By David Novak, Guest Writer
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks the membranes that line the joints and causes inflammation. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for this chronic condition, and the drugs used to control symptoms—serious inflammation, bone loss and severe pain—can have side effects ranging from anemia to nausea to even liver damage.
Fortunately, you have some alternatives. While natural remedies usually can’t take the place of conventional meds, they can help you reduce the dosage or frequency of these drugs to the point where side effects aren’t a problem. Here are some of the most effective and best-studied ways to alleviate RA symptoms, the natural way.
Exercise for the Mind and Body
Finding ways to ease tension can play a vital role in relieving pain because stress can exacerbate RA symptoms. Studies have shown that meditation, biofeedback and massage often help. Plus, studies show big benefits from doing exercises such as yoga, swimming, low weight-bearing exercises and tai chi.
In particular, yoga and tai chi offers a slow and rhythmic form of Chinese exercise that combines movement and breathing. Besides relieving pain, these exercises can also increase balance, strength and flexibility.
Use Water to Your Advantage
Drinking water reduces inflammation, plain and simple. Water hydrates your joints and your whole body, and it helps prevent disease associated with rheumatoid arthritis. Make sure you’re drinking at least 12 eight-ounce glasses of water a day.
Water isn’t just good for your insides. It’s good for the outer as well. Soaking in a hot bath or Jacuzzi, or taking a hot shower to relieve your aching joints will help relax tense muscles and ease stiffness. You should choose a comfortable water temperature and soak for about 15 minutes.
Additionally exercising in warm water, either by swimming or taking a water aerobics class, works wonders too.
On the other hand, pain and swelling in a joint may be eased by cold, so wrap a towel around a bag of ice or frozen vegetables and hold it on the painful joint for about 10 minutes. If pain and swelling in a single joint persists for more than a few hours, it could be a sign of infection, so seek a doctor’s consultation.
Supplements, Probiotics and Herbs
Many natural anti-inflammatories have been turned into supplements. For example, herbs like thunder god vine, ginko, devil’s claw and boswellia (Indian frankincense), as well as supplements such as oleanolic acid (from olive oil), EGCG (green tea extract) and bromelain (enzymes found in pineapple), have all shown to be very effective in reducing inflammation.
You can try any of these, but be patient because these herbs and supplements take time to be effective. Also be aware that some supplements can come with side effects, so let your doctor know what you’re taking, especially if you’re also on prescription drugs.
Secondly, your colon usually contains beneficial bacteria, which help break down food. There also exist harmful bacteria in your colon, which can proliferate when there’s a change in the intestinal environment (like taking prescription drugs). Harmful bacteria can trigger inflammation. Probiotics can fix this by reducing inflammation.
Those most recommended include Bifidobacterium infantis, found in supplements such as Align and others, and probiotic mixtures containing bifidobacteria and other organisms such as lactobacilli, found in Ortho Biotic and VSL#3. Talk to your doctor before starting probiotics because some can interfere with RA medication.
Gamma linolenic acid (GLA) is another fatty acid with anti-inflammatory properties. GLA is found mostly in botanical oils—evening primrose, black currant seed and especially borage oil, its richest source. It reduces joint pain and stiffness, and may also reduce the required dosage amount RA patients need with their dose of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.
The RA Diet
While there is no hard-and-fast universal rheumatoid arthritis diet, studies indicate that what people eat affects the body’s inflammatory response, and that while some foods—such as processed foods—promote inflammation, others have the opposite effect. Anti-inflammatory foods include green tea, spices, herbs, beans, fish, olive oil, vegetables and fruits and whole grains. Avoid trans fats, saturated fats, flour and sugar. Also limit yourself to the red meat.
Another aspect of the anti-inflammatory diet is watching how much you eat. Fat cells churn out a variety of inflammatory chemicals that can make RA symptoms worse.
A note on spices: Ginger, turmeric and curcumin act like low-dose versions of aspirin and ibuprofen. Additionally, studies on ginger extract have found that it inhibits the inflammatory chemicals cranked out by the immune system. If you’re taking these in supplement form, just remember that capsules contain higher concentrations, and overdosing can cause the same side effects as aspirin and ibuprofen, including bleeding, ulcers and stomach irritation.
Finally, there are lots of natural anti-inflammatories, but the best studied by far are omega-3 fatty acids. These heart-healthy, brain-boosting fats are especially prevalent in seafood, especially fatty fish such as salmon, sardines and tuna. Studies have found that adding omega-3s to the diet can reduce joint pain and morning stiffness in people with RA. Fish oil capsules can give you the same benefits, but high concentrations of omega-3s can thin the blood, so consult your doctor for the right dose.
Bring It All Together
If you have rheumatoid arthritis, there are three lifestyle changes you must make: Exercise, reduce stress and eat right. Everything else means little if those three pieces aren’t in place.
While exercise may not sound so enjoyable to someone with stiff, painful joints, regular physical activity can decrease your aches and pains while increasing flexibility. Low-impact ones like walking or swimming that don’t jar or place stress on the joints. And while stretching, strengthening and conditioning are important, weight training should be gradual and controlled.
David Novak writes for publications all over the world, including an international syndicated newspaper column on consumer technology. He’s been featured in well-known publications including Newsweek, Reader’s Digest and GQ Magazine. He’s an avid health and diet enthusiast and is a regular feature writer for Healthline.com. For more of David’s Healthline articles, visit http://www.healthline.com/.
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