Reversing Arthritis with a Personalized Diet
My name is Momo Vuyisich, and I am a Founder and Chief Science Officer at Viome. My rheumatoid arthritis story is one of 20 years of declining joint health, which was only reversed after years of digging through large amounts of scientific information and finally finding a needle in a haystack. My personal health transformation happened before the foundation of Viome and strengthened my decision to leave academic work and start the company, so we can help millions of other people.
By the beginning of 2015, my path to begin Viome was already set. I knew that working to prevent chronic diseases through the gut microbiome was the next chapter of my life – but I had personal health issues that were detracting from my work and personal life.
I had been struggling with arthritis for about 20 years – from the time I was 20 until I was about 40 years old. My flare ups would come in waves but my condition was definitely getting worse every year. Sometimes my joint aches would be troublesome for a fews days and then appear to get a little better, only to come back again stronger and with each wave, the pain was lasting longer. Besides arthritis-related joint pain and swelling, I had additional symptoms of intense bruising, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tingling in legs and hands. I had carpal tunnel surgery, which only relieved the symptoms for a few months.
Normal tasks, like carrying grocery bags or hiking, were painful. For years, I had to ice my hands and wrists after carrying light things for a few minutes. In the mornings, my hand joints were so creaky that I could not lift my laptop before the shower.
I tried many different diets: low carb, no carb, high fat, high protein, vegetarian, dairy-free, no red meat, gluten-free, etc. The high protein/low carb diet was particularly scary for me, as I started to lose my memory in my late 30s. Even though I was convinced my condition could be cured naturally, I became desperate and scared, so I went to the doctor. They performed some blood tests and a genetic test, determined I had early onset ankylosing spondylitis, and told me I would be in a wheelchair in a few years if I did not take the recommended drugs.
They prescribed me four medications which had awful side effects. They caused incontinence and would likely damage my kidneys and liver within a few years, necessitating additional medications at that point. I only took two of the medications for two days and quickly realized this path would lead me to a wheelchair, oxygen, and more pills.
This was not the life I envisioned, and it was an extremely frustrating time.
Being a scientist, I couldn’t accept this pharmaceutical approach. Because arthritis and my other symptoms were likely caused by low-grade chronic inflammation, I dug deep into potential dietary causes of this condition. For years, I found nothing, but while on vacation in December of 2014, I read a paper that would change my life.
The paper described a low level immune response to a sugar found in mammalian products that could induce low-grade chronic inflammation in humans. The paper, “A Red Meat-derived Glycan Promotes Inflammation and Cancer Progression” by Dr. Ajit Varki, a professor at University of California at San Diego, saved my life.1
Reading this paper was very memorable. The study postulated that a very common cause of chronic inflammation in some people could be the consumptom of mammalian products. These products (ie. red meat, pork, lamb, dairy etc) introduce a specific sugar (N-glycolylneuraminic acid – Neu5Gc) into the body, which can cause inflammation. Sugars are only mildly immunogenic, meaning they won’t cause an intense acute reaction in the body but instead a low-grade chronic inflammation. The low-level inflammation and the fact that I didn’t grow up eating much red meat, caused me to raise my eyebrows and think – this could be it!
In February 2015, I stopped consuming all mammalian products (red meat and dairy) and about a month later my symptoms had improved enough that I knew I had found the solution I was looking for. Then after about three months my body had almost completely healed – we are talking about a near complete reversal of all symptoms. Finally, six months after I stopped eating all mammalian products I felt as though I was 20 years old again – it was incredible.
The scientist in me had to be sure these foods were the direct cause of my arthritis and not some crazy coincidence. Since then, I’ve tested my hypothesis three times. Everytime I ate red meat or had dairy, my inflammation symptoms came back. As you can probably imagine, three times is enough for me. I don’t plan on incorporating red meat or dairy back into my diet because I feel much, much better and plan to stay that way.
I was able to meet my hero, Dr. Ajit Varki, who discovered the inflammatory mechanism caused by consumption of mammalian products.
I suspect there are many more people just like me, who have this sensitivity to mammalian products. Unfortunately, this research is not well-known and many have yet to hear how they might be affected by this sugar, which is high in mammalian products.
The System is Failing Those with Rheumatoid Arthritis
Rheumatoid arthritis is currently treated with NSAIDs and biologics (injectables). Both of these therapies only cover up the symptoms, and do not treat the root cause of arthritis, which is unknown. Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis with a biologic can cost tens of thousands of dollars per person each year. These biologics can have numerous and severe side effects, since they suppress and/or modify the immune system.
No organization has made a serious effort to understand how diet and gut health can impact rheumatoid arthritis via the primary culprit – the cytokine tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-ɒ). TNF-ɒ is the pro-inflammatory cytokine primarily responsible for regulating the inflammatory response in those with rheumatoid arthritis. What if we can completely cure or reverse this disease, without having to use expensive pharmaceuticals that cause serious side effects? That is one of our goals at Viome.
What Viome Means to Me
While I was a scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), I recognized that the gut microbiome would play a major role in solving our chronic disease problems. I also recognized that the existing technology (sequencing DNA to understand the microbiome composition) would not reveal the connections between the gut microbiome and our health. It took three years to develop the necessary technology (RNA sequencing), thanks to my awesome team and the research environment at LANL.
The next obvious step was to take this revolutionary technology, combine it with my passion, and change the world. This is where the rest of the Viome people come in. The passion, energy, and commitment from the executive team and the rest of the staff is simply incredible. At Viome, we now have all the technology (laboratory and computational) needed to empower people to take control of their own health and prevent chronic diseases, instead of waiting for symptoms to show up, then try to treat them.
Viome is about enabling people to maintain health and wellness throughout their entire life, without having to try hundreds of different fad diets or spending years reading scientific literature hoping they will find relevant information. It is my hope that everyone struggling with chronic conditions find solutions as I did.