This post sheds light on how adopting a plant-based, vegan diet can significantly reduce the frequency and degree of inflammation experienced in Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and other chronic diseases.
The objectives of this article are to:
1. Increase understanding about inflammatory processes,
2. expose anyone suffering from chronic illness and/or inflammation to the recognized curative properties of treating inflammation with a vegan diet, and
3. empower those who would benefit, to make this transition to better health and symptom management.
EDS is discussed in length, however the research clearly affirms that all conditions in which inflammation is a concern could benefit from adopting a vegan diet as a treatment modality. So, if you’re not a Zebra, it’s okay- this can still be very helpful to you or a loved one. Let’s dive in.
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is a genetic condition of defective and/or deficient collagen, with several subtypes. The most common subtype of this rare disease is hEDS (hypermobile type).
People with EDS (and similar connective tissue disorders) often suffer recurrent subluxations, major joint dislocations, strains, sprains, and tears of the ligamentous and tendinous tissues, easy bruising, and even multiple bone fractures (2). It can take very little, if any, physical trauma for these things to occur. Furthermore, this small list describes only issues of which are orthopedic in nature. There are many, many inflammation-causing concerns falling under the categories of other body systems (gastrointestinal, neurological, musculoskeletal, etc) (17, 18, 19). EDS is a very complicated condition and requires multiple-discipline management for Zebras to achieve and maintain optimal health, wellness, and functionality.
But why is CI such a big deal?
Chronic Inflammation has a tremendous propensity to manifest into more (and often worse) symptoms and conditions. Let’s start off with some basics- CI causes joint pain, serious fatigue, fevers, rashes, mouth sores, swelling of the hands/feet/face, and several other things (4). It can lead to weight gain, generalized pain, hormonal imbalances, and the list goes on. So, if nothing else, CI is pretty damn annoying at best. Add those symptoms (and the plethora of others of which CI causes) to the symptoms already experienced in EDS (or any other chronic disease) and the sum of the equation is only misery.
The other end of the spectrum is much more detrimental. The World Health Organization (WHO) declares chronic inflammatory diseases to be the most significant cause of death in the world (1). They even go so far as to rank chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health. Seriously. How can this be? I just feel a little achy and puffy… I know, but just stay with me here while I throw some knowledge at ya.
Chronic Inflammation Literally Changes Who You Are
Chronic inflammation changes your DNA sequencing, and thus can activate certain coding in your genes to cause malignancy growth. Simply put, chronic inflammation literally causes cancer (5)(6), and faster than any cigarette will. Sometimes it’s not so sneaky either, for example esophageal cancers caused by the inflammation of GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). GERD is a very common symptom EDS’ers experience. In fact, approximately 1/3 of the U.S. population suffers from GERD.
Chronic inflammation makes you lose your mind, and quite literally! Studies have shown that regions of the brain actually shrink in size and become less and less functional as a result of CI. (7). Other effects of CI can include some other real doozies of diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, heart diseases, and metabolic syndrome (8). We don’t want a damn thing to do with all of that mess, or the other messes that snowball after those.
Let’s briefly talk about some of the symptoms Zebras experience as a result of EDS and how they fit into the context of this CI discussion. The orthopedic injuries and concerns have been mentioned above but just to reiterate, the joint instability and damage sustained as a result of the disease causes a great deal of inflammation and pain. Given the high frequency in which these injuries occur, many Zebras experience CI as a result of just their musculoskeletal system alone. But wait, there’s more…
This is the Song that Never Ends…
Some common symptoms for EDS’ers have been found to not only cause inflammation, but also are caused by inflammation, so it’s essentially a self-perpetuating cycle of BS (yes, bullshit).
Migraines are one of these common afflictions (9, 17); they are caused by, and cause, inflammation in the body.
The gastrointestinal (GI) system of the Zebra is yet another one of these inflammation loops (18). Many folks with EDS experience a wide spectrum of GI symptoms from Megacolon (as a result of the bowel tissue stretching), to malabsorption of nutrients (laying the pavement for additional disease processes and sources of inflammation).
A widespread and frequent complaint of the Zebra is severely slow motility. Not only is this terribly uncomfortable but it can be potentially fatal in the event a bowel obstruction or infected perforation occurs (10,18). With regard to the inflammatory process, however, the slow motility an EDS’er experiences can cause considerable dysbiosis and microbiome imbalance (11). Gastrointestinal, and sometimes whole-body, inflammation ensues as a result. The inflammatory process can then shut down the bowels, resulting in the cycle starting over again.
The Pain – Inflammation Relationship
Pain was addressed briefly above, as this is something virtually every Zebra endures, but pain is not exempt from this self-perpetuating cycle either. When pain is experienced, several inflammatory mediators including prostaglandins, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), interleukin 1β (IL-1β), and interleukin-6 (IL-6) are released into the body/at site of injury to interact with nociceptors (sensory receptors for painful stimuli), facilitating the transmission of pain signals through the nervous system. These very hormones and mediators cause inflammation. Inflammation causes pain. Cycle continues. See? Pain creates hormones, hormones create inflammation, inflammation creates pain, and go..
With regard to chronic inflammatory conditions (e.g., osteoarthritis, injuries from EDS), it should be known that when these pain cycles occur with great frequency (as seen in these conditions) the risk of the development of Central Sensitization Disorder presents (yet another source of ongoing inflammation) (20). Central Sensitization Disorder is condition in which the central nervous system is actually altered causing the person to experience greater degrees of pain and greater frequencies of pain, but with less provocation (28).
Ehlers Danlos is a rare genetic disease and therefore has no cure. These, and other symptoms ranging from mild to severe, are just a part of ‘the Zebra Life’. So, while the migraines cannot be cured, they can be treated and prevented. Many bowel issues as well (though typically less successfully). Precautions can be implemented in hopes of preventing orthopedic complications, and so on. Fortunately, the chronic inflammation for which the Zebra is at risk, or is already experiencing, can be managed and prevented as well in hopes to avoid future and ongoing complications.
So, what the hell to do if you’re a Zebra (or one of the 60% of the population who experiences Chronic Inflammation at some point in their life (1)). Well, currently, there are no prescription drugs that specifically target chronic inflammation (12). Granted, one can take steroids or NSAIDS (4). Neither of these are actually designed for CI, nor are they safe to take regularly or long-term. I’m not a fan of medication anyway. Yes, probably strange for a nurse, but most medications come from plants anyway, so why not start at the source?
So, What Works?
The following are some evidence-based methods to reduce, or even eliminate, inflammation. It’s unlikely that a single one alone will alleviate CI, but the research strongly demonstrates that combining some of these interventions will make a significant impact. Bonus- most are free/very affordable, and all are backed by sound research from peer-reviewed studies and other well-respected sources.
–Lose weight (12)
–Eliminate excess and artificial sugar (1, 4)
–Exercise; it is shown that energy expenditure through exercise lowers multiple pro-inflammatory molecules and cytokines independently of weight loss. (1)
–Anti-inflammatory agents such as Curcumin, Mung Beans, Ginger, Garlic, Cayenne, or Flax Oil (1, 4)
–Change your environment (12)
–Treat underlying inflammatory dental issues (this is actually a big deal) such as gum disease or having mercury fillings removed and replaced (12)
–Treat underlying inflammatory medical issues such as regulating blood glucose levels in diabetes
–Treat underlying inflammatory mental health issues such as participating in counseling, practicing meditation, and making time for enjoyable things
–Reduce stress, meditate (4) (1)
–Get enough sleep (1)
Now, let’s get into the beet and potatoes ( 😉 ) of this post. A vegan diet- what does the research show and how can it help the Zebra (and everyone else) battle Chronic Inflammation?
A Whole Flock of Birds, One Stone:
We’ve established that the above interventions are the most effective in treating/preventing Chronic Inflammation (if you still don’t believe me, do some research on your own or check out any of the 50+ evidence-based research references I’ve provided). Now, let’s take a closer look at several of those interventions and why a vegan diet is the most effective modality in achieving almost all of them, at once, and with very little to no work.
–Losing weight– Several randomized controlled studies — the gold standard in scientific research — report that vegan diets are more effective for weight loss than the diets they are compared to (this includes that keto fad) (21, 22, 23, 24)
–Eliminate excess and artificial sugars– I don’t even need a citation here. Unless you’re a ‘junk food vegan’, it is indisputable that a whole food vegan diet is 100% free of artificial and excess sugars.
–Exercise– Health-related effects in athletes who consume diets without meat have been found to positively impact exercise performance, such as physical fitness, resilience to chronic diseases, and weight control (42, 43, 44).
–Anti-inflammatory agents– All of the well-known and most effective anti-inflammatory agents are plants (Curcumin, Mung Beans, Ginger, Garlic, Cayenne, Flax Oil, and many, many more). Consuming meat and animal products (milk, cheese, etc.) actually produces inflammation (32, 33).
–Dental health– studies demonstrate that those who consume more meat experience greater frequency and severity of periodontitis (inflammatory gum disease). Those who consume more fruits and vegetables- much less (34). Vegan diets result in improved and optimal oral health in several regards (40).
–Treat underlying inflammatory mental conditions– see the following heading “Stress” for the effects of a vegan diet on stress and anxiety. Study after study have shown marked improvement in symptoms of depression using a vegan diet as an intervention (47, 50) and that vegans are much less likely to be afflicted with eating disorders, a mental illness that seems to be trying to become an epidemic (48). In fact, ‘semi-vegetarians’ (those not wholly committed to a vegan diet) have been found to have the highest rates of eating disorders (49). A vegan diet has even been demonstrated to successfully treat schizophrenia by decreasing the length and severity of, and/or eliminating the episodes altogether, of symptomatic relapses in this self report from the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center (46).
–Stress– Studies show that vegans experience significantly lower levels of stress and anxiety, and better moods than omnivores (29, 30, 31). Several factors could play into this, for example corrected hormone imbalances by not ingesting another living being’s hormones, or just the overall perceived sense of well-being and ‘doing right’ that many vegans experience.
–Sleep– people who follow a vegan diet get much better sleep, even those of whom have existing disadvantages to optimal sleep, such as Fibromyalgia patients (39, 41)
–Underlying inflammatory conditions such as Diabetes, Heart Disease, Arthritis, and Autoimmune conditions respond best to vegan diets than other diets (35, 36, 37, 38). A vegan diet regulates blood sugar levels better than the diet prescribed and endorsed by the American Diabetes Association (ADA), American Heart Association (AHA) and National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) (23, 25, 26, 27).
Wrapping it Up:
Ehlers Danlos Syndrome can effectively be called a condition of cyclic inflammation. The countless symptoms a Zebra can/does experience can either directly cause acute and chronic inflammation, or are a direct result of inflammation itself. This progression of negative feedback can lead to many other very scary and harmful conditions, making an already complicated condition that much more difficult to manage. Again, this is not exclusive to EDS by any means- an immeasurable amount of health conditions can result in these same patterns, leaving a great deal of the population at risk for greater morbidity and mortality.
With a complete lack of pharmaceutical treatment for Chronic Inflammation, the research demonstrates the gold standard and most effective measures to be lifestyle modifications and health-promoting behaviors as detailed above. Interestingly, a vegan diet naturally promotes and achieves virtually all of them. Science has established that by just eliminating animals and their byproducts from your diet, you will get better sleep, have better mental health, manage and prevent additional inflammatory conditions, achieve a more optimal weight, enjoy better dental health, have much more energy for physical performance, and so many more things that effectively eliminate and prevent Chronic Inflammation.
So, if you could achieve all of these things just by making a few very simple swaps in the kitchen, why wouldn’t you? It’s cheaper, healthier, and very easy to do. The most difficult part of going vegan truly is breaking up with the notion we were duped into believing, that animal products are necessary for survival. Millions of healthy, happy, thriving vegans are proof of that. Millions of people who have prevented, managed, and cured insane amounts of health conditions are just icing on the cake.
It is as simple as Hippocrates proclaimed ~ Let food be thy medicine. You can find those medicinal inflammation-fighting foods in this post, and this post, which together make over 30 recipes to get you on your path to healing.
If you wish to feel lively, vibrant, energetic, supple, and healthful, consume living, vibrant, energy-producing, and supple foods. Not dead, chemical and hormone laden, inflammatory-producing things. Your body is not a graveyard, and you certainly don’t want to feel like it is. Perhaps try to #govegan and explore some of these changes for yourself.
To learn more about going vegan, and how to make it as easy as pie, see what 14 experienced vegans have to say in this article.
If you have treated symptoms or a disease with a vegan diet, I would love to hear your story! Please drop me a comment below or on The Vegan Zebra Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter accounts, or even an email!
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***I am not a physician, nor am I prescribing a diet to follow for any condition you may/may not have. This article is simply to highlight the benefits a vegan diet has been shown capable of delivering. If you have any questions about what diet is right for you, seek the advice of your physician or a licensed dietician. Please see the policies and disclaimers for any additional information you seek regarding this disclaimer.***