To this day, Behcet’s disease — also sometimes called Silk Road disease — has no crystal clear cause, yet it’s been around for a very long time. In fact, it was first described all the way back in the 5th century by Hippocrates. It then remained pretty obscure until 1937 when this disease officially got its name from Hulusi Behçet, a Turkish dermatologist who described this syndrome of repetitive sores, ulcers and eye inflammation. (1)
Behcet’s disease is known to affect certain organs and tissues including the eyes, mouth, skin, lungs, joints, genitals, brain, and gastrointestinal tract. Behcet’s disease seems to take on a life of its own in each person it inhabits, and symptoms may intensify and weaken over a period of weeks or longer. There is currently no cure, but let’s talk about both the conventional and natural approaches of managing this somewhat bewildering disease.
What Is Behcet’s Disease?
Behcet’s (beh-CHETS) disease, also called Behcet’s syndrome, is a disorder that causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body leading to painful mouth and genital sores, skin lesions and eye problems. The joints, nervous system, and digestive tract can also be affected and become inflamed due to this multifaceted illness. Is Behcet’s disease contagious? No, it is not contagious so it cannot spread from one person to another.
What is Behcet’s disease prognosis? First, let me define prognosis, which is the likely course of a disease or ailment. For most people living with Behcet’s, they are able to get their symptoms under control and conduct normal lives. While the disease can be chronic, symptoms can decrease and even disappear for several years at a time. The better patients are able to control initial symptoms, the less likely they are to have more serious symptoms of the disease. (2)
Behcet’s disease is considered a chronic health condition that can go away and show up again regardless of treatment. Behcet’s disease life expectancy varies. It’s typically normal, but it can be shorter. Death due to Behcet’s is believed to occur in approximately 4 percent of cases. The reason for death is typically intestinal perforation, stroke or aneurysm. (3)
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of Behcet’s disease vary by each individual case. The disease may also go away and recur on its own. Most symptoms of the disease are caused by inflammation of the blood vessels (vasculitis).
The main symptoms of Behçet’s disease to look for: (4)
- Sores in the mouth and/or genital area that keep coming back
- Skin and joint pain
- Inflammation in the eyes
These are additional signs and symptoms depending on which area of the body is affected: (5)
- Mouth: Painful mouth sores that look similar to canker sores are the most common sign of the disease. They start off as raised, round lesions in the mouth, but quickly turn into painful ulcers. These mouth sores tend to heal in one to three weeks, but they often recur.
- Skin: Skin problems can be different from case to case. Some people may develop acne-like sores on their bodies while others may have red, raised and tender nodules on their skin, especially on the lower legs.
- Genitals: People with Behcet’s disease may develop red, open sores on their genitals, which commonly occur on the scrotum or the vulva. The sores are typically painful and can leave scars behind.
- Eyes: Behcet’s disease may cause inflammation in the eye, also known as uveitis. Uveitis causes redness, pain and blurred vision in one or both eyes. For people with Behcet’s disease eye symptoms, the condition may come and go.
- Vascular system: Inflammation in blood vessels may occur causing redness, pain and swelling in the arms or legs when a blood clot results. Inflammation in the large arteries can lead to complications including aneurysms and narrowing or blockage of the vessel.
- Joints: Joint swelling and pain often affect the knees in people with Behcet’s disease. The ankles, elbows or wrists also may be affected. Joint symptoms may last one to three weeks and go away on their own.
- Digestive system: Behcet’s disease may cause a variety of signs and symptoms that affect the digestive system, including abdominal pain, diarrhea and rectal bleeding.
- Brain: Behcet’s disease may cause inflammation in the brain and nervous system that leads to headache, fever, disorientation, poor balance or stroke.
Behcet’s disease symptoms can become less severe over time or come and go.
Causes and Risk Factors
What causes Behcet’s Disease? The exact cause of Behçet disease is unknown. Scientific research points towards the likelihood of viral, bacterial, genetic and environmental factors contributing to the onset of the disease. (5)
Another theory is that there is an autoimmune component to Behcet’s, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks some of its own healthy cells, specifically the blood vessels, which leads to the disease’s characteristic blood vessel inflammation. (6)
Risk factors for Behcet’s disease include: (5)
- Where you live: People from countries in the Middle East and Far East, including Turkey, Iran, Japan and China, are more likely to develop Behcet’s.
- Age: Behcet’s disease tends to most often affect men and women in their 20s and 30s.
- Sex: While Behcet’s disease occurs in both men and women, the disease tends to be more severe in men.
- Genes: Having certain genes is associated with a higher risk of developing Behcet’s, specifically the gene HLA–B51.
Is Behcet’s disease genetic? Even though the HLA-B51 gene is linked to the disease, The Johns Hopkins Vasculitis Center points out: “It must be emphasized that presence of the gene in and of itself is not enough to cause Behcet’s: many people possess the gene, but relatively few develop Behcet’s.” (7)
It’s not common to see Behcet’s in children or elderly individuals. In Turkey, it is a very common disease seen in as many as 1 in 250 people. In Japan and Israel, the disease is a leading cause of blindness. In the United States, where Behcet’s is pretty rare, it’s estimated that about 3 to 5 of every 100,000 people have Behcet’s disease. (8)
How do you diagnose Behcet’s disease? A Behcet’s disease diagnosis is typically based on symptoms, a physical examination and blood tests.
There is no specific laboratory test to confirm Behcet’s disease so doctors typically suspect Behcet’s in individuals, especially young adults, who have had three episodes of mouth sores in the past year and any two of the following: (9)
- Recurring genital sores
- Characteristic eye issues
- Skin lesions that look like bumps under the skin, acne or ulcers
- Skin bumps or blisters triggered by a slight injury
There is no cure for Behcet’s disease, but conventional Behcet’s disease treatment aims to relieve specific symptoms. Treatment typically includes topical and oral medications including corticosteroids and other immunosuppressants. For severe Behcet’s syndrome cases, immunosuppressive agents such as chlorambucil, azathioprine, and cyclophosphamide may be used. Depending on the severity of symptoms and which organ is affected, other drugs are used as well.
Natural Ways to Improve Behcet’s Disease
According to the Mayo Clinic, “No cure exists for Behcet’s disease. If you have a mild form of the condition, your doctor may offer medications to control temporary flares in pain and inflammation. You may not need to take medication between flares.” (10) These are some of the natural ways you can control the pain and inflammation associated with Behcet’s disease:
1. Consume an Anti-inflammatory Diet
Even though the best diet to manage flare-ups can vary from patient to patient, pretty much everyone can benefit from eating anti-inflammatory foods. Reducing inflammation and boosting the immune system is huge for Behect’s disease. Since about 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), what you eat on a daily basis can go a long way to help manage inflammation and provide your body with valuable health-boosting nutrients.
The Vasculitis Foundation has some great recommendations for eating to beat inflammation. For starters, they recommend that you “eat the rainbow everyday,” meaning you emphasize colorful fruits and vegetables in your diet and try to eat one of each color daily. They also recommend including healthy fats in your diet like olive oil, walnuts, avocados, and olives while avoiding refined sugar and refined sources of carbohydrates. Instead, opt for whole grains like barley, quinoa, bulgur, amaranth and steel cut oats. (11)
2. Eliminate Unhealthy Foods from Your Diet
In addition to consuming whole anti-inflammatory foods, these are some other helpful dietary guidelines that may help reduce symptoms:
- Avoid processed foods that are high in sugar and trans fats.
- Reduce or eliminate foods which may be causing you any gut trouble. Common culprits include gluten, excess sugar and conventional dairy products. You can follow an elimination diet to help you figure out your personal problem foods.
- Avoid consumption of raw seafood, undercooked meat and processed meats, which can increase the likelihood of negative reactions in people with suppressed immune systems.
- Reduce intake of caffeine, sweetened beverages and alcohol, which can worsen digestive problems and increase inflammation.
3. Maintain Good Oral Health
Since people with Behcet’s are prone to mouth sores, it’s very important that they maintain good oral health, which includes regular brushing and flossing. I highly recommend using a probiotic toothpaste to encourage healthy bacteria in the mouth.
Also, flossing and oil pulling daily helps maintain oral hygiene. Experts also recommend that patients avoid “irritating agents such as acid, crusty, hard, spicy, or salty nutrients and alcoholic beverages.” (12)
4. Zinc Sulfate
Zinc is well-known for its immune system benefits. Research reveals that taking zinc orally can be a good treatment option for Behcet’s disease patients that doesn’t appear to carry any unwanted side effects.
This randomized, controlled, double-blind trial published in The Journal of Dermatology had patients with Behcet’s disease take 100 milligrams of zinc sulfate or an identical placebo tablet three times daily. After three months, the patients switched what they were taking (previous zinc patients took a placebo and vice versa).
The researchers note that the Behcet’s disease patients had significantly lower mean serum zinc levels compared to the healthy control group. After zinc and placebo treatment, the overall finding was that the higher the patients’ levels of zinc sulfate, the better symptoms were as judged by the clinical manifestations index (CMI). The researchers conclude that “zinc sulfate was found to be a good option in the treatment of Behcet’s disease.” (13)
5. Traditional Chinese Medicine
Some people opt to explore Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help treat and manage their Behcet’s disease. The appropriate course of TCM treatment will depend upon a certified practitioner’s diagnosis based upon the patterns of your disease. The possible TCM patterns involved in a case of Behcet’s Disease may include: (14)
- Kidney yang deficiency
- Kidney yin deficiency
- Spleen qi deficiency
- Spleen yang deficiency
- Spleen and stomach damp heat
As with so many health concerns, exercise is known to be helpful for Behcet’s disease as well. Staying physically active is especially helpful if the patient is struggling with joint pain as a Behcet’s symptom. (2)
Health complications due to Behcet’s depends upon your individual signs and symptoms of the disease. Anyone with eye symptoms of Behcet’s disease should see an ophthalmologist on a regular basis since untreated uveitis can result in decreased vision or even blindness.
According to the American Behcet’s Disease Association, “Behcet’s Disease affects different parts of the body, therefore, it is likely patients will have different doctors. It will be helpful to have a primary care physician in order to coordinate treatment and monitor care. Communication among various physicians is important in regards to clinical symptoms and treatment options.” (16)
- Behcet’s disease is a disorder that causes blood vessel inflammation throughout the body.
- Key symptoms that indicate a likely Behcet’s diagnosis include sores in the mouth and/or genital region that keep returning, skin and joint pain, and eye inflammation.
- The disease is rare in the United States, but more common in places like Turkey, Iran, Japan and China.
- There is no known cure for Behcet’s syndrome, but many people are able to live a normal life.
6 Possible Natural Options to Help Treat and Manage Behcet’s Disease
- Eating a healthy diet focused on the daily consumption of whole, anti-inflammatory foods, especially fruits and vegetables.
- Eliminating unhealthy foods from your diet by avoiding unhealthy processed foods, refined sugar, caffeine and alcohol as much as possible.
- Maintaining good oral/dental health.
- Supplementing with zinc sulfate.
- Traditional Chinese medicine.
- Daily exercise.
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