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Wellness Warrior: Cristina Montoya

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Hi Everyone. How are you doing?

I hope you are doing fabulous.

I wanted to take a moment to today to share a Wellness Warrior; and today's Wellness Warrior is Cristina Montoya. She runs a wonderful website named the Arthritis Dietitian.

I recently did an interview with Cristina to learn more about her website, her arthritis and what inspired her to start up this blog and website.

When were you diagnosed with an autoimmune disease? What age? What was your diagnosis?

I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Sjögren's Syndrome at age 21, while completing my 3rd year of nutrition and dietetics program in Colombia.

Sjogren's has been in my life way longer. I remember living with my grandparents in a small town in Colombia, when suddenly my parotid glands started to swell up when I was 8-years-old.

I lived with swollen parotid salivary glands well into my teenage years. Every doctor under the sun thought it was a strange case of recurrent mumps or tonsil infection.

For five years, the doctors prescribed an intramuscular shot of penicillin for five days almost every month along with ibuprofen. Obviously, it was the non-steroid anti-inflammatory medication that reduced the swelling.

As a teenager, I could not understand why I did not have the same energy as my peers; why I was choking on my food and having a hard time to swallow. I could not cry when feeling sad, and had terrible digestive problems. It felt like food was my worst enemy, which lead me to an eating disorder.

I remember holding onto my bottle of water for survival because the dryness was unbearable. Even when I was diagnosed with Sjogren's, all the focus was on treating my Rheumatoid Arthritis, which I'm thankful for because my RA was severe.

I had joint deformities in both hands and feet within the first six months of my diagnosis. My RA struck so aggressively that all I can remember from my last two years of nutrition school was excruciating pain and feeling the uncertainty of what my life would become.

I wish there were similar care and treatment for all the other complications associated with Sjogren's Syndrome.

My mom was the real hero, she persevered until I finally landed with a diagnosis.

How long did it take to get a diagnosis, and which doctor or specialist contributed to your diagnosis?

A young family physician paid careful attention to my symptoms and diagnosed me with RA within 3 months of the symptoms' onset. He had me seen by a rheumatologist the following month.

This young doctor put the puzzle together for Sjogren's Syndrome as it went undiagnosed for 12 years despite the countless specialists who had no clue what was happening with me. My rheumatologist said that my RA was so severe that I would likely need to use a wheelchair in my 40s.

Now, I know by connecting with other fellow warriors that mobility devices enable you to continue living life with comfort, but in my 20s that sounded like a death sentence. I turn 39 next month and do need to use a cane on occasion. I use it proudly. No shame, no more.

How many years have you been living with your diagnosis?

I've been living with Sjogren's Syndrome for 30 years and RA for 18 years.

In 2007, shortly after I arrived in Canada, I was also diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

Perhaps the stress of changing my lifestyle, a new language, new culture, a different way of eating, and adapting to the unpredictable weather triggered those conditions. I was finally able to become a registered dietitian in Ontario in 2009.

What inspired you to start your website/blog?

The Arthritis Dietitian's idea came around five years ago when I became frustrated with all the nutrition misinformation around rheumatic diseases.

In 2016, an opportunity presented a full-time job, which required putting down all my social media and website. It was one of the hardest and saddest decisions of my life.

Last year, I met Lene Andersen, an avid RA patient advocate who remembered my work and was incredibly supportive during my pregnancy. She encouraged me to restart my blog, and this year, I reached out to my employer and received the green light to continue my blog.

I initially did not think of nutrition impacting my well-being because all the rheumatologists continued saying that diet had no place in managing rheumatic diseases.

In Colombia, I was more involved in programs to improve food security and reduce children’s mortality rate from starvation. The thought of restricting foods for one’s health was outrageous.

When I came to Canada, everything changed. I had a terrible bout of Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Gastroesophageal Reflux, lost 20 pounds within three months.

I lived off Ensure supplements for a year because I could not tolerate anything going down my throat and stomach.

My digestive issues and the side effects of medications to treat my rheumatoid arthritis significantly impacted my quality of life.

Not only that, Canada's extreme weather calls for drier air in comparison to the humid environment of Medellin, Colombia.

I felt the real effect of Sjogren's Syndrome in my life. I suffered unbearable nerve pain that felt like thousands of burning needles stabbing my arms and legs. Severe dry eyes required to get all my tear ducts cauterized, went from having the most pristine teeth to developing cavities, losing enamel and increasing teeth sensitivity.

I also developed severe non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is now under investigation for Celiac Disease. I even missed my sister-in-law's wedding in 2008 due to inflammation in my lungs.

I completely lost the left parotid salivary gland function, and I am currently being monitored for increased risk of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Saying that Sjogren’s Syndrome is just dry eyes and dry mouth, seriously irritates me.

Although I write about the impact of nutrition on rheumatic diseases in my blog, I have a slight bias towards Sjogren's Syndrome since all my lifestyle changes, particularly related to food, are heavily influenced by complications from Sjogren's Syndrome.

After a carefully planned elimination diet, I identified several food intolerances to gluten, dairy, legumes, and raw vegetables. I was able to incorporate some of those foods back into my life in a controlled fashion. Finally, my gut health is under control. A personalized nutrition approach can positively impact one's health, even in uncurbable autoimmune conditions.

I was introduced to the Sjogren's Society of Canada in 2015 and participated in several support groups as either a patient or an educator.

The downloadable e-book on my website was inspired by a presentation to the Sjogren's Support Group in Toronto a few years back. I also used that presentation and presented it in Spanish to the Spanish Sjogren's Association from Spain.

What is the main focus of your website/blog?

My blog focuses on evidence-based information on nutrition and its impact on rheumatic conditions. I enjoyed creating a particular series this year along with a nutrition student called “On Trend”, which shed some light on the abundance of confusing information for autoimmune warriors.

I want to help adults with rheumatic conditions struggling with chronic pain and fatigue to recognize their unique dietary and environmental inflammatory triggers, renovate their bodies with an anti-inflammatory way of eating and mindfully refocus towards a more positive mindset despite their chronic illness. I practice a plant-based and no-shame nutritional approach, which also includes talking about cannabis.

I want fellow warriors not to let the diet culture take over their sanity. I can guide them in optimizing treatments' efficacy, implementing low-budget anti-inflammatory meals, avoiding unnecessary purchasing of supplements, heal their gut, and managing the side effects of medications and rheumatic conditions to reduce inflammation.

I admit that my recipes are Sjogren's friendly as they are gluten-free, low dairy, plant-based and easy to swallow. My goal is to offer a nutrition coaching service and online courses in 2021.

What advice do you have to give to individuals who are newly diagnosed?

Living with autoimmune rheumatic conditions is like an emotional and physical roller-coaster ride full of ups and downs.

It's possible to live life to the fullest with the right supports; we must focus on the journey because that finish line does not have a cure yet.

You may not see it now, but these conditions teach you resilience and appreciation of little things in life.

There will be days that no matter how well you are doing with lifestyle changes, a flare-up from autoimmune rheumatic conditions strikes out of nowhere.

A common cold, stressful relationships, changes in the work environment, pregnancy, financial and emotional stress, exposure to toxins (i.e. mold), you name it, can trigger an autoimmune attack.

Don’t get discouraged. Self-care strategies are as important as the medical therapies.

Recently, I watched the movie Second Act with Jennifer Lopez, and this quote resonated with me "Every day, you wake up, and have a second chance to do whatever you want, to be whatever you want. The only thing stopping you, it's you."

Remember, there is always tomorrow to reset the bottom, rest, break the cycle and move on.

What advice do you have for individuals who are struggling with their illness?

Recognize that your experience with an autoimmune condition is as unique as your personality.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to managing autoimmune rheumatic diseases.

It's essential to seek out support from reputable sources such as The Arthritis Society, the Arthritis Foundation, Sjogren's Society of Canada, Sjogren's Foundation, Joint Health, Canadian Arthritis Patient Alliance, Creaky Joints, among others.

Support groups are also helpful, but keep in mind that often the worst case scenarios are shared, which may not happen to you.

Be vigilant of extreme approaches that claim to cure your autoimmune diseases that may lead to further deterioration of your health.

I personally enjoy FB groups Mamas Facing Forward, Lene’s Coach and Living Sjogren’s Strong.

I find it extremely valuable to reach out to health care providers with lived experience with an autoimmune condition. It makes a significant difference because the expectations are realistic.

Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers today?

I’ve become quite vocal about the use of medical cannabis as a key tool in my pain management toolbox. I had already completed two cannabis education programs this year, where I learned the medicinal value of this plant. I want patients with rheumatic conditions suffering from pain not to feel ashamed of telling their Health Care Providers that they are using cannabis to cope with pain, poor sleep, and anxiety. Evidence is growing related to the role of cannabis in opioid harm reduction and management of chronic pain, particularly neuropathic pain.

In my free time, I enjoy tweaking recipes, particularly with anti-inflammatory properties. Baking is my way of meditating. I can focus on one thing that is comforting and does not require a lot of thinking. I try to bake my treats to control the ingredients, especially sugar. I love Zumba, watching and reading thrillers. I love playing with my boy, go for long drives with my hubby and spend Sundays cooking with my husband. He is an excellent cook.

Wow Cristina, thank you so much for connecting with me here and letting me share your story.

You have a few years under you belt living with rheumatic diseases, and we appreciate you sharing what has worked for you.

Cristina has also been working with the Arthritis Society and helped to develop anti-inflammatory recipes. (you can view one such recipe here.)

The Arthritis Society also has a new podcast called "Flourish", and Cristina was invited to be a guest speaker. (you can listen to that here.)

Cristina also has some upcoming work, a Webinar: Beyond the Cannabis Plant: An anti-inflammatory lifestyle to keep your body in balance.

Be sure to follow her social media to learn more.

If you are looking for new recipes be sure to pop over to her website. Below is a sneak peak of a few delicious recipes. Yum!

Cristina's website also has tips to manage your illness (Sjogren,s Lupus, RA etc.) be sure to check these out!

Thank you again Cristina for connecting with me and bringing such a wealth of knowledge to the rheumatic illness community. We look forward to seeing more of you in the coming year.

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Wondering what is in our Newsletter?

We've got tons of goodies including reading resources that help to:

  1. Educate patients and support their own advocacy

  2. You can follow along with my story of being a young mother with disabling autoimmune diseases and chronic pain

  3. Receive updates on our children's book which was inspired by our son during a difficult time with my illness

  4. Updates with tons of other resources that can help you heal

  5. Updates on giveaway contests and products that can help aid you with pain and disability

Wishing everyone Health, Healing and Happiness,

Heather 💜

If you are new to my website be sure to check out my blog here.

If you are newly diagnosed with Sjogren's be sure to check out my webpage here.

If you want to learn more about Sjogren's be sure to check out this webpage.

If you want updates on my newsletter and children's book, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter on my main page.

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