The massive heart attack which took the life of former finance minister, Jim Flaherty, on April 10 has focused public attention on the potential dangers of prednisone. Back in January 2013, in response to increasing public concern about Flaherty’s bloated appearance and facial redness, a spokesman for the minister had stated: “Minister Flaherty is undergoing treatment for a non-life-threatening but serious dermatological condition known as Bullous Pemphigoid. To help clear up the condition the Minister has been prescribed a steroid called Prednisone. This treatment has side effects such as bloating, weight gain, redness in the face, and bouts of sleeplessness.”
Bullous Pemphigoid is a skin disease which causes the immune system to produce antibodies that attack the body, triggering large painful blisters on the arms, legs, and back. The conventional medical treatment utilizes a powerful steroid called Prednisone, which works to clear the lesions from the skin, giving the patient relief from discomfort, pain, and itching.
Prednisone is a synthetic corticosteroid used widely for numerous acute and chronic inflammatory conditions like asthma, temporal arteritis, autoimmune diseases (ie. Bullous Pemphigoid, Crohn’s disease) and numerous skin conditions (especially eczema and hives). Its basic effect is to suppress the immune system’s natural inflammatory response.
While often lifesaving in the short term, prednisone is associated with serious side effects in the long term such as cataracts, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), fluid retention, osteoporosis, fractures, infections, adrenal disease, and numerous metabolic disorders. In my practice I’ve seen some patients develop diabetes, angina, and heart attacks as a result of long-term use.
Those who use prednisone daily for months or years tend to gain weight and appear puffy-faced and hump-backed. They also develop ulcers requiring more drugs to suppress acid in the stomach, and complain of all manner of digestive disorders. As with most drugs, prednisone is likely to cause a great deal of damage when used long term for any reason.
With the exception of the famous Dr. W. Gifford-Jones, few have questioned the use of Prednisone or suggested safer alternatives to deal with severe skin diseases. So are there effective alternatives to this highly toxic drug? What might have been this unfortunate man’s other options? Is there any evidence supporting the use of a natural anti-inflammatory diet and supplements?
Natural Anti-Inflammatory Approaches
The nice thing about the natural interventions which can be used to reduce or even reverse chronic inflammation is that you can implement them even if you are currently using Prednisone. And it is even possible to wean off Prednisone safely if you are willing to make some changes in your diet and lifestyle. For this, you will most likely need the supervision of a health professional who has experience in helping people successfully wean off drugs like Prednisone, replacing it gradually over a period of months with a safer, more natural regime.
To begin removal of inflammation from the body, an anti-inflammatory diet is essential. This means the elimination of grains (especially gluten), sugar, alcohol, allergenic foods, trans fats, aspartame, chemicals, caffeine, and toxic heavy metals. Removing excess iron from the system is especially important in reducing inflammation.
One does not need to have celiac disease to be gluten-intolerant and develop autoimmune disease as a result. A key consideration is how much inflammation is caused in any given person by the consumption of gluten-containing products – once the inflammation reaches a certain level, autoimmune disease kicks in and the steroid drugs are brought out. If you are unconvinced of the necessity to stop consuming gluten in order to get off Prednisone, read the book Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar–Your Brain’s Silent Killers by Dr. David Perlmutter. In it, he provides more than adequate documentation for the concept that gluten is behind just about every inflammatory condition known to humans, especially those involving the brain. This includes Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and even psychotic behaviours.
In addition, the book Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back To Health by Dr. William Davis discusses how gluten causes obesity – in reality a condition that is caused by chronic inflammation.
Furthermore, over the years a variety of authors (Dr. Jonathan Wright, Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Alan Gaby, and many others) have shown how gluten is at the bottom of conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, M.S., Lupus and dozens of other diseases usually treated by Prednisone and assorted immunosuppressive drugs.
There are lab tests that can measure your antibodies against gliadin (the major protein in gluten). If these antibodies are elevated, there’s a very strong chance your inflammatory symptoms will respond well to a gluten-free diet. Just about any MD can order the test for you, so ask your family doctor for help in this.
One clue that you might be sensitive to gluten arises from the fact that gluten-sensitive people absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins poorly. So, if your blood levels of triglycerides, vitamin A, and D are low despite adequate food and supplement intake, consider that you may have a strong sensitivity or allergy to gluten. Also, people who have osteoporosis or osteopenia, despite adequate calcium and vitamin D intakes, can often reverse the bone mineralization issue by going off gluten. In other words, some cases of osteoporosis are caused by gluten sensitivity.
Beyond gluten, get some kind of food allergy/intolerance testing to discover other inflammation triggers. Food allergies/sensitivities cause the gut lining to become inflamed and consequently many vital minerals are poorly absorbed. This is one of the major reasons why people often do not see any benefits from vitamin and mineral supplements despite ever increasing intakes. One relatively inexpensive lab test now offered by some drugstores as well as provincial labs is the IgG RAST, a blood test that can measure antibodies to as many as 250 foods. Any doctor can order this test but it is not covered by Medicare and costs between $250 and $350 depending on the number of items tested.
Also, look into the possibility that your gut has a fungal overload problem (dysbiosis, candidiasis, helicobacter pylori infections). These can all also be triggers in the creation of autoimmune disorders. Live cell microscopy can provide clues to the existence of these microbes in your system.
It is now a well-documented fact that candida (fungal) overgrowth in the gastrointestinal tract increases the rate of allergic responses to foods for any individual. In cases where there is evidence of allergy to 30 or more foods, there should be a strong suspicion that this individual is really suffering from a chronic fungal problem that needs to be addressed first. Candida infections or overgrowth usually arise from a history of heavy antibiotic use, or the use of various steroids including the birth control pill, along with a high carbohydrate diet.
Also, the resolution of psychological and emotional life traumas that are triggers for chronic inflammation is also highly recommended. My favourite methods for reducing mental and emotional stress include:
- EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique)
- NET (Neuro Emotional Technique)
- Yoga, Qi Gong, tennis, or swimming to exercise the cardiovascular and muscular systems and blow off stress
- Deep breathing and meditation to shift the body into a state of deep relaxation
A word of caution here is warranted: Do not, under any circumstances, go off prednisone suddenly on your own without medical supervision. Doing so could have dire consequences in the form of strong ‘rebound inflammation’, pain, and a worsening of the disease for which you are taking this drug. Asthmatics, for example, can develop severe breathing crises if taken off prednisone too rapidly without adequate stabilization through natural approaches first.
There are many important nutrients that can be supplemented in high doses to reduce inflammation safely. The most important of these are vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA). The use of omega-6 has to be reduced in order for omega-3 to have maximum benefit.
High dose vitamin C and the amino acid L-lysine can help prevent the rapid atherosclerosis caused by Prednisone, so supplementation of both should be considered at levels of 3000 mg. each or more, daily, in any Prednisone weaning-off program.
Correcting nutrient deficiencies, either through dietary changes or supplements, is important because this allows the body to heal tissues and organs damaged by inflammation. In order to determine what these might be, you will need the help of a natural health care professional.
Effective Natural Anti-Inflammatories
People have often asked me what the most effective supplement is to reduce autoimmune disease inflammation. In my experience, curcumin (an extract of the spice turmeric) is the overall most effective remedy. It has been used successfully for just about every inflammatory condition. The evidence for this is piling up in published research from the world’s medical literature.
Curcumin also appears to be effective at protecting our bodies from the damaging, pro-inflammatory effects of fluoride. At this point, one could write a book detailing all of curcumin’s benefits, but suffice to say it is the single most important alternative supplement to Prednisone. Curcumin also works as an anti-cancer, anti-fungal, antioxidant, anti-Alzheimer’s and anti-depressant agent.
My favourite form of curcumin is the BCM-95 extract of turmeric. It’s 100% natural and has at least 7 times the absorption rate of synthetic versions. It does not require any special additive, natural or otherwise, to enhance absorption and is well tolerated. An effective anti-inflammatory dose of curcumin for most conditions is 1000 mg, three times daily with food. Your natural health care provider may recommend either more or less of that amount for your particular condition.
Also, add the whole spice version of turmeric to your meals throughout the day (either in the powder form or the whole root). The amount of curcumin in turmeric is a small fraction of the spice, but is still worthwhile using in your everyday diet. The only downside is that it may stain your teeth a yellow colour that is difficult to remove but this is a small price to pay for better health.
Another potential Prednisone alternative is licorice root. It works primarily by preventing the breakdown of the adrenal gland’s own production of cortisol, thus potentiating the body’s natural steroidal anti-inflammatory effects. Unfortunately, licorice root can elevate the blood pressure (just like Prednisone) in certain susceptible individuals. So, this may not be the best alternative for many who suffer from chronic inflammation.
Other Natural Anti-Inflammatories
There are many other natural remedies that help reduce inflammation. Here are some of the most effective:
- Serrapeptase – is an enzyme derived from the silkworm that appears to be one of the most potent and effective of all the anti-inflammatory enzymes. In high enough doses, serrapeptase is capable of dissolving atherosclerotic plaque. It can also dissolve a cancer cell’s protective coat, thereby making virtually any chemotherapeutic remedy more effective. Many people use serrapeptase to dissolve excessive mucus so it’s highly effective in alleviating chronic bronchitis and sinusitis, conditions which usually trigger steroid prescriptions from doctors.
- Pancreatin – is a type of enzyme extracted from porcine pancreas. When consumed by humans, it can get into the bloodstream very much like serrapeptase and help destroy free radicals and pro-inflammatory compounds. The net effect is a reduction of inflammation, carcinogenesis, and numerous other conditions dependent on inflammation to spread. Brand names you might be familiar with include Wobenzyme and Intenzyme Forte.
- Bromelain – is an enzyme derived from pineapple, and is especially useful for relieving tendinitis and healing from most physical injuries. Combined with the other enzymes listed here, you get a remarkable anti-inflammatory benefit.
- Ginger – is long known and acknowledged as a highly effective anti-inflammatory remedy that can be especially effective in gastrointestinal ills (any gut inflammatory condition), especially chronic nausea, even in early pregnancy.
If you wish to start an anti-inflammatory program of diet change and supplements, it’s highly recommended you see a natural health care professional to work with you on a personalized plan.
Dr. Zoltan P. Rona practices Complementary Medicine in Toronto and is the medical editor of The Encyclopedia of Natural Healing. He has also published several Canadian best selling books including Return to The Joy of Health,Vitamin D: The Sunshine Vitamin, and Complete Candida Yeast Guidebook (co-authored with Jeanne Marie Martin). For more of his articles, see www.mydoctor.ca/drzoltanrona