Treating and Maintaining Autoimmune Diseases with Acupuncture
My boyfriend was diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis 15 years ago, and other than a somewhat strong flare up 5 years after that it has stayed pretty dormant. He maintained a vegetarian diet, limited alcohol intake, and stayed very active, all of which seemed to help keep this condition at bay. For 10 years he only dealt with the occasional, mild flare up that usually subsided on its own. Even so it was still something that loomed over him day to day, as he had seen what this same disease had done to family members. He was open about this condition and tried to help me understand what exactly it was that was going on in his body, but without seeing it firsthand it was difficult to grasp completely. As we recently realized, neither of us actually knew what to expect from a full blown relapse, and we were not prepared when it happened.
From his past experiences he knew when a flare up was on its way; fatigue, stomach cramps, loss of appetite, increased and often urgent use of the restroom, and sudden weight loss were all signs that this was heading for trouble. These symptoms became strong enough that he knew it was time to visit his physician and obtain medication to get it under control. The doctor that he saw said something which has stuck in my mind since, mostly due to the inaccuracy but also partly due to the dismissive attitude. She told him that UC is so rare that “you probably don’t really have it”. A diagnosis from several doctors over the last 15 years would indicate differently! The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation estimates that approximately 700,000 people in the US alone are affected by this disease, which is no small number.
Since this ordeal we’ve both come across many people who know someone with this disease, or suffer from it themselves. There are so many potential conditions that share symptoms, and it is understandable that not every doctor will be an expert in each one. Disregarding someone’s diagnosis without more information is careless, and she even admitted that he seemed to know more about it than she did. Thankfully she still prescribed the medication that he needed and after a week or two his symptoms had calmed down. Unfortunately, however, this time the relief was short lived.
The medication didn’t seem to fully squash the symptoms as it had in the past, and within a few months they had not only returned, but did so even worse than before. He tried visiting the doctor once more, and this time received no relief from his medication. His condition quickly and steadily declined, and after a few sleepless, painful nights we made an early morning trip to the ER. It took only a quick exam to determine that his state required admission to the hospital, where he was to spend the next 8 days. UC is not a pretty sight, and without too much detail I can say that he spent most of that time on IV fluids because anything that he ate would cause immediate agonizing pain and would run through his body too quickly for any nutrients to be absorbed. He couldn’t sleep due to the pain, and his body became so weak that he could no longer stand on his own. He lost 40 lbs over only about two weeks, and even now a month after that he is still getting his body used to eating again. Though he finally stopped dropping weight at such a terrifying rate, his body is still rejecting a lot of what is put into it and his energy levels have yet to return to normal.
The doctors were actually impressed when they discovered how long he had been dealing with this disease without ever having been hospitalized. They informed him that something like 70% of people with this condition are admitted within the first 10 years, and he made it 15. During his stay we were able to determine several factors that contributed to his decline, including a significant increase in stress and the consumption of inflammatory foods. However, with autoimmune diseases like UC there doesn’t always have to be a catalyst. The nature of these conditions can just cause sudden, incapacitating illness. As he has proven though, proper maintenance can go a long way in keeping these flare ups few and far between. When his doctors learned that I worked in an acupuncture clinic, the first thing they asked him was whether he had been getting treatments to help maintain his condition. They were actually surprised to learn he had not, and I was surprised at how accepting they were of utilizing acupuncture for this purpose. There can often be a large disconnection between eastern and western medicine, and I was pleased that they were seemingly open to “alternative” methods and encouraged their patients to utilize them.
He had already been proactive about making lifestyle changes in the past which had helped keep him in remission for a decade, so it wasn’t farfetched to think that he could add this additional maintenance to his regimen. However it seemed that since the changes he had already made were successful for so long, he had been turning a blind eye to the fact that they weren’t working as well anymore. He was so used to the idea that these specific practices were keeping him from getting sick, but didn’t seem to realize that his body had changed over the years and the needs at nearly forty are different from those of someone half that age. Though he had acupuncture in the past, and knew how well it worked, he just wouldn’t keep up with consistent treatments because he didn’t feel as though he “needed” to. If he wasn’t doubled over in pain at the moment, then it wasn’t enough to push him to seek treatment. And yet, if he was in that much pain, then he wouldn’t want to leave the house. As a student herbalist I tried recommending herbal tinctures that could calm the inflammation in his body, and brought home herbal formulas from the clinic that were specifically designed for condition. Yet he refused them again and again, scared to upset the delicate balance that he insisted he had found. And like with many others it took hitting rock bottom before he came to terms with his own stubbornness, and the fact that just getting by wasn’t doing the trick anymore.
Acupuncture can be effective in maintaining and treating autoimmune diseases like this for several reasons. With UC one of the biggest contributing factors is stress, which acupuncture is commonly used to address. Receiving treatments regularly just as maintenance is highly suggested for anybody, to keep the body from becoming too overstressed and to help ensure that your sleeping patterns are regulated. When you’re dealing with a condition like UC, or any autoimmune disease, it often causes an increase of anxiety and depression which in turn intensifies the symptoms. The cycle continues and builds unless you find ways to manage it.
There are a surprisingly large number of autoimmune diseases, at approximately 80 different types, and though they all have different effects on the body they can share symptoms. At their most basic level they are defined by an overactive immune system attacking the healthy cells in your body. It gets confused, not recognizing friend from foe and instead attacking itself. In the case of ulcerative colitis, the colon is the target of the attack. The inflammation can be confined to parts of the colon or spread to the entire organ, and ulcers or polyps can develop. Though the colon is the focus of UC, the inflammation can spread throughout the body and affect the joints and even cause the development of skin rashes. Acupuncture can help to not only relieve the pain and inflammation throughout the body, but also to bring the immune system back into a balanced state. This is helping the body to heal by addressing the root cause, as well as easing the current symptoms.
Since he was released from the hospital he has been receiving treatments once a week, and the difference after each session is impressive. When I brought him in the first time he could barely walk, and was in so much pain that just lying there was difficult for him. By the time he left he had more energy and less stomach cramping, and was much clearer mentally. The next time I brought him he was able to sit for a longer period of time, and even relaxed enough to fall asleep. His treatments have been helping to relieve his pain and fatigue, allowing him to sleep better at night, and providing some relief from the anxiety that was not only prevalent before, but the added stress that this experience has caused. Of course he has been on an assortment of medications during this time as well, which are also contributing to his healing. The added acupuncture treatments have been helping to improve his overall condition, while even relieving some of the side effects of his medications such a mood swings, tremors, and night sweats.
Autoimmune diseases are serious and can severely affect a person’s quality of life. With such a wide variety of them, and the number of people afflicted by each, a pretty large percentage of the population deals with this in one form or another. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates up to 23.5 million Americans suffer from autoimmune, while the AARDA (American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association) puts the number closer to 50 million.
Many people are actually disabled by their illness, and autoimmune diseases are one of the leading causes of disability for women in particular. And while it isn’t something that you can be rid of from one day to the next, it is something that you can potentially manage through proper maintenance, to at least lessen the effect on your daily life. Staying away from inflammatory food is key, regardless of whether your particular condition has a direct effect on the digestive system. Inflammation can be triggered anywhere in the body, and can easily be brought about by the wrong foods. Proper diet is important to keep any body running, and what is considered proper won’t be the same for every person. Some have a better grasp on nutrition than others, as unfortunately this is not always something that we’re really taught as we’re growing up. My boyfriend did not know nearly enough about what his body needed food-wise, and is now struggling with the limitations he’s been given on his already fairly limited diet. He is essentially starting over from the ground up, learning what foods offer which key nutrients that he requires and widening the scope of foods he eats.
In addition to diet, consistent exercise helps to not only keep the body in shape, but can also relieve stress. Yoga in particular is a fantastic way to calm the body and mind, while offering relief especially for conditions that affect the muscles and joints. Daily meditation is another wonderful way to release stress, anxiety, and depression from the body and help keep it in a more peaceful and relaxed state. Due to the naturally compromised immune system, outside contributors such as pollution, germs, and mold can trigger a flare up. Ensuring that you keep your household clean and spending as much time outside of polluted areas can make a huge difference.
Though he did a fairly good job of maintaining his condition himself, he always treated it as the hammer that was about to fall. Of course being prepared and understanding what could happen is wise, so that you’re not caught off guard. But rather than doing everything he could to maintain his condition, he did enough to keep it just below the surface and accepted the inevitable. We should all remember that we often have more control over our health than we realize. That is not to say that we know better than our health practitioners, but sometimes we aren’t given the whole picture and are led to believe a single course of action is our only hope even as we continue to suffer. I have seen firsthand how quick many are to write a prescription without recommending any additional treatment, lifestyle changes, etc.
While he was in the hospital he was given several different medications, and was prescribed many more upon his discharge. And though he is thankful for them since they have been getting his UC back into remission, the specialists he saw essentially told him to take medication for the rest of his life, and that was it. There was no advice on how to maintain his condition or prevent future flare ups. There is absolutely more that he can be doing, which he is finally beginning to understand. This is an awakening that many of us could use; to realize that it isn’t always just completely out of our hands. By receiving acupuncture treatments, adding an exercise routine to our day, and taking greater care in the foods that we prepare and consume, we all have the potential to live happier, more comfortable lives.