Soapwalla founder Rachel Winard went from never being sick and having great skin to suddenly having a constant fever, getting covered in full-body rashes, and experiencing all sorts of other weird symptoms and illnesses. It took her 15 doctors to finally get diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. She was eventually put on chemotherapy for her lupus, along with several other powerful drugs. When she still wasn’t healing, she decided to take control of her own health and seek a practitioner who understood natural remedies for lupus. And — spoiler alert — she found a natural treatment for lupus that worked: Ayurvedic healing.
Mysterious Symptoms Setting In
Winard’s health issues started during the first semester of her first year of law school in New York City. Seemingly overnight, she went from being very healthy to very sick. Along with the incessant fever and full-body rashes, she got bronchitis four times, sun sickness (who knew that was a thing?), and cat scratch fever (also, what?!).
“Before that, I barely even got headaches,” Winard says. “I just never had any health bumps.” She’d never really gotten sick as a child, and had always had clear skin, not even a pimple during adolescence. Suddenly, she was the sickest person she knew.
For that first year of law school, she just hoped the symptoms would go away on their own, that maybe it was all somehow stress-related. Looking back now, she knows that she was just leaning on “all those things you tell yourself when you know something is really wrong but you don’t know how to deal with it.”
But before long, she couldn’t deny the reality any longer. Her health was only getting worse.
By the second year of law school, her skin was so reactive that she couldn’t even put water on it without a rash or other irritation developing. “Your skin is an immune-functioning organ, so it really is like a canary telling you when other things are more fundamentally going wrong,” she told WellBe.
Winard was desperate for some relief, and so she began the long process of trying to figure out what was going on with her.
Battling The Medical System to Get a Diagnosis
Winard visited multiple doctors, often with frustrating results. Countless practitioners gave up after one or two tests came back negative, and she’d have to start from square one with a new doctor each time. “I just kept getting bounced around from one to another to another,” she remembers.
One doctor, because of Winard’s extreme fatigue, decided to test her for type 1 diabetes — and only type 1 diabetes — then sent her away when the test came back negative. Another basically said, “You’re a girl, emotions can be really hard, so manage your stress.” Many of the doctors that she saw told her that it was all in her head, that she should see a shrink. (All of this, in retrospect, is a textbook example of medical gaslighting.)
But still, she kept going. “I wasn’t willing to give up, because I wasn’t willing to keep living the way I was living,” Winard says.
At last, at her 15th appointment, a doctor finally sat down, asked her the questions nobody had asked before, and listened to her answers — even though he was 85 and she was his last patient before he was going to retire. He was the first doctor who thought to look at her symptoms holistically, suggesting that perhaps all of her ailments were connected. Putting everything together, he recommended that she get tested for lupus, and she did. At age 24, she was finally diagnosed with SLE.
Trying to Treat SLE the Conventional Way
Once Winard had her diagnosis, her next step was to assemble her own team of specialists. She needed to find a dermatologist to do skin biopsies as well as a hematologist because she was having a particular kind of blood reaction. And, because the “systemic” in systemic lupus erythematosus means that the internal organs are involved, she needed a rheumatologist as well.
Soon after treatment began, she realized that none of her team of specialists talked to one another to share information about her health. “I was sort of this odd pinball, bouncing from place to place, trying to synthesize what everyone was saying, trying to make sure that all of my documentation got to the right place,” she said. “It was a full-time job.”
Winard’s doctors tried out multiple drug protocols to get her liver, lungs, and blood under control, since these were the things most affected by her SLE. When none of those methods worked, the specialists told her that the best option was chemotherapy. They decided that if they couldn’t get her immune system under control (and not attacking her organs and tissues) they just needed to get rid of it (um what?!).
She was put on three chemo drugs for a year to slow down her out-of-whack immune system. Unlike a cancer chemo protocol, which involves high-dosage injections once a week, she took lower dosages every day along with one injection once a week. After a full 12 months of these chemo treatments, her blood work showed some progress, but her lupus was not in remission. Her weight was down to barely 90 pounds and she felt like “absolute crap,” as she puts it.
“My body needed to stop fighting all the time. I needed that wake-up call to realize that this was not going to be the rest of my life,” she says.
Discovering A Natural Treatment for Lupus
On top of all that, she was working at a demanding law firm and knew the stress of the job played into her inability to heal. So she set up a meeting with a partner (boss) at the firm and told him she was going to India for four months, fully expecting to be fired. To her surprise, he gave her a sabbatical instead. Shortly after that meeting, she went to Mysore in southern India to see a doctor trained in Ayurvedic healing in the hopes of finding a natural treatment for lupus.
For the next four months, she and the doctor worked together daily. “The protocol was so wildly different. We never talked about lupus specifically. She just addressed what my body was showing her,” Winard says. The experience of not being defined by a blood panel or a diagnosis, but instead by how her body was reacting, was life-changing.
When she returned to New York, her blood work came back normal for the first time since her diagnosis. This told her that she was definitely onto something with the Ayurvedic healing, but she also knew that these results had been achieved after she’d completely taken herself out of her life and removed all stress.
Now, Winard’s challenge was to figure out how to make these natural remedies for lupus work back in her real life in New York. She went back to work at the law firm, and after just two days, knew she couldn’t stay. So she saved every penny she could, and six months later, she quit.
“It was a really good time to sit with a lot of uncertainty, which is really what having a chronic illness is,” she says. “It’s a lot of not knowing what’s coming next, and being okay with that.”
The Ayurvedic Healing Protocol That Helped Her Heal
Besides figuring out what she was going to do, career-wise, Winard now faced the daunting task of sticking to her Ayurvedic healing plan while back at home in New York City. But because of how effective the protocol had been, she knew she needed to commit to it.
Diet was central to the natural remedies for lupus that Winard’s Mysore doctor had recommended. Her dietary changes included adding lots of herbs into her daily life, as well as avoiding dairy (a more recent doctor told Winard that he’s never had a lupus patient without a dairy allergy) and nightshades (plants like eggplants, tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes).
Because her GI tract was in shambles from all the drugs, her Ayurvedic healing protocol required that she cook all food. This is because raw food is more difficult for the body to assimilate and digest, and cooked food offered Winard the easiest way for her body to absorb nutrients (learn more about how your GI tract can impact all areas of your health in our free gut guide!). She also used yoga, meditation, and boxing to keep her stress levels low and get in touch with herself. “All of that I responded to so much better than the drug protocol I was on,” she says.
Winard isn’t cured of lupus, so she stays alert. But what she’s achieved is miraculous, and a success in that she was able to discover a natural treatment for lupus that actually worked.
These days, she doesn’t take any prescriptions at all, unless she’s having an SLE flare-up or experiencing a related illness that requires it. In those situations, she’s upfront with her doctors, telling them that she will only take the medications for the minimum amount of time possible, and only if she absolutely needs to.
Contrast this with the situation before she left for India and discovered Ayurvedic healing: at that time, Winard was on 12 drugs daily. She estimates most SLE patients are on at least three. She likened it to being in a game of Whac-A-Mole: constantly treating one symptom, only to have another pop up somewhere else in her body because of a medication she was taking. For example, she’d been on CellCept — an organ transplant drug that she took for her liver, because her liver was so heavily affected by SLE — and now has permanent liver damage because of the drug.
With Ayurvedic healing, there is no Whac-A-Mole. She’s finally found a medication-free, natural treatment for lupus, which means that there are no side effects, only healing.
Returning Home and Launching Soapwalla
The philosophy of Ayurvedic healing had a profound impact on Winard. She resonated with the Ayurvedic approach of “looking at what you’ve got in front of you and then gently unraveling to what might be the base cause with all of the herbs, and all of the plants and oils,” as she describes it.
Winard took that philosophy and launched Soapwalla, a Brooklyn- based natural skin care company that she created for her own sensitive skin issues. She says that the philosophy behind Ayurveda and the one behind Soapwalla are “intricately intertwined,” in that Soapwalla is very intentional about the ingredients they use and how they craft their product. The company sources exclusively from small farms to make hand-crafted, vegan products that don’t use any harmful chemicals, like sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens, or phthalates.
Winard didn’t grow up wanting to run her own business, and never would have imagined that she would own a skin care company. But after her experience with lupus, and the way it affected her once-perfect skin, she saw clearly what her post-lawyer chapter would be. “This whole passion for skin care came about because of my health issues,” she explains.
It will be a lifelong effort to make sure her lupus stays in remission, but now that Winard understands the power of Ayurvedic healing and what her individual body needs to thrive, she knows long-term remission is possible. Through diet, herbs, oils, stress management, and physical exercise, she can feel as good as she did during the first 22 years of her life. Staying healthy may take more effort than it did back then, but it’s also more rewarding than it ever was before.
Have you ever tried an Ayurvedic approach to treating a health issue? What was your experience? Tell us in the comments below!
Watch our full interview with Winard’s to learn the way homophobia in the medical community played out in her treatment, how being in NYC for 9/11 impacted her recovery journey, and much more. You can also listen to the full interview on our podcast!
The recovery story above is anecdotal and specific to this particular individual. Please note that this is not medical advice, and that not all treatments and approaches mentioned will work for everyone.
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