A Holistic approach to helping heal Rheumatoid Arthritis: Underlying Causes and Solutions
The Impact of Rheumatoid Arthritis
Are you or a loved one among the 1.3 million people dealing with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) in the US?
If so, you know this inflammatory joint disease has deleterious effects on your work life, personal relationships, ability to exercise, and daily routines.
As science continues to progress, so does our understanding of the most effective interventions to mitigate symptoms associated with RA. Many holistic healthcare practitioners keep their fingers on the pulse of this understanding, giving them the ability to provide solutions when mainstream medicine isn’t making the cut.
If you’ve tried prescription medications, followed the advice of western medical doctors, or scoured the internet for help only to get temporary relief, it’s time to explore some alternative perspectives.
What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid Arthritis is an inflammatory autoimmune disease. In RA, the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and the lining surrounding joints.
Although rare, RA can also affect the skin, heart, eyes, and blood vessels. Due to the autoimmune nature of RA, patients are at an increased risk for infections, respiratory disease, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular disease.
RA can involve the following symptoms:
- Musculoskeletal pain
- Swelling around joints
- Joint stiffness
- Burning sensation around joints and tissues
- Tension or pressure around joints
- Chronic fatigue
- Rheumatoid nodules (firm lumps under the skin around joints)
Opposed to osteoarthritis, RA usually starts in smaller joints, involves symmetrical pain, and has longer-lasting inflammation, stiffness, and swelling.
The most common interventions for RA from the perspective of allopathic medicine include antirheumatic medication, physical therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), or surgery. Some find great relief in these solutions. But, many also report this relief to be temporary.
Temporary relief leaves you on a hamster wheel jumping from specialist to specialist trying to remedy symptoms.
It’s at this point many patients turn to holistically minded practitioners for a different perspective on underlying causes and solutions.
What does alternative medicine have to say about RA? Let’s take a look.
Underlying Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Holistic Perspective
Both allopathic and alternative medicine recognizes the complexity of RA and the multitude of causes. Alternative medicine tends to hone in on the following contributing factors: stress, environmental toxin exposure, inflammatory diet, and poor gut health.
The Gut Microbiome and Rheumatoid Arthritis Connection
To many’s surprise, over 70% of your immune cells reside in your gastrointestinal tract. There is quite an intimate relationship between gut microbial health and systemic immunity, especially when it comes to RA.
A study even found the presence of certain gut microbes linked to RA. The bacterium Prevotella copri was found in 75% of the stool samples of research subjects with new-onset and untreated RA.
This same study found that with an increased presence of Prevotella copri came the reduction of beneficial microbes such as Bacteroides, which play a crucial role in regulating the immune system.
The overabundance of Prevotella copri is not an exclusive indicator of RA. Rather, it gives important insight into the delicate relationship between the gut microbiome, inflammation, and autoimmunity.
Do your best to reduce exposure to these common gut health offenders:
- Diets high in refined sugar and starch
- Long-term antibiotic usage
- Frequent exposure to pesticides and herbicides
- Prolonged stress
- Frequent NSAID use
- Diets lacking fiber and phytonutrients
- Industrial seed oil consumption
Anti-Inflammatory Diet For Rheumatoid Arthritis
What’s at the end of your fork is the most powerful deciding factor in disease prevention. This especially applies to inflammatory autoimmune conditions such as RA.
Our dietary choices are also one of the most powerful influences on our gut health, which as we discussed, is crucial for modulating the immune system.
The scientific literature is growing on the effectiveness of various therapeutic diets on RA symptoms. The benefits of these diets give an important clue that poor food choices could be a contributing factor to widespread inflammation and pain.
Some of the most common therapeutic diets researched for RA include Mediterranean, gluten, and dairy-free, plant-based, and intermittent fasting.
In several research studies, patients followed therapeutic diets for about two weeks. As a result, many experienced a reduction in pain, swelling, morning stiffness, and inflammatory biomarkers such as C-Reactive protein. Immunoglobulin-M (IgM) Rheumatoid blood markers even came down.
With slight variations between each, therapeutic diets for RA emphasize the following principles:
- Abundance of plants and phytonutrients
- High in essential fatty acids such as those found in wild-caught fish, extra virgin olive oil, nuts, and seeds
- Elimination of conventionally raised animal products
- Elimination of refined sugar and carbohydrates
- Rich in dietary fiber
- Inclusion of anti-inflammatory herbs and spices such as turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon bark
- Reduction or complete elimination of alcoholic beverages
Dietary interventions are beneficial for immunity, inflammation, and reducing disease activity. If nothing else has provided long-term relief, I encourage you to explore this route.
Stress, Nervous System Dysregulation, and Rheumatoid Arthritis
In the field of holistic health, we often talk about the impact of environmental toxins, the microbiome, diet, and exercise on overall well-being. Amidst all this noise, one of the most important aspects of health is neglected ……..
A dysregulated nervous system can be a huge contributor to chronic health conditions. Prolonged stress is linked to the following:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Type Two Diabetes
- Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Axis dysfunction
- Increased levels of inflammatory cytokines
- Chronic low-grade inflammation
- Decreased brain matter in certain areas such as the prefrontal cortex
Stress receptors are present in every organ system. Meaning, chronic stress elicits its negative effects on molecular homeostasis through varying mechanisms depending on the organ system involved.
In RA, the main bodily systems involved are immune and musculoskeletal. Chronic stress negatively affects the immune system by sending certain neuropeptides and hormones to receptors in immune cells. This ultimately leads to a sharp increase in circulating cytokines and biomarkers of inflammation.
Holistic Interventions For Rheumatoid Arthritis
Identifying potential underlying causes of RA is the first step to finding relief and/or symptom management. In addition to addressing the underlying root causes, such as those mentioned above, the field of holistic health offers promising and effective solutions for RA management.
Always consult with your doctor or primary healthcare practitioner before implementing any complementary RA therapies into your routine, especially if you are currently on medication.
Herbs and Supplements
Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s pack a punch when it comes to fighting inflammation. They downregulate the production of inflammatory biomarkers such as cytokines. Omega-3s also inhibit the cyclooxygenase enzyme involved in the production of prostaglandin hormones that lead to inflammation.
You can find these inflammation-busting fatty acids in foods such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, oysters, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds.
It can be hard to get a therapeutic dosage of Omega-3s through diet alone. Starting a high-quality, purity-tested omega-3 supplement may be beneficial for you.
Cannabidiol (CBD): This active ingredient in hemp plants continues to grow in popularity, and for good reason.
CBD demonstrates powerful anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects for RA by acting on our endocannabinoid system. Our endocannabinoid system influences nervous system regulation and pain perception.
In one study, individuals reported CBD improved pain, physical function, and sleep quality.
More robust studies are needed to support CBD’s beneficial effects on chronic pain and arthritic conditions, but it remains a viable solution with little known side effects.
If you’re interested in incorporating CBD for RA symptom relief, there are several options for administration. Oral and topical are the most common.
Check out Grimmster’s CBD gummies here.
Boswellia: Boswellia is a herbal gum resin extracted from the Boswellia serrata tree. Touted in eastern medicine and western herbalism as a potent anti-inflammatory, it may be an effective intervention for RA.
Boswellia serrata, also known as Indian Frankincense, has a multitude of terpenes proven to block the activity of inflammation-inducing enzymes.
In the ancient Indian life science known as Ayurveda, Boswellia is specifically used to target arthritic conditions.
Unfortunately, there has been little research comparing the pain-relieving effects of Boswellia to modern pharmaceuticals on RA and other inflammatory conditions. There is a lot of potential left to explore.
Much of what we know about Boswellia’s uses and indications are from the wisdom of ancient healing systems and anecdotal evidence.
Curcumin: This yellow-pigmented phytochemical found in turmeric is the most extensively studied herb compared to the others mentioned.
Like Boswellia, the medicinal properties of curcumin and turmeric are recorded in ancient healing traditions. The use of turmeric since time immemorial continues to spark curiosity amongst modern-day scientists.
Research shows curcumin – found in turmeric – suppresses inflammation involved in the pathology of chronic disease through various mechanisms.
In one study, the effectiveness of curcumin on RA symptoms was measured by comparing the outcomes of a group exclusively taking a pharmaceutical, a group exclusively taking curcumin, and a group taking a combination of both. The group test subjects taking only curcumin demonstrated the highest percentage of improvement in symptoms and disease activity.
To get the most out of a turmeric or curcumin supplement, make sure the formulation includes piperine (found in black pepper) to enhance bioavailability.
Cat’s Claw: Cat’s claw is another promising herbal remedy for RA symptoms. This vine grows in the Amazon and other tropical areas.
Like turmeric, cat’s claw has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
In a randomized, double-blind trial, an alkaloid extract of cat’s claw was given to RA patients for 24 weeks. Compared to the placebo group, RA patients taking the alkaloid extract reported reductions in the number of painful and swollen joints at the end of the trial.
Herbal, supplement and pharmaceutical interventions for RA can provide immense benefits. However, these won’t overcompensate for poor lifestyle habits. If your foundation isn’t in check, you will constantly be searching for the next bandaid or temporary solution.
Two important foundations of health to work on while, or before implementing herbal, supplement, and pharmaceutical interventions, including stress and sleep.
Restful sleep can be hard to come by with a stressful job, kids, household work, and other obligations. Fine-tune your bedtime routine so you can optimize sleep to the best of your ability.
Your routine doesn’t have to be extravagant. Get back to the basics:
- Cool bedroom temperature
- Limit artificial lighting and blue-light exposure one hour before bed
- Incorporate a mindfulness practice such as meditation or light stretching before hitting the sheets
- Play relaxing music in the background as you and your family are winding down
- Read for 20-30 minutes
- Consider magnesium glycinate or citrate supplementation to calm your nervous system
If you refer back to the stress-autoimmunity-inflammation section, you’ll be reminded of the importance of regulating your nervous system.
I encourage you to reflect on the areas of your life that may not be supporting your physical, spiritual, or emotional needs. Examine your job, personal relationships, hobbies, habits, and daily routines with honesty.
Where is there room for improvement?
Check out this list of stress reduction techniques to aid you on your journey to a more balanced life:
- Breathwork practices
- Counseling/therapy with a licensed professional
- Spending time in nature
- Creative outlets
Get Your Quality of Life Back
Managing RA often requires a multi-faceted approach.
Some may find the most benefit in a combination of western and alternative medicine. You are a unique individual. Experiment and find what therapies work best for you through trial and error or by consulting with a holistic health practitioner.
RA symptoms don’t have to be debilitating. Empower yourself with the tools and research presented.
Start small by first identifying the potential root causes at play in your own body. Then make changes to your lifestyle accordingly.
Next, explore which holistic interventions resonate with you the most. Maybe one or two of the herbs sound promising. Or maybe you’ve heard all of your friends raving about CBD and this was your sign to try it.
Whatever holistic interventions you decide to dabble in, you are one step closer to regaining your freedom and finding relief!
Disclaimer: Again, please always consult with a doctor or your primary healthcare provider before implementing any herbs, supplements, or alternative interventions into your routine.
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