Juvenile Inflammatory Arthritis and a Plant-Based Diet
I was diagnosed with Juvenile Inflammatory Arthritis (JIA) when I was 12 years old so I’ve had well over 20 years of learning to live with and manage this condition. I struggled through my teenage years and the early part of my university education trying endless NSAIDs with lots of courses of oral steroids thrown in as well. As a child my mum took me to see so many different people, desperate to try and find me help and relief. We tried physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, saw an osteopath, a homeopath and several different rheumatologists; some of these things made a little difference, but nothing sustainable or long-lasting. By the age of 17 I was suffering from depression due to being in pain for so many years and I’d missed out on seeing my friends and missed about a third of my sixth form education. I sometimes used a wheelchair because the pain was too bad to walk or get around.
‘As a child my mum took me to see so many different people, desperate to try and find me help and relief’.
As I was starting university at 18, I pleaded with my rheumatologist for more help and I was put onto methotrexate. With the exception of 18 months in 2011/12 whilst I had my daughter, I’ve been on that ever since in varying doses. In around 2015 my symptoms got a lot worse and I added another DMARD into the mix, and when that failed to help, I also tried a biologic. The side effects of the biologic were so severe that within three months I’d stopped because for me they were intolerable (hair loss, upset stomach, multiple bruises, sores and rashes around the injection sites, headaches, to name a few), and it made no difference at all to my joints.
‘I sometimes used a wheelchair because the pain was too bad to walk or get around’.
Nothing really seemed to help or make that much difference so I went back to “only” taking methotrexate and slowly managed to help myself in other ways by starting to practice yoga regularly and exercising more when my joints would allow for it. In 2019 I trained to become a yoga teacher and also started doing regular resistance and strength training with a personal trainer. Despite asking for other suggestions that might help my condition, at no time did the medical community suggest that a change to my diet could have a really positive impact on not only my disease, but my overall health and wellbeing. I have since learned that medics are given very little, if any, formal education on nutrition and its link to disease prevention, management and reversal, so who can blame them for not suggesting that to me?
‘However, at no point were the inflammatory properties of certain food types discussed, for example meat and dairy’.
Historically I’ve eaten an omnivorous diet including meat, fish, eggs, dairy, fruit and vegetables. I generally didn’t eat a lot of processed or high fat/sugar food and considered my diet to be pretty healthy (according to the NHS eat well guide). I was told a few times that weight loss would be beneficial for my joints but I’d tried all sorts of diets and eating plans, managed to lose some weight, only for it all to go back on once I went back to eating “normally”. It sounds pretty obvious when I spell it out like that, but with a BMI of 25–26, I always figured I wasn’t doing too badly in comparison to a lot of people. However, at no point were the inflammatory properties of certain food types discussed, for example meat and dairy. In reality my overall health wasn’t great, and a big part of that was my “healthy” diet.
Towards the end of 2016 I met a fellow mum on the playground whilst waiting to collect my daughter from school. We quickly became good friends and I started to learn about her life. I learnt that she is a GP and had recently changed her diet to be fully plant-based, after trying “the Joe Wicks thing” and not feeling comfortable with the amount of meat she was eating. She and I talked a lot about why she’d made that change and apart from ethical and environmental reasons, health and wellbeing were high on her list. This was the first time I considered changing my diet significantly and yet I still resisted. I always had an excuse: it’s too hard; we’re meant to eat meat; fish is good for you; I eat plenty of fruit and vegetables; my daughter is a fussy eater; it’s hard to eat out… the list goes on! She even gave me a book about Iidamaria van der Byl-Knoefel’s story — someone with a very similar condition to mine and who had been through a very similar experience to mine… but for whatever reason I wasn’t ready to make the change.
‘It took me about three or four months to transition to be fully plant-based and the interesting thing was that it really wasn’t that hard’.
For the next two to three years, I battled internally with making the change to my diet. I did Veganuary a couple of times and started reading the research linking plant-based and plant-based whole food diets to improved health and less disease. In early 2020, just before lockdown hit, I made my choice: I was going to do it. It took me about three or four months to transition to be fully plant-based and the interesting thing was that it really wasn’t that hard. I did miss cheese (standard), but the benefits far outweighed any food I missed. I immediately started to lose weight (a total of 12 kg in the end), my skin was better, I felt less tired, I had more energy, my bowel movements became regular, and best of all my joints felt amazing. In August 2020, I decided to come off my methotrexate altogether just to see how I coped: really well! I had my inflammatory markers checked in February 2021 and my CRP was 0.8 and my ESR was 2, and that was with no medication at all. I’m not against medication by a long stretch — some people see real benefits from it and it allows them to live their lives as they want to, but I do wonder how many of those people with similar conditions to mine would still be on the same dose or any medications at all if they made that switch to a plant-based diet. Only time and education will tell.
‘I’m so glad I made that change and getting on for a year in, I’m converted and convinced. I would never go back and I’d encourage others in my position to give it a try’.
I’m so glad I made that change and getting on for a year in, I’m converted and convinced. I would never go back and I’d encourage others in my position to give it a try. My friend who helped me is now my partner in life and I’m forever grateful to her and this organisation for educating us all in the benefits of plant-based eating.
For more about my story, you can find me on Instagram and Facebook @yogiclarebear