April is Sjögren’s Awareness Month, and I am posting about it with only a few days to spare! To explain what this illness is I will leave it to the pros at the Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation.
“Sjögren’s is a chronic autoimmune disease in which people’s white blood cells attack their moisture-producing glands. Today, as many as four million Americans are living with this disease.”
I was diagnosed with Sjögren’s Syndrome in 2004 after waking one morning with my eyelids glued shut. It was terrifying at first, as I believed blurry vision would be my new way of life. Luckily, however, after my Ophthalmologist placed punctual plugs in my tear ducts, the dryness in my eyes improved. I still deal with dry, red eyes when challenged by fluorescent lighting or dry environments. And, I struggle with dry mouth and fatigue regularly. Yet, after a decade of living with this disease, I have uncovered many tips and tools for dealing with the dryness. I am happy to share them with you.
Dealing with Dry Mouth & Dry Eyes
1. Invest in A Portable Water Bottle
A good quality, “safe” water bottle is essential when dealing with dry mouth. When I say “safe” I mean BPA-free so you are not getting any unwanted chemicals, and easy-to-clean, so that it doesn’t harbor bacteria. Some of the narrow-mouthed bottles are so difficult to clean that they simply aren’t an ideal solution for long-term use. My favorite bottle is Camelbak’s “Eddy” model (which I have purchased at Target and Vitacost). It is virtually spill proof and has a sturdy, built-in carrying loop. Plus, its unique bite valve means you don’t even have to tip the bottle making it much easier to avoid spilling on yourself (a problem that admittedly happens far too often when I use my other favorite bottle from Klean Kanteen.)
2. Drink Only Sugar-Free Liquids
One of the biggest challenges of living with a dry mouth is that it puts your teeth at a serious disadvantage. Saliva protects our teeth and gums, and when there is not enough, cavities and gum disease can result. One of the best strategies to protecting your teeth is to avoid sugar, particularly sticky, gummy candies (which sadly are my favorite!) which can stay on the surface of teeth. The same is true for sugary liquids. Sipping anything with sugar exposes your mouth to a constant flood of that cavity-causer. Sticking with water, lots of it, is the best choice in maintaining a healthy mouth.
3. Keep Your Mouth Moist
Keeping your mouth as moist as possible is probably an obvious solution to dealing with dryness. But, what is not so obvious is how to achieve this when the very nature of Sjögren’s means that you don’t have enough saliva. Sometimes you must take artificial means to get the job done. Chewing sugar-free gum really seems to help keep saliva flowing, particularly when a water bottle is not nearby. Sugar-free lozenges designed for dry mouth can be particularly helpful too. I often use Xylimelts, which adhere to the roof of the mouth. I get these from Swanson Vitamins. At bedtime, I rinse with Biotene mouthwash and sometimes put a little Biotene gel on the roof of my mouth. I buy both products at a discount from Vitacost.com. [Links provide a discount for you, and me too, when you make a purchase.] Finally, I have taken to oil pulling on a regular basis. It is an Ayurveda treatment of swishing oil (sesame or coconut) in your mouth for 5- 10 minutes or longer. The oil is reported to help detoxify the mouth, while coating and soothing the dry tissue.
4. Limit Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine and alcohol are diuretics, which mean they make you lose water. Not the best choice when moisture is what you are after. I still love my wine and coffee, but I have noticed that my eyes and mouth become drier when I consume too much of either, so I make an effort to chase both with a little extra water. It also doesn’t hurt to increase my daily supplement of fish oil when I know that I am having an extra dry day. More on that up next.
5. Add Anti-inflammatory Foods and Supplements to Your Diet
Every illness has a component of inflammation to it, since that is the body’s natural response to attack whether it be from an injury or a foreign invader (like a virus or bacteria). Autoimmune conditions are particularly inflammatory in nature as autoimmunity is when the body’s immune cells attack its own healthy cells. In essence, autoimmune disease means that an individual is consistently in an inflammatory state. That is why the most effective treatments for autoimmune flare-ups are anti-inflammatory agents. There are medications that serve that purpose, but they tend to have serious side effects. Fortunately, there are many, wonderful foods and supplements that naturally carry anti-inflammatory properties such as:
- Foods with Omega 3 Fatty Acids – salmon, ground flaxseeds, chia seeds, fortified eggs.
- Fish Oil Supplements – The fish oil I take is from Carlson (Elite Omega-3 Gems) and is especially high in EPA & DHA.
- Spices – turmeric (curcumin), ginger, garlic, saffron, cinnamon, etc.
- Green Tea
- Cherry Juice or Dark Cherries
- Pineapple (bromelain)
This is by no means an exhaustive list. In general, most fruits, vegetables, and richly colored plant foods are high in the antioxidants that help to fight inflammation and oxidation.
6. Avoid Inflammatory Foods
The Standard American Diet (SAD) is unfortunately very high in foods that cause inflammation. The biggest culprits tend to be trans fats, saturated fats from animal products, sugar, white flour, and dairy. Gluten (from wheat, rye, oats and barley) also tends to be inflammatory, particularly for those with Celiac Disease. There is also some indication that the nightshade vegetables (peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, and cayenne) negatively impact certain individuals, particularly those who have arthritis or joint damage (a potential symptom of Sjögren’s). Keeping a journal of the foods you eat will enable you to make the connection between what you eat and how it makes you feel.
7. Use Eye Drops & A Warm Washcloth
When I was first diagnosed with Sjögren’s and my eyes were particularly sore and dry, I used artificial tears daily. In fact, I always kept a bottle of Systane or Similasan Dry Eye Relief on hand. However, as time has gone by, and I have gotten better about watching what I eat, my eyes have greatly improved. Likewise, a few years ago after learning about the homeopathic eye drop, Optique 1 (by Boiron), from The Graduate Institute Instructor, Dr. Lauri Grossman, my eyes really seemed to improve. [Again, I buy these drops from Vitacost or Swanson Vitamins.] Still, there are times when all my eyes really need is a rest. When that is the case, I soak a washcloth in warm water, lie down, and rest the warm, moist cloth over my eyes. A very simple solution, but a relaxing and rejuvenating one that works.
Sjögren’s Syndrome is undoubtedly a challenge. As with any autoimmune condition, and life in general, it will bring good and bad days. The trick is to work with your body, use the natural tools around you, and most of all give yourself the time to rest and recover when needed.
Need more information? The following sites can help:
• Sjögren’s Syndrome Foundation – www.sjogrens.org
• Reasonably Well – Living Well With Sjögren’s Syndrome – http://reasonablywell-julia.blogspot.com/