Question: I have been suffering for a number of years from muscle pain and weakness. The doctors say it is polymyalgia rheumatica. Taking prednisone helps a lot, but I know this drug has side effects. Is there anything that can be done for this condition besides just taking steroids or pain killers?
Answer: Polymyalgia rheumatica is a disease that occurs almost exclusively in people over 55 years of age. It is characterized by profound stiffness in the muscles–as opposed to the joints, as in rheumatoid arthritis–and severe muscle pain. Often there is pain in the joints as well. The pain may be accompanied by weakness and fatigue. The onset can be abrupt or it can creep up slowly over a few weeks. Usually within those few weeks, the patient suffers immensely from this condition.
The diagnosis of polymyalgia rheumatica is made on the basis of the above symptoms plus a very elevated sedimentation rate. The sed rate of the blood is a measure of the total inflammation in the body, and with polymyalgia it often goes to very high levels.
The cause of polymyalgia is unknown in conventional medicine. It is treated with high doses of the anti-inflammatory, adrenal hormone prednisone. As our questioner points out, the relief with prednisone is very quick, often within hours, and patients are usually grateful for this seemingly miraculous treatment. The difficulty with prednisone, of course, is not getting on it, but getting off it. Taking prednisone for prolonged periods of time, including the time needed to treat polymyalgia, will suppress the adrenal glands so much that it makes it very difficult to come off these medications. I’ve seen it take two years or more to successfully wean a patient off prednisone. During that time the well-known side effects of prednisone come into play. These include diabetes, cataracts, stomach ulcer, and many more. Clearly, another approach to this illness is needed.
Whenever a steroid drug like prednisone makes a condition better, at least temporarily, we can conclude that a basic cause of the condition is poor adrenal function. Therefore, it is helpful to incorporate dietary changes that support the adrenal gland. First and foremost is the elimination foods that stress the adrenal glands, like sugar, caffeine and nicotine. Then we must provide the raw materials with which the adrenal gland makes its many hormones. These are chiefly cholesterol, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and vitamin A. Raw milk products provide vitamins C and B6, and cod liver oil and butter from grass-fed cows provide vitamin A. Third, we can support the adrenal glands with adaptogenic herbs. These contain certain saponins that the body can turn into cortisone-like substances–they are called “adaptogenic” because they help the body adapt to stress. The two I use in my practice are ginseng and licorice.
This type of adrenal support can help the condition of polymyalgia rheumatica, but rarely does it completely relieve this illness. They do help–the pain is lessened–but the much-needed remission does not occur.
Recently, I have used a cleansing program to treat polymyalgia with very positive results. Various fasting or cleansing approaches have long been used for autoimmune and rheumatological diseases (such as polymyalgia) and no one is certain why they help, but that they do help is quite clear. In fact, this month’s issue of Alternative Therapies reports on six patients with a variety of serious autoimmune and rheumatological diseases, all of whom went into remission after a 2-3 week water fast.
Interestingly, the patients stay in remission, often for many months after the fast is completed, as though some change occurs in their organ function which lasts even after the fast is completed. I have found the same thing in my practice.
The two programs I have used are not so much fasting programs as they are cleansing programs. The difference being that in cleansing programs, the person takes in enough nutrients, fats and proteins to enable him or her to carry out an almost normal life during the fast. One such program is the Milk Cure described in the Summer 2002 issue of Wise Traditions. Another is a cleansing program from Standard Process. Through the Milk Cure, or through the herbs and powder of the Standard Process program, the patient can remain nourished, but the limited food intake allows the digestive system to rest, and the body to turn its attention to addressing other imbalances.
The main component of the Standard Process cleansing program is a powder that contains a small amount of whey protein and a lot of herbal extracts, plus flax seed meal. The powder is mixed with olive oil and taken several times per day. A supplement containing liver and detoxifying herbs is also given as well as a green food extract or wheat grass. During the fast, the patient can also eat raw fruits and vegetables and drink water. After the three-week fast, I recommend a transition diet of bone broth, raw butter, cooked vegetables and fruit, soaked grains, and sprouted seeds and nuts. This fast should only be carried out under the supervision of a qualified practitioner who is familiar with Standard Process products.
I have had dramatic results using the Standard Process program. Used for polymyalgia, the pain and stiffness begin to recede and then disappear completely. I have also had excellent results with psoriasis and rheumatoid arthritis.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2002.