By JANE SYMONS - PUBLISHED: 10:05, Tue, Jun 16, 2015 | UPDATED: 10:19, Tue, Jun 16, 2015. Read the full article from Daily Express here.
Garden designer Chris Beardshaw discovered alternative therapies the hard way. After developing rheumatoid arthritis in his teens he was offered the grim choice: "We can cut out all the joints in your toes or you will be in a wheelchair by your mid-20s."
It was a devastating blow for the promising young athlete who had competed for his county and was planning a career in gardening, with all the heavy work and harsh conditions that entails. But looking back, Chris, an author and regular on BBC Two's Gardeners' World, says: "In a way it did me a favour, because I came away totally shocked and determined to take control of the situation."
Chris had already tried "every prescribable treatment for rheumatism and arthritis," from anti-inflammatory drugs and intramuscular injections of gold, to steroid injections directly into the joints and even radiotherapy. The bad news was delivered at a "last ditch" consultation with yet another specialist. He says: "I remember getting back in the car with my mum and thinking, 'Right I have got to do something about this'. "So he started researching different supplements, vitamins, dietary interventions; pretty much anything that might help.”
Chris soon realised that certain foods and drinks such as red meat, red wine, citrus juices and the nightshade vegetables tomato, aubergine and red peppers exacerbated his flare-ups, while thick hiking socks helped cushion his painful joints. He now wears them every day, even if he is in a business suit. He found exercise relieved stiffness and pain and helped combat inflammation, an association which has since been confirmed by large-scale studies. But he did have to switch from running to cycling to prevent his ankles and the smaller joints in his feet from jarring and causing further damage.
Chris wasn't convinced that traditional treatment with the chemical glucosamine made much difference for him but found that comfrey cream, arnica and devil's claw did. "I think a lot of these things are very individual, it's a matter of trial and error to find what works for you," he says.
He is also conscious of the power of placebo (simply believing that something may bring a benefit probably means it will) but says: "Taking control really helped. I found you can make a huge difference based on diet, exercise and showing your body some respect." Ultimately he admits it was probably "sheer pig-headedness" that got him through. "I thought, 'sod it', I refuse to be dependent on drugs that don't seem to be working and don't seem to be doing me much good in terms of stomach cramps and other side effects."
Chris, 46, was just 13 when he developed rheumatoid arthritis. He got home from a football match and discovered his big toe was swollen and painful. As more joints in his feet were affected it became difficult to wear shoes and he had to walk on the outer edge of his foot to reduce the pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition which affects around 300,000 people in the UK. It can strike at any age but it was several years before Chris was diagnosed. One doctor even said he had gout and should cut back on alcohol, even though he was only 13.
"I had gone from being an active young lad to really incapacitated," he says. "The speed with which it came on was frightening; it completely limited any form of activity." And as he discovered, the anti-inflammatory medicines prescribed for arthritis are notoriously tough on the digestive system. Long-term use increases the risk of ulcers and gastric bleeding and it is estimated that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), are responsible for 2,000 deaths and 12,000 emergency admissions every year.
Chris avoids them as much as possible. He still has good and bad days but says he has learnt to live with arthritis. "It's always there, like a nagging toothache but I try to compartmentalise it. I try to think of it as my body reminding me to approach things in a different and more careful way."
This year he won gold again with the Morgan Stanley Healthy Cities Garden, a celebration of wellness, play and nutrition which is now being recreated as a community garden in London's East End. It will become an oasis of green and a place for the community to grow their own produce. Chris, who has three daughters - Georgia, 16, Lily, nine, and Florrie, seven, says: "If you can only do one thing as a parent, educate your children on the value of eating good food."
His experience of arthritis and his love of horticulture have also confirmed his belief in the healing power of plants, although he adds: "You can't believe everything you read on the internet, you have to be prepared to look for the evidence."
A recent survey for Potter's Herbals found that almost half of those questioned knew many medicines were originally derived from plants. Aspirin, for instance, comes from willow bark, digitalin heart drugs originated from foxgloves and Taxotere, which is a widely used chemotherapy drug, is made from yew.
BUT worryingly only one in eight were aware of the Traditional Herbal Registration (THR) mark which guarantees remedies are safe and made to the highest pharmaceutical standards. Chris says: "You do have to be careful. So many of these plants are very useful in the right quantities and in the right way. That's the caveat you always have to add."
The very fact that many are potent medicines also means there is the potential for interactions with prescription drugs, so it's always wise to tell your doctor or pharmacist if you are taking a herbal remedy. He adds: "Plants provided our very first medicines and gardens are our medicine cabinets."
He points out that frankincense, one of the gifts mentioned in the bible story of the three wise men, may prove to be a "silver bullet for several different forms of arthritis".
And he is a big fan of Potter's Nodoff, a sleep remedy made from purple passionflower, hops, valerian and Jamaican dogwood. All are known for their sedative properties and a double-blind trial confirmed that sleep was "significantly better" even with low doses.
Chris says: "Getting the perfect combination of colour and form is the key to an award-winning garden so it makes sense that a herbal product made from the right combination of plants, tradition and technology could provide the perfect natural remedy."