Cold weather can be hazardous to compromised immune systems


When we think of cold weather and health, some things that comes to mind might be the flu, colds, strep throat. In the winter months, these illness are most prevalent, and they can wreak havoc on those with compromised immune systems.

Chances are, you know someone who has a condition, such as lupus or cancer, that makes it difficult for them to fight off even the common cold. When their white blood cell counts get low, their physicians may tell them to avoid contact with others to help stave off infection. While this is a good idea, in the long run it may be hazardous to their emotional well-being.

Teresa Deshields, the manager of psycho-oncology services at Siteman Cancer Center, was recently interviewed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in an article addressing patients who are more susceptible to infections. She has a different outlook on why, and how, patients can keep up their social activities and families and friends can offer social support – and it’s this support that can help patients to have better medical outcomes.

To read more about this timely topic, go here.

Venus Williams diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome


The sports world got a jolt today with the announcement that tennis star Venus Williams has been diagnosed with Sjögren’s syndrome. 

Sjögren’s syndrome is an autoimmune disease that comes with many painful and irritating symptoms – inflammation of the salivary glands and tear ducts, joint pain, fatigue, and dry mouth,  dry eyes and myalgia (muscle pain).

Many people have not heard of Sjögren’s syndrome. I hadn’t until a family member was diagnosed with it last fall.

It’s not an uncommon disease, but it’s often difficult to diagnose as it masks as other diseases such as lupus. Sjögren’s syndrome can often go on to become lupus, and there’s no known way to prevent that from happening.

Also, there’s no known cause for Sjögren’s syndrome – there’s thought to be genetic and environment factors that trigger the disease, but no real connection has been found. It’s most prevalent in women, and a study by the Mayo clinic reports that about 1% of the nation may be affected.

I’ve seen the effects of this disease first-hand, and it can be both physically and mentally debilitating. It took many months for my relative to be diagnosed, and during that time she experienced terrible mouth ulcers, joint pain that made it difficult to walk or even get out of bed, dry and red eyes, and extreme fatigue.

The symptoms came on very fast – her life changed drastically within a few days time and hasn’t been the same since. Some days she couldn’t raise her arms to get dressed, the pain was so bad. Upon starting treatment, the symptoms have fluctuated and become less severe, but have yet to go away completely.

Upon diagnosis, she moved here to St. Louis so that she could be closer to family, and as it happens, one of the leading Sjögren’s syndrome physicians in the country, Dr. Richard Brasington, is here at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. A Washington University rheumatologist and an expert on Sjögren’s syndrome, Dr. Brasington has helped treat many patients diagnosed with this disease.

It’s difficult to watch someone you love live with a disease like Sjögren’s syndrome. My hope is that Ms. Williams’ disease is treatable and that she can continue on with a normal, active life.


New treatment for lupus, first in 50 years


Do you know someone with lupus? If so, you probably are familiar with how wretched this autoimmune disorder is. It’s a life-altering diagnosis which is very difficult to treat.

Lupus patients received some good news this week with the announcement that the first new lupus drug in over 50 years, called Benlysta, had been approved by the FDA.

This is amazing news for lupus sufferers, considering how devastating this disease is. Lupus is a potentially life-threatening disease in which the body’s immune system attacks healthy tissue for no reason. This can lead to joint pain similar to debilitating arthritis, organ damage and painful skin rashes. As it stands, prednisone is the main type of treatment, which is a steroid that comes with major side effects. It’s almost a “darned if you do, darned if you don’t” scenario when it comes to living with lupus or treating it.

So to learn that there will be a new drug to treat lupus, which has been 20+ years in the making, is wonderful news.

To learn more go here.


Gluten free options for a festive and safe holiday


A big family holiday dinner can take a lot of work and planning. And when certain foods can actually be hazardous to your health, the planning becomes infinitely more important.

Christmas dinner has always been the gustatory event of the year in my family. Thanksgiving is big, but we pull out all the stops for Christmas. Yes, there’s the traditional Christmas ham, but we also cook the traditional Italian dishes we’ve eaten since we were kids. Spedini, lasagna, cannoli, garlic bread and assorted Italian cookies.

The problem in the last few years is that several members of my family have been diagnosed with celiac disease. People may know this better as “gluten intolerance,” and some people mistakenly think it’s a wheat allergy.

But true celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disorder in which the lining of a person’s intestines is damaged when they eat a protein found in wheat called “gluten.”

Celiac disease is associated with other autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and systemic lupus – which also run in our family.

The symptoms can be relatively mild – cramping, constipation, diarrhea, dermatitis. Or they can be quite serious – anemia, osteoporosis, malnutrition, vitamin deficiency.

The only definitive way to diagnose celiac disease is through a biopsy of the intestinal lining. Blood tests aren’t as accurate.

So, what does this do to a traditionally carb – and wheat-heavy meal? On the down side, it makes planning a little more difficult and some of the ingredients can be a lot more expensive.

But our family has tried to look on the bright side and use dietary restrictions to make the meal healthier and make us more mindful of what we’re shoving in our mouths.

For instance, our grandparents’ version of spedini included a lot of bread crumbs stuffed in and coating thin pieces of beef. My sister-in-law makes a version with about half the amount of stuffing and uses gluten-free crumbs that are now found in the specialty aisle of the supermarket. For the past several years, her gluten-free spedinis have won the unofficial spedini taste test (and she’s not even Italian!).

My sister does her special jello and pretzel salad (yeah, it’s weird and not traditional, but we love it) using rice pretzels.

For a side dish, instead of spaghetti with marinara sauce, I’m roasting seasonal vegetables – onions, winter squash, potatoes – with a sprinkle of salt, a drizzle of olive oil and lemon and dusting of parmesan on the top. I’m going to head to Local Harvest grocery tomorrow to get as much locally grown produce as possible.

My other sister still does cannoli, but buys gluten free pastry tubes. With cannoli, at least the ones my sister makes with fabulous filling, no one notices the pastry anyway.

My sister with celiac disease enjoying a gluten-free piece of pizza

And until you’ve cooked for someone with celiac disease, you don’t realize how much gluten is hidden in things like mushroom soup, commercial salad dressings and even soy sauce.

I think the real difference is that none of us takes a bite of anything without thinking about it first. “Does this have any hidden gluten?” “Is this food going to hurt me?” “Do I want this enough to put up with some disgestive discomfort?” (The answer when it comes to some of the Italian cookies is “yes.”) We don’t do as much thoughtless eating. We appreciate what we do put in our mouths.

So, what could be a real drag on our holiday spirit turns out to be a good thing – we all work together to make sure that everyone in the family is having a healthy, happy holiday. And isn’t that something to celebrate?

-Kathy Holleman

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