What can I do naturally to help my Scleroderma? And Automimmunity in General…
For those of you unaware of what scleroderma is, first let’s review that scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that results in progressive fibrosis of the system as collagen connective tissue fibers overgrow and become deposited inappropriately in the blood vessels.
Symptoms typically begin with Raynauds (lack of blood flow to fingers, pallor, pain and paresthesaias) accompanied by edema of the fingers, and tightening of the skin. Scleroderma can also be associated with a CREST variant which is an acronym for Calcinosis, Raynauds phenomena, Esophageal dysfunction, Sclerodactyly and Telangectasia. Primarily we are concerned with end organ failure as these collagen fibers become deposited in the kidneys, heart, bowel and lungs.
First I will discuss diet and lifestyle factors important for this disease, followed by a highly researched herbal medicine known to modulate the aberrant connective tissue production.
I have a special interest in autoimmune diseases mostly because they fascinate me, but especially because I have a great deal of experience working with all the various autoimmune conditions. Most Naturopathic Physicians do, because many MD’s become so frustrated by the disease course and lack of good conventional treatments aside from prednisone, methotrexate and various chemotherapy drugs; that they happily drop their patients in our hands. One of the doctors I worked for at Virginia Mason told me he was making a list of all the patients he had no idea what to do with as all standard treatments had failed, so he was going to refer them all off to me the second I graduated. Now I’m not sure if that is a compliment or a curse, but it does speak volumes for the healing power of nature. Naturopathic Physicians follow a therapeutic order that initially starts with addressing diet and lifestyle, fondly referred to as “The foundations for health”. The more complicated the disease, the more basic the treatment plan.
Now chronic disease really fascinates me and the first thing I like to do is put on my “medical investigator” hat and try to figure out what is really going on. In my experience many things such as scleroderma that are labeled “etiology unknown” as in “the medical community cannot agree on what causes this, or there is no definitive evidence available as to what causes this…etc” still have a cause in that particular patient. If you have a chronic disease it is important that you sit down with a Naturopathic Physician and allow them to diligently comb through your health history. Poor diet, toxic exposures to heavy metals, pesticides, and possibly even vaccinations received when ill are often concomitant.
Aspartame use is always of interest to me when working with someone with autoimmune disease. I am unsure if aspartame is the new “lead pipes” or “asbestos” and we just don’t have definitive evidence to get it off the shelves and out of peoples diets yet, or if particular individuals lack the necessary enzymes to metabolize it appropriately, or if they are allergic to the aspartame, but I find it peculiar that nearly every single patient I have ever seen that suffers from lupus, sjogrens, scleroderma, rheumatoid arthritis and even fibromyalgia have all been heavy aspartame users. If you are sick you should just plain and simple NOT use aspartame. I believe that it is better to error on the side of caution with this particular situation. There is no nutritional need for this chemical in your diet and you can learn how to use stevia as an alternative sweetener. The aspartame has simply got to go. And when it does most patients interestingly enough, get better. In the last 100 years there are many incidences of man-made chemicals that were once declared as safe, eventually being deemed as having deleterious effects and being taken off the market. Initially the FDA didn’t even approve table sugar for household use. Too bad they did, right? Diabetes and obesity now run rampant in our society thanks to refined foods like sucrose.
Now that the aspartame is out of the diet lets get the rest of the chemicals out too. A whole foods, natural diet free of the “Kitchen Table Villains” is the best way to go. The effects may take two weeks or two months, but I have never seen a patient with chronic disease not benefit from cleaning up their diet. Everyone benefits from a clean diet.
Aside from whole foods eating, give the guidelines of the Anti-inflammatory Diet a read so that you can learn how to easily temper inflammation through diet. Sleep, stress management, and gentle exercise are the foundations to health that when not in check cannot support a healthy system.
Last, but most importantly with any chronic disease it is important to understand the emotional state of the patient. Recent research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology reveals how inter-related our thoughts are to how our immune system functions. One expert lecturer on the topic of auto-immunity brought up the interesting question “why is someone’s body attacking itself?” Anger, and other unresolved emotions if present are well worth investigating with a therapist.
We want a normally active immune system not one that is acting dysfunctionally and thus influencing the proliferation of fibroblastic activity which results in the excess deposition of collagen. Therapy is an important part of the treatment plan for anyone struggling with chronic disease because regardless of if the mind is contributing to the disease state, anyone that is sick still needs support. Sometimes the support from friends and family simply is not enough. Especially for those that have trouble asking for help. A private counseling session to address the fears and concerns around having a chronic disease is integral for supporting the “mind, body, spirit” model in holistic care.
Specifically for scleroderma, the herb Centella asiatica commonly known as Gotu kola (shown above) has been used with some success in scleroderma patients as well as those prone to the development of keloids (excess scar production). A few studies working to develop a better delivery mechanism for the drug extract of this herb look promising. In the meantime tinctures, capsules and teas of this plant are effective.
Before using any herbs everyone should always check with their physician for drug-herb interactions. Also, whenever trying any new therapy be sure to have lab markers drawn pre-treatment, and a few months in to treatment to see how you are responding. If improvement is not noted after three to six months, a change in treatment plan may be necessary, or a more aggressive approach.
Remember that most natural remedies take about one month to work for every year that an individual has had a chronic disease. Gotu Kola has been shown to be safe in laboratory animals with the toxic dose being 40-50mg per/kg of body weight. You can purchase Gotu Kola in capsules at any reputable health food store. If you use the capsules by Nature’s Way, keep in mind that each capsule is 435mg of Gotu Kola and the standard daily dose is 2-4 mg daily. So a typical starting dose would be about 3 capsules twice daily. Be sure to work directly with a Naturopathic Physician if you are tempted to exceed 4mg daily.
Hope that helps get you pointed in the right direction! Feel free to ask further questions in the comments section.
~Dr. Nicole Sundene