Best "Natural Rheumatologist" Story: My Autoimmune Journey

April 29, 2024

Best "Natural Rheumatologist" Story: My Autoimmune Journey

Dr. Nicole Sundene, NMD

Chronic Pain Specialist

Autoimmune disease, chronic pain, and arthritis were topics I discussed daily with patients for many years before I was challenged by my own chronic pain experience.

Many people do not know that I was bedridden for years from a very painful autoimmune condition that caused me a severe case of Fibromyalgia.

At one point a neurologist informed me that 70% of the nerves in my left leg were damaged and would not come back. I was shocked and stunned and kept asking questions to which he finally responded with, "Plan to be in a wheelchair." I was horrified and refused to believe that would be my fate and shifted courses away from treating my autoimmune disease with prescription drugs to Naturopathic Medicine.

I had already been treating my own autoimmune patients, and knew exactly what I needed to do.

I will admit, that when I was first diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I was scared and I did exactly what my Rheumatologist said to do to the letter of the law. If I don't know what I am doing, I am going to follow the rules. The medications I had to take were disgusting and bitter. Plaquenil literally and figuratively was a "Bitter pill to swallow" and the pain drugs they gave me made me feel more tired while not even remotely relieving my pain. Doxycycline at high doses twice daily had me vomiting and frying up in the Arizona sun like a vampire. While the doctor callously described my inevitable dilapidated autoimmune wheelchair fate I had somewhat of a "Thelma and Louise" moment and thought, "What else do I have to lose? LET'S DO THIS!"

After all, I was only getting worse on a bunch of toxic drugs that had shut my kidney function down to an alarming rate for my young age group.

So in that very moment, with RECKLESS ABANDON, I chose Naturopathic Medicine and I dove 1000% in to working on my anti-inflammatory nutrition, perfecting hormones, and testing different natural pain supplements and herbs for pain.

I was determined to cure my pain, restore the nerve function, reverse the neuropathy, and decided it was time to prove "Debbie Downer Doctor" WRONG....no matter what I had to do, I was going to do it, and I was determined to get better and get my quality of life back.

Also as a mom, I knew the last thing I wanted was for my daughter to have to push me around in a wheelchair.

Thankfully, my joints improved with natural medicine, my pain was less, the swelling went down, and gradually I was able to taper off each medication that made me feel sick from side effects. My kidneys were once functioning at a frightening 50% and had sprang back up to almost normal without any of the toxic autoimmune drugs.

As a doctor, I know from a pharmaceutical standpoint that some of the cure in mainstream autoimmune treatment is actually worse over the long term for many women. Especially those in Arizona that get Valley Fever or West Nile Virus.

Chronic immune suppression while it certainly has its place, and need in the autoimmune community also impairs immunity. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and the pendulum swings too far in the suppression of the immune system with some of the prescription drug options.

What I love about herbal medicine, is that we have so many different types of herbs and forms for women to try to treat their pain. I wish it was "one size fits all" or I would post a pain protocol, but ultimately it is more of a process my patients need to go through than a prescription, as I will describe in steps below, to be successful treating chronic pain naturally.

While I still battle chronic pain I truly owe my life to Naturopathic Medicine and would not have been able to recover without the healing power of nature and my own experience balancing and perfecting hormones is critical in understanding the causes of pain which are generally multifactorial for many of us "Fibro Warriors" challenged by a life of frustrating fibro and chronic pain.

Eighteen years ago I lost the ability to do my favorite sport…mountain biking. Back then, my muscles felt like jello, and all I could do was sit in bed.

My legs felt like they were completely out of gas and made of concrete. Something I had only experienced prior from finishing a long bike ride like the STP, (Seattle to Portland) 200 mile bike ride, or the MS 150 Bike Ride for Multiple Sclerosis I once volunteered at and could easily ride along while providing first aid. But still even back then my legs were still usable. I could walk around if I had to. This was much worse and not always optional.

Chronic pain suddenly set in and everything hurt as if I had just been riding my bike for eight hours. The pain never went away. It only continued to get worse. Just surviving every single day became such a challenge. I felt like going to work was an Ironman Triathlon. Just blow drying my Long hair was so painful I just gave up and wore it in a clip. The only clothes I could stand touching me were the softest scrub fabric. Anything itchy or tight just made the pain worse.

People expecting me to do things after work with them or after 7pm I suddenly deemed as "completely insane." When before I could meet friends for dinner at 9pm!

The fatigue from the constant pain and inability to sleep through the pain was something I cannot even describe to anyone so they fully understand, you have to live it.

Basically, what severe chronic pain feels like is that you are trying to do life like everyone else, except your are wading through heavy cement that starts sticking to you and becoming a new pain that then further ways you down. As time goes on you get slower and slower and in more and more pain. Everything just deteriorates and gets so much worse. My whole body hurt head to toe.

I could not read, ride, or run, I couldn’t even play my piano because of the severe arthritic pain and stiffness in my hands, wrists and elbows. My elbows hurt so bad I could barely hold them to play the piano let alone move my wrists or fingers.

My pain was so bad, I found myself exhausted walking up just 8 stairs, when before I could run 8 miles a day as part of my normal routine. My love of books was destroyed by debilitating migraine headaches the second I started reading more than a page. The headaches were so debilitating I stopped reading. I was extremely bored out of my mind with zero exercise, zero activities, zero reading, and zero people to talk to that seemed to understand what my "new normal" was like.

I went from training for and racing in triathlons, to feeling a simple trip to the grocery store was like an Ironman. Today I feel victorious for conquering this mountain. While I am still not able to bike for eight hours straight, I’m proud of myself and it feels good to be able to ride for 1-2 hours again.

I am so grateful to Naturopathic Medicine for my recovery. While the road has been bumpy and brutal, the blessings I have received as a doctor are dmpathy and wisdom.

My perception of Fibromyalgia and Autoimmunity have been shifted by my own personal experience and I will never view my patients the same.

I refuse to silently think my patients are “lazy or crazy” as many doctors have done to me. I’ve come to know, the lack of understanding from others can be more hurtful than the physical frustrations.

Fortunately I understand firsthand my patient’s “Silent world of hell.”

When patients in my office get tearful, it’s because they finally feel HEARD and UNDERSTOOD. They are not crying because I am giving them a prescription for Prozac and poo pooing everything wrong with them. It gives me goosebumps, I’m grateful for surviving my own harsh life lesson. I now have a firm understanding of how diet, nutrition, hormones and herbs can impact chronic inflammation.

So what do we do together if we are working on your autoimmune or arthritic pain?

  1. Identify trigger foods that specifically make your individualized pain worse.
  2. Reduce inflammation with eight weeks of anti-inflammatory recipes and meal plans.
  3. Test and balance your hormones so they are perfected for a pain patient and nobody in pain is suffering with suboptimal hypothyroidism, Hashimoto's, perimenopausal, menopausal, or adrenal hormone imbalance causing worse pain.
  4. Check vitamins and nutrients that when deficient cause pain.
  5. Ensure you are exercising the right amount for your pain condition so you are working out in a safe and sustainable manner. Otherwise most of my pain patients just NEVER exercise which is not good for chronic pain. The only thing worse than zero exercise is too much exercise, so we need to have some basic fitness goals in order not to lose mobility.
  6. Implement stress reduction techniques to look at people and activities in your life that are stressing you out and how to deal with them along with doing yoga, meditation, and aromatherapy.
  7. Look at individual causes such as family history of Ehler's Danlos Syndrome, or a chronic infection such as Valley Fever or West Nile virus if you live in Arizona, and depending upon travel and dates of disease onset.
  8. Evaluate markers for autoimmunity to determine if you indeed have an autoimmune disease or instead have "Fibromyalgia" or a cluster or labs showing you have massive inflammation and we have to do a massive inflammation overhaul with your gut,

It is critical to me as your Naturopathic Doctor that you understand what Naturopathic Medicine and Hormone Balancing will require of you before you sign up for my care. While I LOVE to help women in pain feel better I never want to waste anyone's precious time or money if I am unable to help them. Patients that are willing to trust my time tested process with investigating autoimmune conditions, hormone imbalances, nutrition and nutrient deficiencies always tend to improve if not completely resolve.

While many patients that refuse to change their diet, cannot remember to take vitamins, herbs and supplements or do not have insurance to pay for their hormone labs and cannot afford the detective process required for me to find the source of the Fibromyalgia....simply do not improve. Especially when there is no caregiver in place to help you follow this process. A husband or a BFF that can work with us is always appreciated when women are too sick or in pain to understand and follow their directions.

If you struggle to make dietary changes I promise you are not alone and I struggle myself but I am also a living breathing example of someone that was once bedridden and unable to work at all that can now work and function. While I am technically physically disabled and always will be from the permanent damage caused by my autoimmune disease, I know that just like every autoimmune patients I have good days and bad days. So naturally I have studied as a Doctor what makes my autoimmune disease better and what makes it worse.

I refuse to allow that to stop me from living my life. I refuse to not be healthy enough as a Mom to make amazing memories with my daughter. I refuse not to show up to work and try to help someone else in pain every day and offer my kindness and compassion. If you also refuse to give up on yourself please consider Naturopathy! I don't know how I would have gotten my quality of life back if I did not know what I know as a Naturopathic Doctor. In order to recover from my autoimmune condition I had to rely on my skills in BOTH Traditional Prescription Family Medicine (8 years) and over sixteen years working as a Naturopathic Doctor. Not to mention my thirty years working as an Herbalist.

Treating autoimmune disease is one of the best Naturopathic services I provide for many women in pain is to run them through the battery of chronic pain tests that I know how to do as a Female Hormone Specialist that has learned a lot about autoimmunity from her own battle. Having balanced hormones for pain patients is imperative. Why do more women have Fibromyalgia than men? In my opinion it is because a lot of female hormone imbalance naturally contributes to inflammation which simply makes any inflammatory disease such as an Autoimmune Condition: Lupus, Sjogren's, Hashimotos, Scleroderma, MCTD and so forth much worse.

So when you are working with me we may need to rely on other specialists to provide advanced testing options for your condition but I at least am capable of conducting the majority of the work so that the exhausted miserable achy tired Fibro patient has to bounce around from the least amount of doctors possible. At one point I was seeing multiple specialists: 1) Rheumatology 2) Pain Management 3) Endocrinology 4) OBgyn 5) Psychiatry 6) Infectious Disease 7) Orthopedics 8) Physical Therapy 9) Neurology. I know quite a bit about medications, hormone tests, pain tests, and treatment options for all of these specialties as they relate to chronic pain, autoimmune and fibromyalgia patients. If I need to send you to one of these places I will, but you certainly should not have to go to all of them regularly.

For those looking for a caring Naturopathic Doctor that understands Chronic Pain very well and promises to always believe you, never to judge you and always support you…I would be delighted to help! The last thing you need when you are in pain is someone that does not believe you or is judging you. The emotional hurt of that can truly feel worse at times than walking around as if, "Someone has beat me head to toe with a baseball bat," which is how many of my Fibro Warrior patients describe their pain.

Need my help feeling amazing again? Simply visit my SCHEDULE page to treat yourself to a Naturopathic Doctor visit with me! I would be happy to help.

Dr. Nicole Sundene, NMD

(480) 837-0900

Dr. Sundene is a Naturopathic Doctor in Scottsdale, Arizona, and is considered a Female Hormone Expert  in Women's Health and Bioidentical Hormones. She specializes in Holistic Women's Health for Menopause, Thyroid, Hashimotos, PMS, Perimenopause, Autoimmune, Postpartum, Chronic Fatigue, Depression, Anxiety, Food Allergies, Digestion, Dermatology , Acne, Psoriasis, Eczema and Adrenal Hormonal Conditions. In 1999 she began working for a Hormone Doctor prior to starting Naturopathic Medical School. With over 22 years of experience in both Prescription and Natural women's health and hormones she presents to women the best integrated health solutions for their Chronic Disease. She has been an Herbalist for over 27 years and enjoys teaching women how to use herbs to balance their hormones, nutrition and optimize their health. Dr. Sundene relies on blood testing for her hormone metrics. The hormone testing is covered per the patient's insurance plan and conducted at certain points in the woman's menstrual cycle. To learn more about Hormone Testing for Women Visit: Bioidentical Hormones. Follow Dr. Sundene on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook for more tips on Women's Health, Female Hormones and Naturopathy!

One comment on “Best "Natural Rheumatologist" Story: My Autoimmune Journey”

  1. I am so sorry for what you have had to go through. But I would not have anyone that understands me or takes me seriously if you had not lived the same horrible thing. Thank you for taking me seriously and listening. You are such an amazing listener and I am so grateful that you understand fibromyalgia. I started to think I was going crazy until I found you. Godbless you for what you know I wish that you could train every pain doctor in Fibromyalgia so nobody has to go through the horrible and condescending "care" or lack of care I have had before I found you. I will never leave you. I know the Pandemic has been hard on you. Please don't quit. ALl of us Fibro Warriors would be lost without you.

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