Rheumatoid Arthritis - A Natural Approach

Joint Changes in Rheumatoid Arthritis

Symptoms and Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis

The symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are basically inflammation and pain in the joints. The joints affected may well be hotter than normal, and influenza-like symptoms such as fever may be present. Although it is not an invariable rule, the joints affected by rheumatoid arthritis are more often than not the smaller joints such as those in the hands and feet.

Severe rheumatoid arthritis can, over time, lead to distortion of the joints involved and lack of mobility.

Rheumatoid arthritis is often associated with other inflammatory problems such as Sjogren’s syndrome and lupus.

The cause of rheumatoid arthritis is now almost universally thought to be an auto-immune situation, one in which the body’s immune system is attacking its own tissue. This is probably the reason why it is associated with many other conditions which are also auto-immune problems.

What is not quite so agreed is the reason for the underlying auto-immune problem. However, natural therapists of various disciplines agree to a large extent that rheumatoid arthritis is to some extent affected by diet and digestion. The link with the digestion is probably why rheumatoid arthritis is far more common in middle-aged or older people; the digestion gets generally less efficient the older one gets.

I will explain the link with digestion further. The digestive system has the function of breaking down food into basic nutrients (vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, glycerol and simple sugars) from the proteins, fats and complex carbohydrates of which it is made. Less well known is the associated function of the digestive system; that is, keeping anything except those basic nutrients out. It ought to be noted that, counter to intuition, the contents of the digestive system are outside the body; the gastrointestinal tract is essentially a tube running right through the body.

A digestive system in poor condition is not as good as it should be at breaking down food. It is often also less efficient than it should be at keeping out things that don’t belong in the body, such as partially digested food proteins. If the intestinal walls are more permeable than they should be (often as a result of inflammation of the intestinal wall itself) then these proteins get into the bloodstream and the immune system reacts as it is designed to; antibodies are created to these proteins.

Unfortunately, this can make the immune system go wrong in at least two ways. First, some food proteins (particularly ones from meat and dairy products) are fairly similar to some of the body’s own proteins and sometimes the immune system can get confused. Second, an immune system which is stimulated too much of the time starts being a little less discriminating about what it attacks. These two problems combine to make the body’s immune system attack its own tissues.

When the immune system is working, the affected area becomes inflamed and the immune system destroys affected tissue. This is a comparable situation to the one when the immune system is fighting off a viral infection; in such a case, one of the ways that the infection is fought is destruction of cells that contain viruses.

Natural and Other Remedies for Rheumatoid Arthritis

The remedies for rheumatoid arthritis follow from the symptoms or the mechanism of rheumatoid arthritis. Conventional medical treatment usually relies on anti-inflammatory drugs. Unfortunately, all of these drugs have side effects; non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) cause inflammation and sometimes ulceration of the stomach wall, and steroids cause all manner of problems including weakened bones, a depressed immune system and water retention.

In severe cases, the drug of choice is often one of the immune-suppressing drugs such as methotrexate. This works, because the problem is basically with the immune system. However, the immune system has a function (fighting infection) which is compromised by such drugs.

Natural methods for dealing with rheumatoid arthritis can be roughly divided into two classes. One is to deal with the symptoms in the same way as do chemical anti-inflammatories; quite a lot of natural substances have anti-inflammatory effects, usually with fewer side effects than chemical drugs.

The other way is to remove the triggers for the immune system’s misbehaviour. This includes changes of diet to remove triggering substances and bowel wall inflammation; it also includes helping the digestion and the health of the intestinal wall so that the triggering substances don’t get into the bloodstream. There are also some botanicals which act as anti-inflammatories specifically for the intestinal wall; notable ones are aloe vera juice and Boswellia serrata.

Specific Suggestions

There are a few foods very commonly involved in the immune overstimulation and bowel inflammation often connected with rheumatoid arthritis. These are wheat products, cows’ dairy products (goats’ or ewes’ milk cause problems much less often) and red meat as far as protein is concerned. Citrus fruit and foods in the nightshade family (such as potatoes and particularly tomatoes) contain substances that directly irritate the intestinal wall, so they should be avoided.

Digestive enzymes can be very useful to reduce the amount of undigested protein in the digestive system; this is particularly true of betaine HCL, which replaces the stomach acid often deficient in people with rheumatoid arthritis.

Some anti-inflammatory herbals and botanicals can directly relieve the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. These include turmeric, ginger, and Boswellia serrata. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil can also help.

In short, for rheumatoid arthritis (and related disorders):

  • Eliminate or at least reduce triggers: red meat, dairy products, wheat products, tomatoes, potatoes (sometimes), citrus fruits.
  • Increase: oily fish, seeds and nuts, leafy and root vegetables.
  • Supplements: digestive enzyme complex preferably including betaine HCL, ginger, Boswellia serrata, turmeric.

Finally, overgrowth of the organism Candida albicans in the gut can make inflammation worse; see the Hub I’ve written about that subject for more details.

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