Steroid Alternatives

Prednisone, prednisolone, dexamethasone and betamethasone are commonly prescribed anti-inflammatory corticosteroid drugs used to block pro-inflammatory mediators in the body such as histamine, some prostaglandins and leukotrienes. These mediators are thought by scientists to be responsible for pain, swelling, redness and eventual scarring reactions like fibrosis in the body. Since autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, multiple sclerosis, thyroiditis and vasculitis involve these pro-inflammatory chemicals, prednisone is used to offset some of their more serious effects. Allergic conditions like asthma, psoriasis and eczema also involve these chemical mediators. Corticosteroid pills or creams are often prescribed for these conditions as well.

Although prednisone and other steroid drugs are effective at reducing inflammation, this comes at a huge price. These drugs primarily cripple the immune system if taken for long periods of time. Some of the more common side effects include fluid retention, increased appetite, increased risk of infection, depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcers, acne, weak muscles, osteoporosis, insomnia and an increased risk of blood clots.

Alternatives to prednisone and other corticosteroids include the following:

1. Detection of food and chemical allergies. This is ideally done by a combination of elimination-provocation (exclusion diet) techniques and blood tests which measure antibodies in the blood directed at specific food and chemical invaders. Usually, the person must be off prednisone or aspirin for several weeks before blood tests for food allergies can be determined. The elimination diet is probably the best way to go for such cases.

2. The use of natural fatty acid anti-inflammatory supplements. The type of fat found exclusively in meats and dairy products is known as arachidonic acid. Saturated animal fats and arachidonic acid increase the inflammatory response by stimulating the production of inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes.

Vegetarian diets that avoid dairy and eggs, use flax seed, evening primrose oil, borage oil and canola oil are higher in the essential fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic acids which stimulate the synthesis of anti-inflammatory prostaglandins that block the pain and inflammatory effects of chemical mediators like leukotrienes.

An alternative way of obtaining anti-inflammatory essential fatty acids from the diet is to consume more cold water fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, swordfish, shark, cod and halibut. These fish contain high concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids which have also been documented to blunt the inflammatory or allergic response. If fish is either unpalatable for the individual or not readily available in certain inland areas, supplementation on the order of 9 to 12 grams daily from oil capsules is a better alternative.

3. Supplementation with antioxidants. Since the inflammatory response creates oxidative damage to tissues, the use of antioxidants helps prevent tissue damage that leads to permanent dysfunction. Antioxidant supplements include vitamins like natural carotenoids (carotenes, lycopenes, and others), bioflavonoids like rutin, hesperidin, quercetin, catechin and the proanthocyanidins (grape seed extract, pine bark extract, bilberry and others loosely also called pycnogenols), vitamins C and E, sulfur containing amino acids like cysteine, N-acetyl-cysteine, methionine and glutathione.

Other important antioxidants are coenzyme Q10, B complex vitamins, selenium, zinc and hormones like DHEA (dehydoepiandosterone) and melatonin.

Plant enzymes and other phytochemicals found in superfoods like spirulina, chlorella, barley green, green kamut, bee pollen, royal jelly and herbs of many different kinds are all potent antioxidants. Wholeleaf aloe vera juice with high MPS (mucopolysaccharide) content also contains high levels of dozens of natural antioxidants. Kombucha tea contains many powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. Drinking on a regular basis has been reported to reverse hundreds of chronic immune system ailments.

4. Supplementation with natural anti-inflammatory enzymes and herbs. Pancreatin (animal based pancreatic digestive enzymes), plant enzymes and bromelain (from pineapples) not only help with protein digestion in the gastrointestinal tract but have been demonstrated to work as pro-inflammatory substances. They help reduce the number of leukotrienes. The yellow pigment of tumeric is called curcumin. In some studies it has ben reported to be equally effective as cortisone without any of the associated side effects.

Other natural anti-inflammatory herbs are licorice root, yucca (e.g. YU-CCAN Herbal Supplement) and alfalfa. The latter have been reported to be particularly effective in the treatment of most cases of arthritis. Doses of all these supplemental nutrients have to be carefully individualized. Supervision by a nutritional medical doctor or naturopath is highly desirable.