As I entered my late thirties, I was struck with crippling psoriatic arthritis. This is the sister disease of the common skin disorder known as psoriasis. The arthritis began as intermittent knee pain, which then escalated to a constant ache. Eventually, I came to the point where I had unrelenting symptoms with fluctuating levels of pain in both knees and pain and stiffness in many of my other joints and pain in my muscles. At times I could not walk, dress, or bathe myself. At other times I was a bit more mobile. However, I could never predict how I might be feeling at any given moment. Some pains were bearable, much like the ache of a sprain, but acute flares would leave me in a state of agony. I found myself unable to move, and even breathe, without causing jarring, dizzying pain to shoot through my joints.
It was a terrifying ordeal. I remember visiting a Costco with my husband and needing to use one of their motorized wheelchairs, because I was unable to put any weight on my legs. I went to doctor after doctor searching for help. It took about 8 months to get a diagnosis. Having a name for my disease was minor relief, which did not offset the bad news that psoriatic arthritis was a disabling illness with no cure. The permanent medications usually recommended by doctors had a long list of side effects, including cancer.
Depressed at the thought of taking dangerous prescriptions for the rest of my life, I scoured the Internet for options. Some remedies that I came across were clearly “snake oil,” and others were unavailable to me unless I shelled out some serious money, and that was just to get the “special information” about “the cure.” Alarm bells of quackery came into my mind at every turn. Eventually, I googled “Diet and Psoriatic Arthritis.” One of the first hits was the McDougall website.
Accepting McDougall’s Teachings
By the time I found Dr. McDougall I was unable to work in the fitness industry. For the past year I had used a wrist cast, hand braces, knee braces, and a shoulder sling. To get around I occasionally used wheelchairs. I was taking Imuran (azathioprine), a chemotherapeutic agent that suppresses the immune system. Due to the medication’s immune suppressing effects, I was getting regular infections, mouth sores, and tooth decay. Even with this powerful medication I was still essentially disabled. OCT painkillers didn’t touch the agony brought on with my acute flares. I was exhausted. I had awful brain fog. Skin psoriasis still decorated my body.
As I looked around the McDougall website, I was impressed at the quality of information given away for the price (free!). Although I was still more than a bit skeptical, the recommended diet of starches, vegetables, and fruits seemed harmless and it made enough common sense for me to give it a try. Even if I did not heal from my psoriatic arthritis, if I gave up meat, dairy, and vegetable oils I would at least be trimmer and healthier. I had nothing to lose, and everything to gain. I emailed Dr. McDougall to ask if he thought I could be helped. He got back to me right away, and his sincere concern for me really boosted my confidence in the whole program.
Overnight and Dramatic Progress
On January 10th, 2011, I started the diet. Within the first 2 days I had to go off of the Imuran because of the side effects and my concerns about the potency of this drug. Within 2 weeks I had lost 15 pounds and experienced a significant reduction in my pain and stiffness. Surprisingly, the lifelong psoriasis patches on my ankles were gone! With this news my parents were in a state of shocked disbelief, until I emailed them photos of my cleared-up ankles.
Before my diet change in January of 2011, I weighed about 165 pounds. At 5’6″, I had a BMI of 26.2, and a blood pressure of 140/90 mmHg. My cholesterol was naturally on the low side, considering that I had been “a butter-and-cheese vampire,” at 160 mg/dL. Three months after changing my diet (March 2011), I had a physical exam with blood tests: my weight was 148 pounds (a 17 pound loss); my blood pressure was 120/70 mmHg; and my cholesterol was 108 mg/dL. Excellent progress, but my pain was still there, albeit to a lesser degree.
For the next six months I continued to steadily lose weight, and my pain and stiffness improved incrementally. I became impatient around the 6-month mark, and did a 5-day water fast (it was terribly hard and I felt so sick the whole time). After that experience I embarked upon the McDougall Elimination Diet. The serious dietary restrictions really helped my arthritis and I lost a lot of weight, getting as low as 112 pounds. I finally settled in at around 123 pounds (a total loss of 42 pounds).
Over time I learned more and more about what I could and could not eat. (I am sensitive to carrots and brown rice, for example, which are staples on most elimination diets.) I observed that lack of sleep, excess stress, and either too much or too little physical activity made my pain and stiffness worse. I noticed that eating more green leafy vegetables was beneficial for me.
Then There Was the Long Journey
I was undoubtedly improving, but there were ups and downs. About 8 months into the diet, I had a terrible flare up of pain, followed by an improvement. This fluctuating pattern continued for a couple of years. After two and a half years of strict adherence, I was doing well, but not feeling 100%. I could finally work, but not as a fitness instructor. Instead, I have had to pursue my other passion as an artist.
Now, as of May of 2014 (about three and a half years of eating this way 100%), I finally feel healed enough to say I am completely free of any disease. My joint pains are entirely gone. All patches of psoriasis are gone from my skin. My pre-menstrual syndrome is kept at bay as long as I also get enough sleep, exercise, and sunlight. I have energy: I walk 4 to 7 miles in very hilly areas almost daily, I swim 2 to 3 times a week, I stretch morning and night, and I lift weights 2 to 3 times a week. I have a life outside of taking care of my health. I travel. I enjoy all these activities without paying for them later! And best of all, I feel like myself again.
The last three years of journaling on the McDougall Discussion Board Forums has been key to my success of staying on plan. The support of fellow board members was invaluable to my successful journey. In return, I want to help others. I encourage anyone interested in my story to contact me through the Forums. My screen name is “nicoles”.
Nicole S. O’Shea
Los Angeles, CA