weeks for our taste buds to adjust to the lower amounts of salt and sugar. We soon discovered how much better all our foods taste and we look forward to creating new McDougall meals. The McDougall recipes appeal to us because they are very simple to make with common ingredients, found in the local markets. You can’t get more basic, or more delicious, than beans and potatoes!

I found it helpful to download the basic shopping list from the McDougall website “Free Program” when I started, then I downloaded a few of the cookbooks.

Since then, I’ve read The Starch Solution by the McDougalls, The Pleasure Trap by Doug Lisle, PhD, The Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn and downloaded the Happy Herbivore’s cookbooks and Chef AJ’s Unprocessed. The McDougall Cookbook App has been a real timesaver. Jeff Novick’s tips on creating one-pot dishes are the major resource for ideas for my lunches that I take to work.

Finally, I would like to add that I have a kinship with Jeff Novick, RD, because I also worked for Kraft Foods from 1985-1989 to help pay for my time in college. (Jeff Novick, RD worked for Kraft during his early years as a dietitian.) So I have seen the processed world up close and personal. It’s amazing to look at that company’s work today with fresh eyes in my new way of life.

If you are reading my story for inspiration, then all I can say is “just get started!” Clean out your cabinets and refrigerator, and toss out the lunch meats, cheeses, milk, oil, and processed foods. Restock your kitchen and prepare a few simple meals full of vegetables, rice, corn, beans, and potatoes instead of a slab of meat and slice of cheese. Halfway won’t work. For me, I made a decision, I gave up it all up at once, and then my husband and I moved forward.

Debbie Cockrell
Olympia, WA