Rheumatoid arthritis forced me to change my diet – and now I’m pain free

I don’t remember a time in my life when there wasn’t pain somewhere in my body. It dominated much of my adult life. If someone isn’t in constant pain, it’s hard to describe it to them. You’re covering it all the time, and everything is much more difficult. Mornings were the worst for me as the itchy and sore feeling would set in while I was lying down. The day it took me 45 minutes to get out of bed because of my cough, I knew something had to change.

As a child, I often had pains in my arms and legs. The doctor told me it was rheumatism and prescribed calcium tablets. I was a very active child and did not let the pains stop me from riding ponies, playing on county sports teams and doing athletics and gymnastics. As soon as I would lie down to sleep, my elbows, knees and ankles would hurt, but I only managed to take paracetamol when the symptoms started to worsen in my teenage years.

By the age of 21 the pain was often excruciating, and I was referred for neurological tests and blood tests – and that’s when arthritis was diagnosed. My doctor made me very aware that I might need a wheelchair by the time I was 30. It was a terrible shock, but I was given no advice, apart from taking paracetamol or Ibuprofen.

Fortunately, I was still very fit and active and, without really knowing it, by going to the gym regularly I was protecting my joints by strengthening the muscles. I enjoyed my 20s – in fact, I had a ball. I married my childhood sweetheart Mark, and we had good jobs and good social lives, going out five or six times a week. We liked a drink – for me it was always vodka, gin or rum with a Diet Coke. I loved my work in procurement in the technology and fashion industries, and I never mentioned my position in the workplace. But when my body was still, that’s when the pain would be up. I was in pain before I knew it, so for Mark it was just a part of my life.

Karen and a pint of cider

In her 20s Karen loved to drink socially

In my late 30s, when our daughter Heidi was 10, we started riding horses together, which I hadn’t done in years. And suddenly – my word – the pain. Every movement sent shock waves through my spine and after six months of trying to get over it, I had to stop. It was time to take my condition seriously – I couldn’t ride because of the pain. Now I had developed spinal arthritis and my life was changing.

I was referred for physiotherapy, but it didn’t help. An osteopath told me that all three of my vertebrae were irreversibly fused, and I would never get that movement back and sure enough, when I joined yoga and Pilates classes, I found that the bending of my disappeared body. It was hard to take. I knew I was older, but there was so much I could do.

I suddenly felt very old and sad. I was so sporty that within a few years, I couldn’t even swim because of the pain. At my lowest point, in 2021, I was setting my alarm earlier and earlier before work, because it took me ages to make a cell phone before I could get out of bed. Every morning the pain was worse.

At work one day, the laces on one of my trainers came undone and I couldn’t even bend down to tie them and had to get a colleague to help. As a senior person in a very young organization, I never wanted to draw attention to what was considered an illness of a senior person. But the pain of getting up and into the office every day was hard to ignore.

Karen fishingKaren fishing

‘I was a very active child’, says Karen

When I heard a podcast episode about the connection between autoimmune disease, inflammation and diet, I knew what I had to do. For three months I went on the autoimmune protocol (AIP), a big diet that means eliminating everything that can cause inflammation, like sugar, refined grains and refined carbohydrates, then foods and drinks gradually reintroduced to see what caused pain in me.

There was an almost immediate response to the diet. Within two weeks I had gone from severe pain, taking Ibuprofen every day, to minor pain that I could handle without painkillers. I have been living without wheat, sugar, and alcohol since then and now focus on eating fresh, unprocessed foods – meat, fish, vegetables, pulses and dairy.

When I eat out, I know if there is a hidden trace of sugar or gluten in dishes because my back will be on fire and in pain. If I eat meatballs, I’ll make pasta for Mark but I’ll use more meat and vegetables myself. Although it is easy to avoid sugar itself, it is also produced in the body by eating too many potatoes and rice, so I had to severely limit my intake. Intermittent fasting is supposed to be good for beating inflammation, so I introduced that as well, and while I haven’t lost any weight, I’m fitter and healthier, and most importantly, I’m not in pain Nothing would tempt me back to my old ways. If I’m offered a slice of cake, all I see is pain.

I decided to plan a future that would provide more flexibility and less pressure to reduce the fatigue and stress that caused flare-ups. So, I retrained as a life coach and although I still work long hours, I can now juggle my diary to suit me. And most importantly I don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to commute somewhere. In the past it was difficult to make time for the exercise that is so beneficial for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Now I swim in cold water, do strength training and go to the gym regularly.

Karen on Market QuayKaren on Market Quay

Karen retrained as a life coach

Mark didn’t give up alcohol, but we changed the way we socialize. I don’t go to the local pub now and Mark goes for a few pints and goes home. He’s the first person I’ll defend if our old drinking friends question my change in behavior, because when I drank my back didn’t hurt so they didn’t know about my condition. Now if we go out together to the pub, we take a pack of cards or play darts so I don’t get bored.

Three years later I think I took control of my health and took fifteen years off my age. Everything is easier, my head is clearer and if pain, painkillers and alcohol are removed from my life, I can do a lot more with it.

As told by Marina Gask

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