Maybe it’s not the peroxide

It's hard to see the light on brain-fog days.

It’s hard to see the light on brain-fog days.

Ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you that sometimes I can be a little ‘vague’.

Like the time I confused my nephews’ birthdays and the older boy received a present from me on his brother’s birthday.

Or the time I came home from a two-week holiday to find my front door unlocked.

Luckily, The Absent-minded Aunty lives in a secure unit block.

Sometimes it takes a while for things to sink in or I have trouble finding a word or even stringing a sentence together.

This can be a tad embarrassing because I make my living as an expert communicator.

Back in the day I blamed the late night partying.

Nowadays I blame the long working week, too much late night TV or whatever myriad things I’m worried about.

I’ve even blamed the peroxide that makes me a blond.

That was until I read a post about ‘brain fog’ on Swell Gals, a Facebook group for women with arthritis.

It appeared my vagueness, a.k.a. brain fog, might be connected to my rheumatoid arthritis (RA).

A consultation with Dr Google revealed that while brain fog wasn’t a medical term, many people with RA experienced thinking and memory difficulties.

The possible, but unproven, causes of brain fog include:

• cardiovascular disease risk factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking and obesity
• depression
• fatigue
• oral corticosteroids
• pain.

Coffee and a couple of Tim Tams may be good, instant fixes for brain fog but I’ve found once I hit the sugar slump, my concentration deteriorates.

Better, longer-term remedies include:

• a full night’s sleep. Inflammation or a bad night’s sleep can make you feel tired and fatigued. Keep your bedroom cool, dark and comfortable, and avoid caffeine and alcohol. Use a pillow that supports your neck and a comfortable mattress that isn’t too soft or too hard. See your doctor if you need help with pain management, sleep medication or better sleeping habits.

• exercise. Research shows that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise helps you to think better but don’t work out too close to bedtime because it can make you too energized to sleep. Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist about the best exercises for you.

• a well-balanced diet. A diet low in saturated fats, high in fibre and including fruit and vegetables is vital to maintaining a healthy weight and overall wellbeing.

• good emotional health. Talk to your doctor if you often feel depressed or anxious.

• well managed cardiovascular disease, if you have it. If you have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, work with your doctor to lower your numbers.

• organisation. Write down important meetings, events, and to-do list tasks in a day planner or in your smart phone or tablet. Try to save the most brain-intensive tasks for times of the day when you know you’re most alert.

• ask your doctor how you can keep or improve your brain power. Tactics may include programs or activities that help your memory.

10 Arthur-related Q&As

As my solo departure for a distant land approaches, I’m reminded of the inevitable questions I’m asked when strangers notice the manifestation of my constant companion Arthur: my dodgy hands and feet.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather people ask me questions than stare because they don’t want to be intrusive or offend me. I get a bit paranoid when people stare.

So just in case you’re curious, these are the answers I usually give to the 10 questions I’m most asked about my experience with rheumatoid arthritis (RA):

1. Does it hurt/do you get much pain?

Pain has different degrees. I always have some degree of pain, usually minor, which I can ignore. For example, if I let myself think about it, the ball of my foot behind my big toe feels sore where it rests on the carpet but it’s not worth whingeing about. Luckily I don’t have too much pain of the highest degree where it hurts to breathe, move or get out of bed, let alone whinge.

2. Do you take any drugs?

I’m on that many pills and complementary medicines to minimise pain, swelling, stiffness and deformity it’s lucky I don’t rattle when I walk. I’ve been taking a combination of methotrexate, plaquenil, prednisone, arava, folic acid, actonel and somac for quite some time. My rheumatologist and I have discussed switching to biological drugs if/when this combination is no longer effective in controlling my RA.

3. Have you tried alternative medicine/therapies?

Yes. Not long after I was first diagnosed with Juvenile RA in the late ’70s, my parents took me to a specialist in Chinese medicine for an alternative treatment to the 12 dispirin a day prescribed by my GP. They were worried about the serious side effects of taking so many painkillers. Arthur was content on the herbal concoction for a long while but after a serious flare-up, my mum sought help from another GP. In consultation with the closest rheumatologist 500km away, Arthur was brought under control with a combination of steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

I know every medicine has side effects but for me the risks are outweighed by reduced pain, swelling, stiffness and deformity. I keep informed about the drugs I’m taking and have regular check ups with my specialist. Some people swear by non-medical treatment but I’d need more proof of its effectiveness before I quit medication that is working well for me.

4. Are you on a special diet?

No. I’ve heard ‘nightshade’ foods such as tomato, potato, eggplant or cucumber can aggravate RA but over the years I’ve had no problem with anything edible. I try to eat healthily from all the food groups. Of course if research proves certain foods are better avoided, I’d change my diet.

My 9-year-old self before being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

My 9-year-old self before being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

5. Aren’t you a bit young to have arthritis?

Granted I don’t get asked this as much as I used to because I fit the stereotype of a person with arthritis, i.e., older, but this was a common question back in the day. RA isn’t ageist. It can affect anyone from newborns to the elderly.

6. How long have you had rheumatoid?

This usually necessitates a quick mental subtraction of 9 from my current age. So, as of today, it’s 37 years.

7. What’s the difference between rheumatoid arthritis and ‘normal’ arthritis?

There’s no ‘normal’ arthritis because there are more than 100 types. The 2 most common are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis is caused by joint wear and tear, which weakens cartilage. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the body attacks and destroys joint cartilage. Both types have common symptoms, including joint paint, stiffness and swelling.

8. How did you get RA/what causes rheumatoid?

I don’t know how I developed RA. It’s thought RA may be genetic and is triggered by environmental factors such as a virus, infection or smoking. Research into a cause is ongoing, including at the University of Queensland’s Diamantina Institute.

9. Is it hereditary?

Studies have shown RA is likely to be hereditary. But in my case, I’m the only lucky one on either side of the family, in 4 generations anyway, who has RA.

10. Is there a cure?

No. Not yet but with the treatments available nowadays, most people lead a normal life and it’s unusual to see deformities like my dodgy fingers and toes.

Food for thought

I’ve spent many a lunch break sitting on a shady bench in the city gardens, gobbling my sandwich and, at the same time, frantically flapping my arms, shooing predatory wildlife.

Ibis, ducks and water dragons may look harmless and non-threatening but are quite intimidating when on a mission for picnic food.

I admit to jumping in fright when the water dragon I was ignoring at my feet growled like a petulant Chihuahua seeking attention.

I don’t think my scurrying to another picnic bench to finish my ham and salad sanger was quite what the dragon had in mind but I had its best interests at heart.

I’m pretty sure processed bread, cheese and meat, and salad vegies are not the best diet for critters that usually eat small insects.

Just like I probably shouldn’t eat a packet of Tim Tams or a sticky date pudding for dinner when I should make sure my diet is nutritious and balanced.

Having rheumatoid arthritis (RA), it’s doubly important to maintain a healthy weight because being overweight puts excess strain on dodgy joints.

But I figure if I stick to the program on weekdays and eat low-fat, high-fibre food, including green vegetables and fish, and do some exercise, I’m allowed a blow out occasionally.

People often ask if Arthur and I are on a special diet.

Many people have heard that avoiding eating acidic foods such as tomatoes and oranges prevents aches and pains.

Luckily for me, because tomatoes and citrus fruit are staples of my diet, this is an old wives’ tale.

While there’s no proof that any particular diet reduces the pain or symptoms of RA, everyone is different and a food that doesn’t affect me may make someone else feel blah.

So it’s important to do some research – check our Resources section for links to useful websites, ask Mr Google or consult a dietician – and use trial and error to determine what works for you.

I find eating in moderation, aiming for a nutritious diet, exercising and trying not to feel guilty about an occasional blow out helps keep my weight and outlook in the healthy range.