Achieving Wellness through Arthritis
Chris Pudlak was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in 2016. At the time, he was only 36 years old and a father to three young children.
“My doctor told me that it’s not something you die from; it’s something you die with. It’s a permanent condition,” Pudlak said. “That was a life-changing moment. I knew I had to make some serious changes.”
Ankylosing spondylitis is an inflammatory disease that affects more men than women. For Pudlak, the onset was quick and severe. He got to the point where it took two hands to turn the ignition in his car. To control the inflammation, doctors put him on several medications.
“I was really scared,” he said. “I knew that, if I lived another 40 years, I didn’t want to be on all these medications.”
Pudlak began documenting everything, including the food he ate, the time he ate, the impact of different drugs, diets and exercise on his symptoms and much more. After a year, he realized he had collected a lot of information that could potentially help other people.
Pudlak never went against the advice of his rheumatologist. If she recommended a medication, he took it. If she recommended a dosage, he followed it.
“I definitely wasn’t trying to be anti-medication,” he said. “Medication did help me – especially during the onset of my condition. But it felt like a firefighting measure. I experienced a lot of side effects.”
Pudlak is now a member of Arthritis Research Canada’s Arthritis Patient Advisory Board and has published a book about his journey. It’s called Achieving Wellness Through Arthritis: How My Journey with Ankylosing Spondylitis Can Offer a Path to Wellness. We sat down with him to find out more about his book and journey.
In a nutshell, what is your book about?
I never really intended to write a book. I started journaling because I wanted to get my condition under control. I took a lot of notes. I did an elimination diet and I tracked everything I ate, how I felt when I woke up, how I felt when I ate certain foods or took certain medications. I did all this logging so I could understand my disease and do something about it.
As I collected this data, it turned into a narrative. I summarized all the medications I was on. I wanted to know the side effects and risks. What foods helped? What theories were out there? What gut bacteria caused autoimmune responses? I researched the low starch diet, benefits of turmeric and more. The book is about my story, but also my experience with the medications that are prescribed, the diets that are recommended, whether or not they worked for me, as well as research studies that support them.
My rheumatologist wrote the foreword to my book. She said it’s a good case study but to be careful about trying to apply linear relationships because the body is very complex. I tried to list possible causes and approaches that worked for me. I even included examples of studies on drugs that didn’t work for me but might work for other people. I’m not saying everything in the book will work for everyone. I’m just sharing my experience in case it can help other people who are struggling to manage their disease.
How did you decide to write a book about your journey with arthritis?
I started journaling from day one. The onset was so severe that I knew I had to get a handle on things. I didn’t really make the conscious decision to share my experience with other people until 2017, over a year after my diagnosis. I realized I had a lot of data and research. It made sense for me to share it. My aunt has Crohn’s disease and she had to have her colon removed and she was writing about her condition. I said, if you ever write a book, save me a chapter. That’s how it started. I wrote one chapter on ankylosing spondylitis and it turned into a website and then, eventually, a book.
How does your life differ now compared to when you were first diagnosed?
My arthritis reminds me to be healthy. I try to stay active. We recently went camping and I swam for an hour each day and did a lot of biking and my back didn’t bother me. Lower back pain is just one of those symptoms that has never really gone away, but it’s less intense when I’m active. It took a long time to build my strength up after my diagnosis. I have also cut out a lot of things from my diet like starches and refined carbohydrates and I eat a lot more vegetables. Some days I work from home and this really helps because I can take a five-minute break and do something I would never do at work like lie flat on my back on the floor or lift some weights.
What kind of support did you rely on after your diagnosis?
My wife is very supportive. I read a lot of books too. Self-help books were already my favourite genre before I was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis. I really liked one book titled Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One by Joe Dispenza. It’s all about changing your mindset and who you choose to be. It’s about starting the day knowing who you are and where you want to go. I was a pretty serious and anxious person before my diagnosis. This book made specific references to anxiety and stress contributing to inflammation. I knew I had to practice laughing and appreciating my kids each day. I needed to stop being so stressed about pleasing other people.
“As soon as I got the diagnosis and the information that it was something that wouldn’t really go away, that was quite depressing,” Chris Pudlak. Hear from him and other patients about how arthritis has affected their mental health.
What did your journey to control your disease look like?
I went through a list of diets: FODMAP diet, keto diet, Mediterranean diet and more. I would go on the United States National Library of Medicine website to look up studies on specific foods. I was really just searching and trying things. I was doing an elimination diet. With exercise, it was a little more focused. I love cycling and was trying to get back into it. I tried to extend my rides and increase the number of rides I did per week. I changed my posture. I saw a physiotherapist and did Pilates and strength-building exercises. With exercise, I would run into a lot of setbacks and force myself to get back on the horse and stay active to build muscle strength to support my joints. There was a lot of research and trial and error involved.
How do you see people with arthritis using your book?
Ultimately, I hope people with arthritis see the overall process and capture the mindset that you need to be an advocate for your own health and learn about your condition. The elimination diet and allergy testing are great strategies to understand what triggers your symptoms. It’s important to journal your condition and pay attention to your body. The foods that work for you. The medications that work for you. The times you eat. I hope people take the approach that “This is your body and you only have one. It’s your job to manage your body and it will pay you back.”
How did you decide on the title for your book?
At first, my editor thought it was weird because, in ‘Achieving Wellness through Arthritis,’ I was implying that I had to get arthritis to achieve wellness. I actually feel better now than before my diagnosis. I understand diet and the importance of healthy food and daily exercise. I pay attention to how I treat my body. I feel well. I feel like I have achieved wellness through this experience. No one chooses to have arthritis, but it’s something that I got. The path led me to wellness.
What would you tell people who are struggling with arthritis and feeling like they could never accomplish something like write a book?
I felt depressed when I got the initial diagnosis. But I tried not to get trapped in that mindset. I told myself the Japanese proverb, “fall down seven times, stand up eight.” As long as I found one solution, I was making progress. I don’t know how to tell someone to do that. Going back to the fear of medications and being stuck in that state was a real motivator. I would tell myself not to give up and to keep trying. I kept biking to work and, when I finished a ride, I would feel better. I would say, “Hey, I’m not stuck with arthritis! The arthritis is stuck with me!” That way, I felt like I achieved something. I tried to hit goals even when I was struggling. I tried to appreciate each day and the mobility and health that I did have.
Where can people purchase the book?
The book is available on Amazon in Kindle, hardcover and paperback versions. Click here for more information.
The opinions expressed in this article are not those of Arthritis Research Canada. Please always consult your family doctor or rheumatologist before making changes to diet, exercise and medications.