Tender joints, crushing fatigue, and chronic pain are just a few of the distressing symptoms caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis is the most common form of autoimmune arthritis and left untreated, it can disfigure joints, reduce mobility, and prevent you from engaging in the activities you love, putting a damper on your quality of life. While rheumatoid arthritis treatment measures should be left to your health care provider, you can look for holistic ways to manage your quality of life with rheumatoid arthritis. (Source)
The conventional treatment approach for rheumatoid arthritis focuses primarily on reducing symptoms, including joint pain and swelling, and preventing permanent damage to joints. Medications prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis may include disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs), non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and corticosteroids. While these medications can improve pain and swelling, they do not address the underlying factors driving rheumatoid arthritis, such as diet and chronic stress. In addition, long-term use of these medications can have many adverse effects.
While there is no cure for rheumatoid arthritis, a comprehensive approach can help you manage the disease, reduce symptoms, and improve your day to day living. Read on to learn about 5 holistic approaches to rheumatoid arthritis that can help you feel better and achieve a higher level of health.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
In rheumatoid arthritis (RA) the immune response is imbalanced, resulting in a state of chronic inflammation that primarily affects synovial joints, such as those in the hands and knees. Synovial joints are the most common type of joint in the body, characterized by a joint cavity, a fluid-filled space in which the surfaces of the bones contact each other. (Source)
In rheumatoid arthritis, the immune system generates autoantibodies. Autoantibodies are rogue proteins produced by the immune system that react to proteins inside your own body, damaging your own cells and tissues. The autoantibodies involved in RA attack parts of the joints, driving joint breakdown and RA symptoms, such as swelling and pain. (Source)
Studies suggest that inflammation may play a role in the formation of autoantibodies. Therefore, reducing underlying inflammation may be a helpful strategy for holistically managing RA symptoms. (Source)
5 Natural Approaches to Holistic Rheumatoid Arthritis Treatment
Many nutritional and lifestyle factors can promote chronic inflammation within the body and, as a result, may influence autoantibody formation and disease activity in RA. A holistic approach that focuses on optimizing diet, gut health, stress management, and exercise may bring down inflammation, improve RA symptoms, and help you reclaim your health and vitality! (Source)
1. Try an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
An anti-inflammatory diet can be an excellent place to begin reducing symptoms and improving quality of life in RA, although investigations into dietary protocols for rheumatoid arthritis are limited and have yielded mixed results. For example, several studies have suggested that a Mediterranean diet, a gluten free vegan diet, or a diet free of meat, lactose, and gluten may each reduce markers of disease activity and improve symptoms in RA.
However, what's currently unclear is which aspects of these diets may affect disease activity and symptoms the most. Is it the inclusion of many vegetables, fruits, and seafood in the Mediterranean diet? The exclusion of gluten in the gluten free vegan diet? Avoidance of lactose in the meat, lactose, and gluten free diet? More high quality research is clearly needed. (Source, Source, Source)
Until more research is available, following anti-inflammatory dietary principles, such as those of the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet, can be an excellent place to start. Foods emphasized in the AIP diet, such as omega-3-rich wild-caught seafood and polyphenol-packed vegetables, fruits, and culinary herbs and spices, provide nutrients that can reduce inflammation. (Source)
In addition, gluten and nightshade vegetables may be inflammatory triggers if you have RA. Research suggests that if you have rheumatoid arthritis, you may be more likely to have celiac disease, an autoimmune disease triggered by an immune reaction to gluten. If this is true for you, removing gluten may help you reduce inflammation and improve symptoms. Solanine, a compound found in nightshade plants, can increase intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut,” and may influence RA progression. Examples of nightshade vegetables include tomatoes, peppers, white potatoes, and eggplant. (Source, Source)
2. Repair Leaky Gut and Support Your Gut Microbiome
The gut microbiota, the collection of microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, regulates the immune system and inflammation levels throughout the body. A growing body of research indicates a strong connection between the gut microbiome and autoimmune disease, and rheumatoid arthritis is no exception. For example, dysbiosis, an imbalance between beneficial and harmful microbes in the gut, may provoke inflammation that ultimately affects disease activity in RA. Compared to individuals without RA, those with RA have been shown to have higher levels of inflammatory gut bacteria, such as Prevotella copri. (Source, Source)
Rheumatoid arthritis patients also have higher levels of markers in their blood associated with intestinal permeability, also known as "leaky gut." Leaky gut occurs when spaces develop between the cells that line the intestines, allowing bacteria and other inflammatory substances to move from the gut into the bloodstream, triggering an inflammatory reaction. In animal studies, mice with leaky gut develop worse joint degeneration compared to mice without leaky gut. These findings suggest that repairing leaky gut may be vital for reducing autoimmune activity in RA. (Source)
Working with a health care provider to identify gut imbalances, such as dysbiosis and leaky gut, may offer another holistic way to reduce symptoms and improve quality of life in RA.
3. Use Foods and Nutrients to Reduce Inflammation
Anti-inflammatory nutrients and supplements, including omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, and curcumin, may help address inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, improving joint discomfort, heat, and swelling.
Curcumin, the compound that gives turmeric root its signature bright yellow hue, offers anti-inflammatory effects and may be helpful for people with RA. In several studies, curcumin has been shown to improve pain, joint swelling, and blood markers of inflammation without any significant side effects. (Source, Source)
Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood and fish oil supplements may also decrease inflammation in RA. While optimizing omega-3 fatty acid intake by eating fatty fish such as salmon can be an excellent place to start, research suggests that supplemental omega-3 fatty acids may offer significant benefits for people with RA. For example, daily supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to improve the severity of joint pain, the number of swollen joints, the number of tender joints, overall physical function, and the need for pain-relieving medications in people with RA. (Source, Source, Source)
Vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, may also help regulate inflammation in RA. Research suggests that vitamin D supplementation can reduce markers of inflammation in people with RA. Vitamin D deficiency is more common in people with rheumatoid arthritis compared to healthy people, suggesting that supplementing with vitamin D may be beneficial in patients with RA. (Source, Source)
4. Manage Your Stress
Research indicates that high stress levels are associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Stress may worsen RA symptoms by triggering an imbalance in the body’s stress-response system, known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. An imbalanced HPA axis can ramp up levels of inflammatory immune molecules in the body, fueling inflammation. Stress management training has been found to lower an important marker of inflammation called IL-8 in people with RA. While this study was small and short in duration, the results suggest that stress management practices may help balance immune function in people with RA. (Source, Source)
Pain and fatigue associated with RA can reduce the motivation to move your body. However, research shows that regular exercise can actually relieve pain, improve functional mobility, and enhance quality of life in people with RA! For example, aerobic exercise, such as walking and cycling, may reduce chronic pain by altering pain processing pathways in the nervous system. In addition, strength training can improve joint mobility and inhibit cartilage breakdown.
A comprehensive fitness routine that includes both aerobic exercise and strength training has the potential to significantly improve multiple symptoms and quality of life in RA. However, the key is to find the type and amount of exercise that helps you feel better, rather than flaring your symptoms. (Source, Source)
Working with a personal trainer who understands autoimmune disease and can tailor your workout routine to your body’s needs, or engaging in an autoimmune disease-specific online physical activity program, may be a great place to start!
The Bottom Line on Holistic Treatment for Rheumatoid Arthritis
A holistic approach to rheumatoid arthritis can reduce inflammation and balance your immune system but it is not a treatment within itself. While these lifestyle recommendations can help you better manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life, be sure to connect with your health care provider to come up with a larger care plan.
Based on the research, the most effective holistic strategies for managing RA may include eating an anti-inflammatory diet, improving gut health, supplementing with specific nutrients, managing stress, and exercising regularly. You don't need to overhaul each of these aspects of your lifestyle at once. Start by selecting 1 or 2 changes that feel most doable for you. Once you've built some momentum with those shifts, it will feel easier to continue creating your healing lifestyle from there! If you're looking for personalized nutrition and lifestyle guidance, check out WellTheory's autoimmune care membership.