In my last blog entry I discussed my current experiences with an integrative medicine doctor. (Going Down the Road of Integrative Medicine). In that entry, I mentioned a new medication I was prescribed by this doctor called low dose naltrexone (LDN) and I think that it is worthy of its very own blog entry so here we go. Be forewarned, it's a bit complicated...
Since we have the modern day miracle of Google, I am not going to spend a lot of time describing LDN and exactly how it works, but I think there are some basics that are important. Naltrexone is a medication that was created in the late 1970's as a treatment for heroin overdose and subsequently used in larger doses (50-300 mg) to treat heroin addicts. It blocks the opiate receptors in our body, which are also found on immune system cells. The next discovery, in the 1980's, was that naltrexone at lower doses (hence why it is called low dose naltrexone), blocks these opioid receptors and increases the endorphin levels in the body, which were noted to be low in people with autoimmune disorders as well as in many other illnesses, such as cancer and AIDS. At lower doses, such as 3-4.5 mg, the LDN blocks the opioid receptors for a short time, a few hours. Once this blockade wears off, the body responds by increasing its production of endorphins and this results in cellular changes that inhibit cell growth, inflammation reduction, and healing. It is not an immune booster or suppressor, but rather an immune regulator.
OK, whew. That hurt my head. I have found two books to be extremely helpful in understanding LDN. The first is: The Promise of Low Dose Naltrexone Therapy by Elaine A. Moore and Samantha Wilkinson and also Up the Creek with a Paddle by Mary Boyle Bradley.
Now, when my integrative medicine doctor told me that he wanted me to try this medication, he did not make any promises or unrealistic claims about its effectiveness. He did refer me to the website:
http://www.lowdosenaltrexone.org/ for more information. However after scouring this website, I became skeptical about the medication. I had a hard time believing that one medication, as seemingly harmless as this one, could effectively treat all the diseases that it claimed it could: autoimmune disorders, many types of cancer, and AIDS. Because if it was that effective, why were so many people still sick? Why didn't more doctors and patients know about it?
After about a month of online research and reading the above two books, I had to admit that I was very intrigued by the positive effects LDN was having on some people with autoimmune illnesses, specifically multiple sclerosis (MS). Sjogren's syndrome and MS can share an uncanny amount of similarities in terms of symptoms and many people with Sjogren's are originally misdiagnosed as having MS. I also read many anecdotes about the success of LDN on other autoimmune illnesses such as Crohn's disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
So WHY don't more people know about this? Many proponents of LDN therapy claim that it is seen as an alternative therapy and that its use is not widely recognized because there is not enough clinical research done on the positive effects of the medication. There have been some small clinical trials done at a few very noteworthy medical institutions, but it has not been studied on a large scale. Why not? Well, pharmaceutical companies fund these trials and naltrexone is a generic, very inexpensive medication to produce. According to LDN proponents, there is no financial incentive. Despite the fact that this may sound like a conspiracy theory type of thing to a lot of people, with my less than favorable experiences in regards to the pharmaceutical industry, it all makes sense to me.
As I see it, there are two issues with LDN. The first is that the one major side effect it has is insomnia. This is something I have been struggling with significantly since last Spring, possibly due to another medication called Topamax. The second issue is that because it blocks opioid receptors, you CANNOT take any narcotic pain medications while taking LDN. If you do, you have to stop the LDN. Luckily, my rheumatologist is not a big fan of using narcotics to treat Sjogren's related pain issues and I have adverse reactions to many narcotics anyways. Because of this, I have worked hard at learning and utilizing other pain management techniques. When things are really bad, I do resort to a pain medication called Tramadol. Because of its mechanism of action, Tramadol is a centrally acting analgesic, rather than a true narcotic. However I was instructed that if I do take Tramadol, to space it four hours apart from my nightly LDN dose.
LDN is routinely taken between 9pm-2am although some people say that it can be taken in the morning. However since endorphin production is highest around 2-4am, it is thought that this is the best timing for the highest effectiveness. LDN also needs to be specially compounded by a pharmacist and not every pharmacy does this. I get mine from Skip's Pharmacy in Boca Raton, Florida. One month supply, not covered by insurance, costs me about twenty-five dollars with shipping.
So five weeks ago, after much trepidation and research, I decided to just go for it and I took my first dose of LDN. To begin with, the only side effect I have noticed is the insomnia and I will admit, it is pretty rough and worse than before I started the LDN. I have since weaned myself off of the Topamax, which I take for severe autoimmune related migraines, in the hopes that will help alleviate the insomnia. I already have a lot of alternative methods I use to help sleep such as meditation, herbal tea, etc. but like clockwork, I wake up between 1-2am every single night after going to bed around 10pm. Sometimes I fall back asleep and sometimes I don't. However that all being said, I have been battling a bad viral infection this week and have been sleeping better. Not sure if that is because I am sick or not. Because sleep deprivation is a trigger for worsening of my Sjogren's symptoms, before this week, I had been taking a sleep medication two to three times a week to help me catch up on my sleep. I was told by Skip's that the insomnia should improve and possibly even go away within the next few weeks.
It is very hard to see a benefit from a medication like this when you have recently started other treatments as well. I started an autoimmune medication called Arava in October and an eye medication called Restasis in November. Except for a week exacerbation of joint pain on my third week of LDN, my joint pain has significantly improved and my eye doctor told me last week that my eye dryness has improved. LDN related? Possibly.
Since stopping my migraine medication, I initially had a week of migraines and they have since resolved. I am hoping it stays that way. If I continue to have a significant reduction in migraines or even complete resolution of them, I will absolutely attribute that to LDN because prior to LDN, I could not function without Topamax.
The improvement I have noticed, that I know cannot be attributed to other medication, is in my overall well being and my energy level. It is difficult to explain but does make sense considering LDN affects our endorphins. I feel more able to effectively cope with my physical symptoms when they do arise and my mood seems more stable. This is significant because I am still in the process of weaning off prednisone. There has also been a decrease in my anxiety level to the point that this week, I can say I have no anxiety at all. That is also significant as I am still waiting for some test results and this would naturally produce some anxiety for me.
At first, I did not see the improvement in my energy level. It was subtle. I also am not sure if it can be attributed to the Arava as well. Although I am still extremely fatigued by about 4-5pm each day, I have noticed that my days are becoming more productive. This is highly unusual, actually unheard of, when I am weaning off prednisone.
And that is where I am at five weeks into my LDN journey. In my head, the jury is still out as to how effective this treatment might be for me long term. I am hopeful.The signs so far are positive and I think time will tell; especially once I am completely off prednisone and hopefully the Arava as well. I also think that it is not a treatment that when used alone, will cure me. Rather, I think it is one more tool, along with exercise, supplements, diet, stress management, and multiple other modalities, that can be used in my long journey to improved health.