Back in October 2011, the drug Low Dose Naltrexone (LDN) gave me my life back during a dark phase where at only 38, I couldn’t even go up a flight of stairs without feeling fatigue and pain.
Two months prior, I had been exposed to a mosquito fumigant in the Dominican Republic while, ironically, attending an environment festival to screen my documentary Vanishing of the Bees, narrated by Ellen Page. It was poetic: I stormed out onto the patio to ask that a leaf blower be turned off. Except, the man wasn’t holding a leaf blower; he was wearing an applicator on his back and spraying poisons between two buildings. He was wearing a mask (and no other protection) and turned, pointing his hose toward me. And because it was windy, I inhaled a whole bunch of chemicals. When I shrieked, he seemed clueless as to why.
Upon returning to America, I developed 24-hour pain. My body was constantly sore; the connective tissue in my neck and torso screamed with inflammation, and I had to push myself through every day.
“But you don’t look sick,” friends stated. Yes because I had a ‘Look Good, Feel Bad’ disease aka an autoimmune condition. But I didn’t know this yet.
Given that I had started to study alternative medicine on my own, I suspected my thyroid. My GP at Cedar’s Sinai in Los Angeles sent me to a rheumatologist, who after looking at my blood tests looked at me like a wounded bird. I could sense the pity me when she diagnosed me with markers for the autoimmune condition Lupus. She also checked for sore spots on my body, which were aplenty, and proceeded to also diagnose me with Fibromyalgia.
When I asked her if chemical body burden could be a consideration given my exposure, she gave me a blank stare. It reminded me of the time a former general practitioner deemed me crazy when I told him an air conditioning unit filled with mold spores had given me pneumonia. I was at the emergency room in a gown and 103 fever when he sent a young psychiatrist into my room. For a moment, I was genuinely concerned they were going to throw me into a padded room for refusing the antibiotics that weren’t working and proposing that a building could have made me ill. I wasn’t yet versed on the ills of antibiotics and the fact we were on the precipice of antibiotic resistance epidemic. By the way, today they’re even questioning if the rule of having to finish your dose of antibiotics is even safe. Whoops.
After delivering an incurable diagnosis, the rheumatologist swiftly prescribed the antidepressant Cymbalta and sent me home with several samples. She also offered me an additional prescription for the synthetic corticosteroid prednisone, which causes weight gain and suppresses the immune system, leaving you more susceptible to infections and feelings of overall horribleness.
I kept the samples in my medicine cabinet and looked at them often while I started researching safer alternatives. Many days the pain was intolerable and out of desperation and curiousity I tried Cymbalta. The experiment lasted five days. The pain did not disapate, but knots in my tummy had formed. It was as though my intestines were trying to digest fragments of glass.
Then one day while my neighbor, who had very bad ulcerative colitis, told me to try a medication called LDN. It had given her reprieve after trying everything under the sun.
Just three months ago, she had been hospitalized for pooping blood, was placed on prednisone, and was constantly fatigued. And now she was doing yoga and even had pizza again (read: gluten and dairy). While I don’t believe eating inflammatory foods is ever a smart idea (the proteins in these foods wreak damage whether you feel it or not), I was intrigued at the thought of moving past a world of pain.
People who suffer from an autoimmune condition are told that their body is attacking itself, but this is a VERY damaging belief to adopt.
“… That’s not true,” says Anthony Williams, author of the Medical Medium. “The body never attacks itself. Your body hasn’t betrayed you.”
Your body just needs help to heal.
Thinking Outside The Prescription Bottle
In short, it’s because the patent ran out in the ‘80s and Big Pharma can’t make money on it. The systems in place are configured to place profits over people.
“… It is for all intents and purposes, made unavailable by our system to the public because of its low profit potential for Big Pharma,” writes David Gluck, a board-certified specialist in both Internal Medicine and Preventive Medicine.
“Unfortunately, because naltrexone has been without patent protection for many years, no pharmaceutical company will bear the expense of the large clinical trials necessary for FDA approval of LDN’s new special uses. It is now up to public institutions to seize the opportunity that LDN offers.”
Opioid Antagonist: Accidental Therapeutic Breakthrough
Naltrexone was originally synthesized in 1963 as an orally active competitive opioid receptor antagonist. LDN works by briefly obstructing the effects of brain endorphins (the brain’s natural painkillers). Sensing an endorphin deficit, the pituitary signals for increased production of endorphins, which re-balances the immune system.
LDN is not an immunosuppressant but an immune modulator.
The drug was originally administered to addicts to wean them off heroin, alcohol, and opiates. It simply blocks the opiates, causing dysphoria. Let’s just say mixing Naltrexone with one of these substances doesn’t make for a happy camper.
In 1985, a doctor by the name of Bernard Bihari noticed that addicts, who also suffered from HIV, were enjoying an improvement in their immune systems.
“LDN may well be the most important therapeutic breakthrough in over 50 years,” writes Gluck, who is also the editor of the website, ldninfo.org. “It provides a new, safe and inexpensive method of medical treatment by mobilizing the natural defenses of one’s own immune system.”
According to LDNScience, a public information project of the MedInsight Research Institute, endorphins are produced in most cells in the body, and are important regulators of cell growth, and therefore the immune system. Disorders of the immune system can occur with unusually low levels of these endorphins. The particular endorphin that has been found to influence cell growth, as well as immunity, is called Opioid Growth Factor (OGF) or Met-Enkephalin.
At a low dosage level, naltrexone exhibits paradoxical properties, including analgesia and anti-inflammatory actions, which have not been reported at larger dosages.
As the body responds by upregulating its synthesis of opiates, you receive a thousand times more endorphins and a better functioning immune system, explains Dr. Thomas Cowan, a strong proponent of using low-dose naltrexone (LDN) for autoimmune diseases.
“Since LDN blocks the OGF receptors only for a few hours before it is naturally excreted, what results is a rebound effect; in which both the production and utilization of OGF is greatly increased, according toLDNScience. “Once the LDN has been metabolized, the elevated endorphins produced as a result of the rebound effect can now interact with the more-sensitive and more-plentiful receptors and assist in regulating cell growth and immunity.”
Despite growing awareness surrounding LDN since my experience years ago, the challenge for patients remains: finding a doctor who has heard of LDN and is willing to prescribe it “off-label.” I personally didn’t even bother to ask my rheumatologist. Waste of Time. I just asked my naturopath Dr. Lisa Fillis, who I now collaborate with when I give someone a consult.
A Brand New Day
In the 1990 film Awakenings, Robert De Niro’s character plays an encephalitis patient, who after years of literally being catatonic, wakes up because of a promising new drug. LDN was sort of revolutionary like that.
I started with 3 mg at night and worked my way to 4.5 and slowly the pain greatly dissipated and the flare-ups diminished. I could do a chaturanga in my hot flow yoga class without psychologically gritting my teeth from the pain in my torso. My mood lifted. I felt a respite from a cold winter; a return to a life where I didn’t feel like a decrepit old lady.
According to a 2009 study, low-dose naltrexone can reduce fibromyalgia symptoms, with a greater than 30 percent reduction of symptoms over placebo. In addition, laboratory visits showed that mechanical and heat pain thresholds were improved by the drug.
LDN is not FDA-approved for the treatment of pain and is still experimental.
While some report side effects of insomnia, they are rare and transient, explains Jayne Crocker, the co-founder of LDNNow, a group aimed at getting LDN more accepted in mainstream medicine. “If it interferes with your sleep pattern it makes no sense whatsoever to take it at night. It works just the same if you take it at night or if you take it in the morning. It really is down to how you/your body reacts to LDN.”
The only side effect I personally experienced were vivid dreams. I took one pill a day upon bedtime.
An article in the Herald&Review, explains how taking low dose naltrexone turns on T regulatory cells responsible for “smack[ing] down your attacking immune system. “T regulatory cells have their own job, which is to make sure that inflammatory chemicals are secreted appropriately to help you when you’re injured and then to stop that inflammation after you’re healed.”
Low dose naltrexone acts like “a referee and blows the whistle,” continues the same article, giving your thyroid, joints, adrenals, heart or myelin sheath a break.
Today, there is an increasing about of small studies and scientific trials and more than 25 years of strong anecdotal reports, illustrating the efficacy of LDN on inflammation and chronic pain. Meanwhile, several scientists and doctors claim that LDN can help alleviate 170 other illnesses and diseases, including cancer. It has been reported that LDN is able to reduce tumor growth by interfering with cell signaling as well as by modifying the immune system. LDN has also been reported to aid with sleep problems, gastrointestinal complaints, and headaches.
I believe I responded so positively to LDN because I was already doing so many other things at the time. For instance, I already didn’t eat wheat, dairy or sugar. I was healing my gut and adrenals and taking essential supplements like magnesium and vitamin B. I had also started taking intravenous glutathione to combat oxidative stress and bolster my liver. In previous years I had adhered to a strict candida cleanse that even included taking the very strong antifungal Diflucan. ( I mention this because if you contend with Candida, LDN has been known to bring it to the surface.)
Because our bodies are so vastly different, it’s impossible to know how you will react to LDN. Remember that whatever healing protocol you follow, it’s ultimately best supported by lifestyle changes that include avoiding inflammatory foods, removing toxins, bolstering your immune system, and improving your gut.