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Glenn Frey: Rheumatoid Arthritis and Ulcerative Colitis

Glenn Frey was the lead singer, songwriter, and guitar, piano, and keyboard player in The Eagles, the great rock band that he had co-founded in 1971. In the 1980s the band broke up and he went on to sing on his own.  In 1994, The Eagles got back together and were as famous as ever. With The Eagles, Frey won six Grammy Awards and five American Music Awards, and had 24 Top-40 singles.

By age 52, he had developed two autoimmune diseases: rheumatoid arthritis, which causes horrible joint pain and can destroy tissue throughout the body; and ulcerative colitis, which can cause intestinal bleeding, cramping, diarrhea and intestinal blockages.  Autoimmune diseases are treated with a wide variety of drugs that can have serious and potentially fatal side effects. In January 2016, at the too-young age of 67, Frey died with pneumonia and other complications.   We will never know whether his death was caused by these diseases or by the drugs that were used to treat them.

Early Life and Career
Glenn Lewis Frey was born in Detroit and grew up in the suburb of Royal Oak. His father was an auto factory worker. In high school, he sang and played the piano and guitar in a local band. At age 19, he first became well known when he performed background vocals and guitar for Bob Seger's recording of "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man". He moved to Los Angeles to be with his girlfriend, Joan Sliwin, a singer who helped further his career by  introducing him to several established musicians. In 1970, at age 22, he and drummer Don Henley joined a band that Linda Ronstadt hired to be her backup band for a performance.  Then he joined with Don Henley, Randy Meisner and Bernie Leadon to form The Eagles. Frey sang and played the guitar and keyboards while Henley played drums. Together they wrote many of the group's songs including "Take It Easy", "Peaceful Easy Feeling", "Already Gone", "Tequila Sunrise", "Lyin' Eyes", "New Kid in Town", "Heartache Tonight" and "How Long".

In 1980, The Eagles broke up under the stress of the typical rock musician's life: performing every night, traveling most days, sleeping in different hotel rooms and sometimes taking drugs to keep themselves going.   When the Eagles disbanded, Frey was often asked when they would get back together, and he would respond, "when hell freezes over". He went out on his own and his solo career was no less spectacular. He had 12 songs in the U.S. Top 100.  In 1994, The Eagles got back together and they were as popular as ever. Their first album was called "When Hell Freezes Over." In 2013, Showtime aired a two-part documentary, History of the Eagles, that won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Sound Mixing For Nonfiction Programming.

Illness and Death
Traveling and working all the time took its toll. He smoked heavily and had a temporary period in which he took hard drugs. He developed two auto-immune diseases by age 52, rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis.  Nobody knows what causes autoimmune diseases, but they are all characterized by having an immune system that attacks a person's own body and stays active all the time, instead of doing its job of killing germs and then quieting down.   Frey's wife of 25 years also developed an auto-immune disease called lupus that can affect primarily the skin and kidneys.

In November 2015, the Eagles cancelled an appearance to honor them at the Kennedy Center because Frey had developed intestinal bleeding that required surgeons to remove part of his intestines.  During the surgery, he had massive bleeding, went into shock and never recovered. He died on January 18, 2016, at the age of 67.  The cause of death was given as complications of rheumatoid arthritis, acute ulcerative colitis and pneumonia.

What are Autoimmune Diseases?
Your immunity is supposed to be good for you. It helps to protect you from infections. When germs get into your body, your immunity makes cells and chemicals that attack and kill these germs.  Your immunity is supposed to be able to tell the difference between invading germs and the cells of your own body. It is supposed to attack and kill germs and not attack you.  However, sometimes your immunity attacks you and doctors cannot find any germs or other reasons why your immunity is overactive (called inflammation). When this happens, your doctor will say that you have an autoimmune disease.  If your immunity attacks primarily your joints, it is called rheumatoid arthritis. If it attacks primarily your colon and intestines, it is called ulcerative colitis. If it attacks primarily your kidneys, skin and other parts of your body, it is called lupus. If it attacks primarily your muscles and skin, it is called dermatomyositis. There are many others.

How are Autoimmune Diseases Treated?
All of the autoimmune diseases are treated with drugs that suppress your immunity. These drugs can reduce pain and suffering, and they can slow, but not stop, the damage caused by the immune system attacking parts of the person's own body.  Unfortunately, all of the drugs that suppress your immunity can increase risk for developing infections, cancers and other health problems.  Treating autoimmune diseases requires compassionate and highly-trained doctors who must constantly weigh the benefits of the drugs they prescribe against the side effects they can cause.  Even the relatively mild pain medications that are available over-the-counter, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can have serious side effects, particularly if they are taken often.

A partial list of drugs used to treat autoimmune disease includes: Biologic Agents, Corticosteroids, Disease-Modifying Antirheumatic Drugs (DMARDs), Auranofin, Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine, Cyclophosphamide, Cyclosporine, Leflunomide. Methotrexate, Minocycline, Mycophenolate, Penicillamine and Sulfasalazine.  Lists of the reported side effects of these and other drugs are readily available online at websites such as Drugs.com http://www.drugs.com/ or from your pharmacist.  You should always be aware of potential side effects for any drugs you take for autoimmune diseases or anything else. Your doctor needs to know immediately if you suffer side effects from any medication.

Lifestyle Changes to Avoid or Treat Autoimmune Diseases
Recent studies show that many environmental and lifestyle factors can contribute to an overactive immunity (inflammation).  Whether you are already being treated for an autoimmune disease or just want to reduce your risk of getting one in the future, the same lifestyle factors apply:
• Avoid smoking and second-hand smoke
• Severely restrict alcohol
• Avoid being overweight
• Exercise regularly and keep on moving your joints, even if they are painful
• Treat periodontal disease immediately
• Keep blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D over 50 nmol/L
• Avoid promiscuous sex (each additional sexual contact increases risk for germs that may be deadly for people with auto-immune diseases or anyone else)
• Eat a healthful diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables.

I recommend that you restrict red meat, processed meat, fried foods and sugar-added foods and drinks. Several studies have shown that eating fish a few times a week can help relieve some joint pain for rheumatoid arthritis patients.  No well-controlled studies have shown benefit from avoiding specific foods or total fasting. Fish oil pills have not been shown to treat rheumatoid arthritis or other auto-immune diseases, but see my recent article about rancid batches of fish oil pills possibly masking their potential benefits.  Increasing intake of fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains may help reduce inflammation. Adding fiber to the diet results in lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood; CRP is an indicator of inflammation.  Extra-virgin olive oil may help reduce inflammation in the same way that NSAIDs do.

Ointments containing aspirin and capsaicin can reduce pain, but do not treat the underlying inflammation that causes rheumatoid arthritis or other autoimmune diseases. You can try acupuncture, massage, mineral baths, relaxation techniques, biofeedback, hypnosis and so forth, but we do not have any good studies to show that they reduce or cure inflammation.

Glenn Lewis Frey
November 6, 1948 – January 18, 2016

February 7th, 2016
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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