When Lauren Vaknine's ankles swelled up shortly before her second birthday, her doctor dismissed it as growing pains. But after several more doctor's appointments and a referral to a specialist hospital, Lauren was given a far more serious diagnosis: juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA)—a form of arthritis, or inflammation of the joints, that starts in childhood. It's thought to be an autoimmune condition, meaning the immune system attacks the body's own tissues.
"It was known as Still's disease back then," said Lauren, now 33 and living in Hertfordshire. "There's no known cause, and doctors didn't know what to do with me."
At the time, 1986, the only treatment available for juvenile idiopathic arthritis was steroids—in very high doses. But Lauren's parents were against the idea and decided instead to do their own research into alternative options.
"There was no internet, so my mom went to the library and read everything she could on childhood arthritis and alternative treatments," said Lauren. "She came across homeopathy and decided that was the way forward—even though she'd never heard of it before."
Unaware that homeopathy was available through the UK's National Health Service at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital (now known as the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine), Lauren's parents saved all they could and took her to see a private homeopathic dietitian in London, by which point the arthritis had spread to Lauren's knees.
"He put me on a strict diet of no gluten, dairy or acidic products," said Lauren. "And he gave me a homeopathic remedy to take."
Lauren's mom and dad followed the homeopathic dietitian's recommendations for Lauren, despite being accused of being bad parents who were damaging their daughter with 'voodoo.' After a month, they noticed the swelling start to improve.
Convinced, they managed to find a homeopath more local to them and stayed with that clinic for the next 14 years.
As she got older, the benefits of a holistic approach became more apparent to Lauren and her parents, who noticed big differences between Lauren and other children of the same age with JIA.
"I had a lot of friends with the same condition as me, as we went to group physiotherapy together," said Lauren. "Over the years, the other kids started to present with joint deformities, organ damage and hormone problems. A lot of the girls didn't get their periods. But I developed at a normal rate, and my joints remained free of damage."
Still, Lauren was by no means cured. She'd get flare-ups once or twice a year, when she'd have to take time off school, and couldn't do a lot of the fun physical activities her sister did, like skateboarding and roller skating.
She also suffered with uveitis, inflammation of the middle layer of the eye that's linked to JIA. For this she did use conventional medicine—daily steroid eye drops—but by the time she was 18 she could hardly see out of her affected eye.
"Tests showed that the eye drops and the years of inflammation in the eye had caused cataracts. They couldn't operate because there was too much activity in the eye, and they couldn't get the activity down because the cataracts were preventing this. It was a Catch-22."
Lauren was told that if she didn't want to lose her eye she would have to take strong medication—a chemotherapy agent and immune system suppressant called methotrexate. Lauren's parents weren't happy about it, but Lauren decided to take the drug. "I was 18 and thought I was an adult and that I knew best," said Lauren. "But the drug changed my life forever."
Before starting methotrexate, Lauren had very mild arthritis affecting just her ankles and knees. But after 10 months of taking the drug, the arthritis had spread to every single joint in her body. "I went rapidly downhill," said Lauren. "I ended up in a wheelchair and couldn't even go to the toilet on my own." Lauren also suffered with liver damage and hair loss, and after all that, her eye didn't improve.
Lauren's mom took her to see her rheumatologist, "who didn't even blink over the fact that I was in a wheelchair," said Lauren. "She told me the drug works for 70 percent of people and for 30 percent it doesn't. Unfortunately, I was in that 30 percent."
A new approach
Lauren decided then and there to never go back to that rheumatologist, to come off the drug and look for a different way to treat her condition. Her mom had a friend who had just undergone something called IPEC Therapy—Integrated Physical Emotional Clearing—with good results, so Lauren made the necessary arrangements to try the therapy for herself.
IPEC Therapy, developed by integrative psychotherapist Dr Uri Kenig in 1997, is a holistic treatment approach combining knowledge and interventions from the fields of psychology, energy therapy, oriental medicine (acupuncture), kinesiology and other therapies. According to the official website, it "offers relief and elimination of a wide range of physical and psychological problems by addressing inner causes for outer symptoms, working with the energy system within our body" (www.ipectherapy.com).
Lauren's parents had to get a loan to enable her to go to Israel to have the therapy—but it was worth it, she said. "After three weeks I bought a bike and started riding it. After three months I felt normal again."
After five months in Israel, Lauren returned to the UK feeling healthy again—and without the need of a wheelchair. She was able to get a job, go out with friends and live a relatively normal life.
However, within a year "it all came back," said Lauren. "I was partying, not eating healthily and not really taking care of myself," she said. "That's when I realized that I had to take responsibility for my own health."
Piecing it together
Lauren began to do as much research as she could about her condition and educate herself about nutrition. Although her parents put her on a strict diet when she was young, she mostly ate whatever she liked when she got older and didn't appreciate the importance of nutrition.
"I started to take my diet very seriously," said Lauren. "I avoided gluten, dairy and sugar and ate only organic, non-processed food."
Lauren also returned to homeopathy, and was eventually referred to the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, where she saw a homeopathic rheumatologist. She was treated by him and other specialists there—including a homeopathic podiatrist, a dietitian and a cognitive behavior therapist—for five years, during which time she saw considerable improvements in her health. Later, Lauren added kinesiology and craniosacral therapy to her list of holistic treatments, which helped further, she said.
But it wasn't until she was nearly 30 that Lauren found the "missing piece of the puzzle." She discovered that she had an inherited mutation in the MTHFR (methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase) gene, after getting tested while trying to start a family.
The MTHFR gene is supposed to produce the MTHFR enzyme, which is involved in folate metabolism and DNA synthesis. Having a particular mutation or 'polymorphism' of this gene can mean your body has trouble converting essential nutrients from the diet into active vitamins, minerals and proteins. And taking the synthetic form of folate, folic acid—as recommended before and during pregnancy—can actually make things worse.
"Luckily, I found out before it was too late," said Lauren. "I made sure I took methylfolate instead of folic acid supplements."
This MTHFR polymorphism can also mean the body has difficulty detoxifying, said Lauren, and it has been linked to a variety of chronic conditions from high blood pressure to certain types of cancer.1 In fact, a recent study found that an MTHFR gene polymorphism was associated with an increased risk of toxicity from the drug methotrexate—the same drug Lauren was treated with—among rheumatoid arthritis sufferers.2 This could explain why Lauren had such a terrible reaction to the drug.
After her discovery, Lauren tried to reduce her exposure to potentially toxic chemicals as much as possible. She switched her regular toothpaste to a fluoride-free alternative, ditched her chemical-laden cosmetics, toiletries and cleaning products for natural ones and started drinking only purified water. She also worked with a naturopath who advised her on beneficial foods and supplements for her specific condition. Ultimately, this individualized, multi-pronged approach put Lauren on the road to recovery.
Hard work pays off
Today, Lauren is proud to say she's in full remission. She's a fit and healthy mom-of-one who's able to work, exercise and live her life free of pain. There's no sign of the arthritis returning, although Lauren says she's not 'cured.' "It will always be in my body. It's about constant maintenance."
Lauren's uveitis also went into remission three months after stopping the steroid eye drops she'd been on for nearly three decades. Before that she had to have an operation to remove the lens in her eye due to all the damage, but since stopping the drops she's had no more flare-ups in her eye.
Lauren now spends her time helping others with health problems. She's set up a website sharing healthy recipes and lifestyle advice (www.organicspoon.co.uk) and has even written a book about her health journey, called My Enemy, My Friend. Lauren is also a trustee of the British Homeopathic Association, a patient ambassador for the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and a parliamentary ambassador for juvenile arthritis.
"One thing I want to make clear to people is that it's not as simple as 'Do this, and you'll be cured.' It's really hard work, it takes time and it's a lifelong commitment. But look how far
Lauren's daily diet
To keep her arthritis at bay, Lauren follows a mainly vegan diet that's also free of sugar and gluten. Here are some examples of what Lauren typically eats.
Breakfast: green vegetable juice (three times a week); superfood smoothie including ingredients like peanut butter, chia seeds, almond milk and banana; buckwheat pancakes or gluten-free oats with almond milk
Lunch: vegetable stir fry or curry (see box, page 70); gluten-free bread with avocado and vegetables; scrambled or boiled eggs (organic and free range) with salad and smoked salmon (sustainably caught)
Dinner: vegetable stir fry, curry or casserole; fish pie; tuna Niçoise salad; veggie burgers with sweet potato fries and salad
Snacks: fruit; carrots with homemade hummus or tahini; homemade sugar-free sweet treats like 'quinoa crunch bars' (see www.organicspoon.co.uk)
Drinks: Hot water with lemon and apple cider vinegar on waking; herbal tea at bedtime; about 2½ quarts of purified water throughout the day
Dietary supplements: vitamins B12, C, D and K2; probiotics, curcumin
Sweet potato coconut curry
Here's one of Lauren's nutrient-rich dinner recipes from her website, Organic Spoon (www.organicspoon.co.uk).
1 butternut squash
2-3 sweet potatoes
1 head cauliflower
Drizzle of olive oil
1 tsp coconut oil
2 onions, chopped
3-4 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbsp lemongrass paste
½ cup vegetable stock
2 cans coconut milk (full fat)
2 stalks lemongrass
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp cumin
Pinch of paprika
Himalayan salt & black pepper to taste
Cilantro, parsley, chili flakes and pistachios to garnish (all optional depending on preference)
1) Preheat the oven to 350°F.
2) Peel and chop the butternut squash and sweet potatoes, and cut the cauliflower into florets. Place them on an oven tray with a pinch each of salt, cumin and paprika and a drizzle of olive oil. Use your hands to make sure the veggies are fully coated, then put the tray in the oven for around 30 minutes, or until starting to turn golden. Mix half way through.
3) While the vegetables are in the oven, heat some coconut oil in a large pan, add the onion and garlic and sweat over a low heat until the onions start to become soft and translucent. Once this happens, add the lemongrass paste and continue to sweat over a low heat. This could take up to 15 minutes.
4) Take the veggies out of the oven and add to the pan, coating in the oil and paste, and then add the coconut milk, stock, lemongrass stalks, cumin, turmeric, salt and pepper. Mix well, then leave to simmer for around an hour, stirring often to stop it from sticking.
5) Once ready, remove the lemongrass stalks and mix in, or garnish with, the cilantro, parsley, chili flakes and pistachios. Serve with brown rice.
Lauren's book My Enemy, My Friend
(self-published, 2010) is available on Amazon