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Life With RA: Juicing To Relieve Pain

LIFE WITH RA SERIES
Article # 3

by Lu Sobredo

This photo essay has been a work in progress for over a year. It fits nicely as the third in my new series of posts called Life With RA. The essay is sprinkled with a brief background about my health challenge, select number juicing recipes and touches of gratitude.

I was starting to enjoy early retirement after a long term career in public service. In 2013, less than a year later, a vacation in Asia was interrupted by a nagging pain on my right knee at first. Just as I was starting the next chapter of life, never did I imagine that I would be diagnosed with a crippling illness. Nor did I conceive that during the debilitating progression of this painful autoimmune disease called Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), I would find comfort in simple treats like fruit and vegetable smoothies. The smoothie drinks were refreshing, and overtime they seemed to have helped ease my body’s increasing inflammation and pain. I have no scientific proof, only anecdotal tidbits from personal experience. 


SYMPTOMS & TREATMENT OPTIONS TRIED 


When I returned home from my visit to Asia and the pain in my joints wouldn’t go away in early 2013, I tried alternative treatment and healing approaches. Symptoms ranged from throbbing pain, tingling, stiffness and fatigue in my joints. I also experienced irritating tenderness to the touch, decreasing mobility mostly to my right knee at first, then both knees, ankles and wrists. The symptoms remained undiagnosed for four months. Once the diagnosis was confirmed, another four months went by before I successfully connected with an RA specialist I could trust. (Find out more in my essay: Travel and Why Not?).

In the meantime, I had to try something to relieve the pain. Perhaps something that would reduce other signs of this illness that made me less and less mobile. I remembered the effectiveness of physical therapy when I injured my right shoulder while still in the workplace. So I tried three months of twice-a-week visit to my physical therapist. The positive effect was sporadic. The symptoms did not go away. The swelling in my right knee worsened. 

My primary care physician referred me to an acupuncturist. My east-west medical practitioner put me on herbal medicine along with the acupuncture treatment. I tried acupuncture for about three months during a time when my health insurance did not cover alternative treatment. I felt relaxed during and after each acupuncture session, but the agony from throbbing pain and decreasing mobility remained. In fact, the symptoms intensified. 

Another medical referral seemed appropriate, this time to an orthopedic specialist. After all, I had returned from a five-week vacation in Asia when the symptoms surfaced. Maybe, I tore a ligament during difficult treks. Or the swollen joints became worse as I struggled navigating the long bus rides, ferry and other transportation common in a third world country. 

While medical care providers tried to narrow down what could be wrong with me, I desperately sought ways to relieve the pain. Why not change my eating habits? I told myself: go vegetarian. What if I eased into the routine of giving up anything meat (which I don’t eat much of anyway)? So, I only ate fish for most meals. But the rest of the meals consisted of vegetables, fruits and nuts. I maintained this eating strategy for more than one year. 

I even dabbled in learning about ayurvedic medicine, the ancient approach to healing the body. If not for my Punjabi friend who runs an Indian Restaurant in my hometown, I would not have considered an Ayurvedic approach to medical treatment. She loaned me a book on the subject. I tore through the pages like a starving child. Definition of Ayurveda: “a form of alternative medicine that is the traditional system of medicine of India and seeks to treat and integrate body, mind, and spirit using a comprehensive holistic approach especially by emphasizing diet, herbal remedies, exercise, mediation, breathing and physical therapy.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/Ayurveda. Web, 20 October 2017). 

But my disease had advanced so far that I could not risk waiting another few months to locate an ayurvedic practitioner near my residence. I did not pursue this alternative treatment any further. And too complex to explain beyond the definition, this essay will not include any substantive information on ayurveda.

WHY I TURNED TO JUICING

Although I now know that what I have is an autoimmune disease, and sadly I also know that this is a chronic illness. RA has no cure. Medical experts told me that the possible causes could be genetic, environmental, and stress-related. No one knows for sure. I had a distant relative, an older cousin thrice removed who suffered from crippling RA, but none of my immediate family members did. I could blame the environment which includes toxins in the air, and in our food especially in highly processed food. But I surmised that the potential primary culprit in my case is STRESS from the work environment in particular and life events in general. Grateful that I gracefully exited from my career in public service before I knew I had RA. Extra grateful I did so before I became irrevocably crippled.  

The year before my RA symptoms threatened to overwhelm my body (which eventually it did) my dear friend Prosy Delacruz introduced me to juicing. She and her husband Enrique are avid practitioners of the art of juicing. When visiting them in 2012, I tried the organic concoction lovingly prepared in their kitchen. It was not bad. Prosy explained that the drink would act as a cleansing agent for the body. And my body responded accordingly.

I remembered reading about how the body needs occasional cleansing of the toxins it accumulates from the environment and from the food we eat. What if my pained body condition is partially the result of the toxins my body carries around? 

Encouragement from Prosy Delacruz early on that I compile my notes on the various health remedies I used, has made this essay possible. Four years later, I decided to create this photo essay about how I turned to a more healthy eating to help relieve pain resulting from RA. This photo essay focuses on the different fruit and vegetable juices—smoothies I have made during the course of two years. 

Drinking smoothies did not take away RA symptoms. But smoothies helped me feel better while I feverishly tried to find the doctor who eventually made it possible for me to become functional again. I never regained my normal functioning. But my new normal of functionality is something I celebrate. And I am convinced that my version of juicing has helped keep down inflammation. An improved functionality is a phase of the illness when RA symptoms are not as active. For someone who lives with pain because of RA, that is worth everything. When inflammation is diminished, so is the pain. Besides, the fruit and vegetable smoothies I prepare are delicious. They are perfect for powering up before heading to the gym for  aqua aerobics in the morning. And I find them a healthy choice for an afternoon refreshment.

FAVORITE SMOOTHIE RECIPES

When preparing a dish or a meal in the kitchen, I do my best to refrain from following recipes precisely. This contrasts from how I learned cooking from my elders, especially from Auntie Lucia T. Silverio. For Auntie Lucy (lovingly addressed as "mama"), cooking was a spiritually meditative ritual. Experimentation is more my style, something I gained from watching my mother improvise and cook mainly from the heart. Of course, there are risks from improvising. From her own lips, my late mother often told of how she botched up a cake she baked for her male cousins. The cake came out hard enough to use as weapon—her male cousin’s cruel description. Mom was the first to laugh at her own mishap in the kitchen. But when experimentation brought success, it was absolute magic! 

In making my smoothie concoction, I use a mixture of ingredients that compliment each other to achieve desired flavors. One has to try really hard to mess up. I focus on creating something delicious in which the amount of particular ingredients could be adjusted based on desired taste: adding, reducing or eliminating an item altogether.

For example, I like the taste of pineapple. Pineapple is also known for its anti-toxin qualities. So, I use it with almost every type of fruit and vegetable in my smoothies. 

The resulting dominant color of the smoothie is influenced by fruits and vegetables that are plentiful in my refrigerator. Any special addition, such as Greek Yogurt, organic honey or protein powder, is optional for days when I need to power up or enhance my energy in preparation for my aqua aerobics or chair yoga. My go-to vegetables range from spinach or kale, cucumbers of all kinds (including Persian and English cucumbers), celery, beets, fennel, zucchini and whatever I could find in the refrigerator that would add flavor or bulk. 

The amount of fruit and vegetable indicated in my recipes are suggestions only. I name my recipe based on the dominant fruit or vegetable that gives the particular smoothie its unique color. I vary the amount of fruits and other ingredients depending on what’s available at home, and whatever my tastebuds had a yen for that day. 

I don’t have hard and fast rules for making smoothie, except if using all fresh fruits only, add a handful of ice cubes to give it that smoothie feel and taste. For convenience, I reach for frozen strawberries, pineapple, and/or mango and combine with fresh ingredients. I tend to use coconut water, fruit juice, coconut milk or just filtered water to the mixture. If adding water, I tend to add fruit yogurt or honey to boost sweetness. I use a blender, but if you prefer, there are juicers in the market if using fresh items. I usually make enough for 2 - 3 glasses to share with family. Do drink the mixture within 15 to 20 minutes after making. As I understand from all I’ve read about juicing, not only does the consistency change, so does the sugar content if left sitting too long before consuming. The longer the mixture sits, the resulting sugar is not as healthy for you. For all of the recipes, you could add more of the liquid to make blending easy. 

12 Smoothie Recipes

1.   MANGO BANANA PROTEIN SMOOTHIE

1 mango (no seed) or frozen mango cubes (6-8 pieces)
1 small banana
1/2 Persian cucumber
1/2 cup fresh or 3-6 frozen strawberries
1 - 1 1/2 cup coconut water
1 tablespoon protein powder



2.  CARROT STRAWBERRY SMOOTHIE

1 small or medium carrot (sliced)
1/2 cup fresh or 3-5 frozen strawberries
1 small banana
2 stalks celery (cut in pieces)
1/4 cup pineapple
1 cup orange juice or a mixture of tropical juices



3. PINEAPPLE STRAWBERRY SMOOTHIE

1/3 cup of frozen pineapples
2 tablespoons protein powder
1 small banana
3 - 5 cubes of frozen mango
1/4 cup frozen strawberries
1/2 cup of sliced cucumbers (peeled)
1 - 1 1/2 cup coconut water



4. BEETS CUCUMBER SMOOTHIE

1/3 cup of freshly cooked/cooled or canned beets
1 small banana
1 Persian cucumber 
1/4 cup frozen pineapple
1/3 cup frozen strawberry
1 - 1 1/2 cup coconut water



5. SPINACH BANANA SMOOTHIE

1/2 cup blueberries
1 banana
1 cup spinach
1/2 cup frozen pineapple
2 tablespoon protein powder
1 - 1 1/2 cups coconut water 



6. BLUEBERRY ZUCCHINI SMOOTHIE

1/2 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1 small banana
1 stalk celery
3-4 twigs of cilantro
1/4 cup zucchini
1/4 cup pineapple
1 tablespoon protein powder
1-2 cups coconut water


7. PAPAYA MANGO SMOOTHIE

1/2 papaya—1/2 cup papaya
1 fresh mango or 3-5 cubes frozen mango
1/3 cup frozen pineapple
1/4 cup cucumbers
1 - 1 1/2 cups coconut water



8. CANTALOUPE MELON FENNEL SMOOTHIE

1 cup of cubed cantaloupe melon 
3 or more pieces of fennel
1/4 cup pineapple
3-4 frozen strawberries
1 banana
1 - 1 1/2 cups coconut water 



9. GRAPE SPINACH SMOOTHIE

1/2 cup green seedless grapes
1/2 cup spinach
1 Persian cucumber
1 small banana
1/3 cup pineapple
1 tablespoon Protein powder
1 - 1 1/2 cups coconut water



10. BLUEBERRY BANANA SMOOTHIE

1/4 cup or handful blueberries
1 small cucumber
1 small banana
1/4 cup pineapple
2 tablespoons plain Greek yogurt
1 cup coconut water.



11. BANANA MANGO SMOOTHIE

1 small banana
1/4 cup or 3-5 frozen strawberries
1 small mango or 5 frozen mango cubes
1/4 cup pineapple
1 tablespoon protein powder
1 cup coconut water



12. CHERRY STRAWBERRIES SMOOTHIE

1/2 cup cherries (without the pits)
1 small banana
1/4 cup or 3-5 frozen strawberries
1 Persian cucumber
1 tablespoon protein powder
1/2 - 1 cup coconut milk

ADDED BENEFIT

Unexpected benefit from drinking fruit/vegetable smoothies? Smoothies have helped counteract some of the occasional side effects brought on by RA medications I take or inject. These medications are meant to slow down or hopefully halt potential damage to the body. But they can be viciously potent to the system with no guarantee they would work. Side effects include but not limited to bloating, nausea, queasiness and just plain fatigue. Of course, smoothies don't stop any negative effects that medications might have on the liver and other internal organs. I have been lucky so far that negative effects on my internal organs have been under control. Staying vigilant with periodic blood tests is a wise action by my doctor. Smoothies that bring a smile to my face and add bounce to my step, precious.

When making these recipes feel free to improvise or adjust the amount of ingredients. Better yet, make up your own concoction. Be adventurous, experiment and find just the perfect blend of consistency and convenience for your go-to smoothie. Smoothie might not take away everyone's physical pain; it helped me cope with mine. But you never know what benefit it could bring. 

Bon appetit and a cheerful toast for a magical road to health!

© Essay: Lu Sobredo
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: A special thank you to beloved Prosy Delacruz who is a loving sister/friend, mother/advisor, mentor/teacher. She is an inspiration to everything artistic, culinary, literary and spiritually transformative. A journalist for Asian Journal in the U.S., she is also author of Even The Rainbow Has A Body: Distinct Artistic Legacies. Per Prosy, the book “celebrates the contributions of over 30 Filipino Americans to the artistic world and greater good in society.” 







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