I suffer from an autoimmune disease called temporal arteritis, which is an inflammatory condition affecting the blood vessels that supply the head, eyes and optic nerves. I have been prescribed steroids, and want to know if it is possible to offset the side effects. I take a multivitamin and coenzyme Ql0 daily, and attend a yoga class most weeks.
When steroids were first introduced, they were considered ‘wonder drugs’ and used to treat all kinds of conditions, such as fever, poor immune system, joint pain, backache, meningitis, low blood pressure and anaemia. Then side effects began to be noticed. Since the side effects are directly related to the properties of steroids, let me explain a little bit about them first.
Steroids are one of the groups of hormones, the chemical messengers that control almost every function in your body. The steroid group is virtually all derived from cholesterol, either in your diet or synthesised in your body. Two well-known types of steroid are androgens (male hormones), including testosterone (mainly synthesised in the testes), and female oestrogens (mainly synthesised in the ovaries).
The adrenal glands, which are found just above each kidney, produce androgens (some of which may be converted to testosterone and oestrogen) and mineralocorticoids, which regulate levels of minerals and water in the body. The most important adrenal steroid is cortisol, popularly known as the stress hormone, because it triggers the principal stress reaction (in other words, the fight-or-flight response).
The problem occurs when normal physiological stress becomes pathological (harmful). When, for instance, you have to give a presentation to colleagues at work or have a confrontation with a neighbour, your brain and body might go through a stress reaction. But when the experience is over, everything returns to normal. In the case of pathological stress, the symptoms, such as racing heavy rapid breathing, tensed muscles, higher temperature and increased glucose consumption, continue even when the stressful event is over. So your body and mind become conditioned to living in a perpetual state of stress reaction.
Normally, the hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain (the headquarters of hormonal activity) release a stimulator hormone called ACTH, which turns on the adrenal glands to synthesise and produce cortisol. As soon as the level of cortisol is optimum for a particular stress situation, the pituitary-hypothalamus complex receives a ‘feedback’ response, prompting it to switch off production of ACTH; the adrenal activity then calms down.
The problem with taking steroid medication is that it can switch off the body’s natural steroids. Long-term high doses can cause permanent damage, as the adrenal tissue wastes away and stops functioning normally. Users may then become heavily dependent on external sources of steroids for the rest of their lives.
Other side effects of steroid drugs include the ‘moon face’ of the long-term user, caused by a redistribution of fat under the skin. Blood-sugar levels can rise with steroid use, leading to diabetes. It’s also linked to osteoporosis (bone loss), water retention and hot sweats. Since steroids are the ‘go-go’ hormones, they may cause agitation and disturbed sleep as your head buzzes continually. Formerly peaceful people can become aggressive.
Combating the side effects of steroid use is tough, as you are battling with a highly potent drug with multifaceted reactions. Sometimes you need them, especially in life-threatening situations such as shock (massive blood loss, for instance, leading to a drop in blood pressure), severe burns, asthma, inflammation of brain tissue (encephalitis, stroke), or when you are suffering from rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
A sympathetic and knowledgeable doctor will start with a higher dose, then wean you on to a lower one so that your own steroid production is minimally affected. It’s important to review the situation regularly and discuss alternatives to manage your condition and/or any disturbing symptoms. In your case, I would suggest acupuncture. Your supplements sound sensible and yoga is always beneficial.
Generally, patients on steroids should be looking to diet, massage and homoeopathy, as well as acupuncture. My Lifestyle DVD (Integrated Health) offers more information, including massage techniques, and my first book, The Integrated Health Bible, lists options for the safe treatment of various common ailments. Thus you can help your body to heal itself.