As the owner of a small baking business, I wondered how I could ever give up sugar. Here’s what I discovered when I did.
It began with one magical thought: Maybe a little sugar every now and then isn’t that bad for you. It was one of those lonely nights in the second year of the pandemic when I was up late and halfway through a glass of red wine.
I went down the proverbial online rabbit hole hoping to find out if eating sugar could be aggravating my stiff fingers and aching heels. I was hoping my recent diagnosis of psoriatic arthritis was not a call to give up chocolate croissants or butterscotch pot de creme.
What I discovered was a report from the NIH. Several laboratory studies with mice indicated that PsA and IBS may be related and that they were both, if not caused by, then certainly greatly exacerbated by dysbiosis: a gut microbiome terribly out of balance.
The recommendation to rebalance this ocean of bacteria living inside our guts? Approximately 3–6 months of avoiding not only sugar but gluten, all red (and processed) meats, alcohol, and dairy.
The evidence was very convincing: controlled studies in several countries were able to induce psoriasis — and also reverse it — by dramatically altering the microbiomes of those poor little vermin.
The conclusions admitted that more research needed to be done but suggested it could be possible to reduce psoriasis and IBS — even send mice into remission — by avoiding inflammatory foods, rebalancing the gut, and keeping all future ingestion to a minimum.
I felt two ways about this: On the one hand, there was hope. Though I knew the immune-suppressant drugs prescribed for PsA can be immensely helpful; I also knew that the side effects can be serious. I was still able to control flares with anti-inflammatories, so my rheumatologist didn’t feel I was an ideal candidate for those drugs yet.
If changing my diet could help me avoid those drugs and control a challenging disease, I was willing to do it. On the other hand, my future enjoyment of food looked dismal. And as the owner of a small baking business, I wondered how I could ever give up sugar.
Then I remembered my sister’s friend, Thomas. For years he dealt with psoriatic plaques on his arms and legs, developing psoriatic arthritis later in life. About 3 weeks before he began treatment with Humira, a nurse practitioner advised him to avoid foods that might contribute to his flares, and number one was sugar.
“I stopped eating anything that contained sugar and stopped drinking wine,” he confessed, “and for the first time in over 20 years, my plaques disappeared.”
I thought about his story as I began my own experiment in September of 2022. News about anti-inflammatory diets was popping up everywhere. I read about reversing dysbiosis and rebuilding the microbiome by changing your diet and avoiding the foods mentioned above, especially sugar.
But I come from a big Italian family, and most of my friends are in the food and wine business: drinking and eating are part of my relationship with everyone I love. With the winter holidays approaching, committing to 3 months of dietary changes felt challenging.
I didn’t want to be the only person at the table who couldn’t share a bottle of wine or enjoy a homemade pie. I only had 2 months before celebrations with friends and family began, so I made a commitment.
Before I made these changes, I discovered a microbiome home test kit by a company called Biohm.
Home test kits are incomparable to tests from your doctor’s office, but they can give you a solid reading of your gut bacteria population.
Research on microbiome testing is still in the early stages. At this time, there are no formal medical recommendations for home microbiome tests, and they are not approved by the FDA. While microbiome testing may be a potential option for learning more about your gut health, consult with your doctor to determine if it’s a good fit for you and to discuss results.
My microbiome score before the diet change was a 3 out of 10. The beneficial and less beneficial bacteria in my gut (the “good” and the “bad” bacteria) were way out of balance. So I decided to stay on the anti-inflammatory diet for 60 days (until Thanksgiving) and retest again.
For 2 months I ate no dessert nor added sugar to my coffee (I mostly drank green tea). I sipped sparkling water while others enjoyed pinot noir and searched local grocery store shelves for gluten-free crackers. I even discovered a few tasty vegan cheeses, but mostly, I ate like a monk, and I took a hiatus from baking.
Within 2 weeks, I felt a major reduction in gas and bloating, which I had always chalked up to aging or overeating. I lost weight, found I slept better, and any skin patches of psoriasis disappeared. Most importantly, for the first time in years, I had entire days without pain.
Right before Thanksgiving, I ordered another Biohm test. This time the results revealed a 9 out of 10 rating, a dramatic shift. I wasn’t surprised because I could feel the difference in my body, but the test results were a satisfying confirmation of the studies I had discovered months earlier.
As more holidays rolled around, I tried to stay as close to the diet as possible, but it wasn’t long before I was drinking wine and eating sweets again. And many of my psoriatic symptoms returned.
Currently, I try to follow this diet 90% of the time, though parties and dining out can be challenging. It takes some planning ahead: I usually read the restaurant menu online and decide what to have before I leave the house, and because clear liquors have no sugar, I occasionally enjoy a simple cocktail.
I’ve also created new baking recipes with less sugar or no refined sugar at all. And while I admit nothing can replace processed sugar, eating pan cookies sweetened with dates and dried apricots is actually quite satisfying.
I haven’t sent my PsA into remission, but when I’m consistent about my new diet, regular stretching, and daily walks. I have minimal stiffness and pain.
It all feels manageable, even empowering. So much of PsA is beyond our control, but this is one way we may be able to reclaim some agency over our bodies. Do I miss sugar and wine? Sure. And I allow myself to have a little sometimes.
If the tradeoff is longer periods between flares and less daily discomfort, I can tell you from personal experience that eating this way is worth it. I encourage you to give it a try.
Medically reviewed on September 29, 2023
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