Q: I’ve been told that I have autoimmune arthritis, and I’m concerned about the side effects of the pharmaceuticals used for treatment. What can I do naturally?
—Doreen G., Salt Lake City
A: “Autoimmune” means that your immune system is attacking other parts of your body. In rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which is an autoimmune disease, the immune system rejects synovial tissue in the joints, and floods those areas with white blood cells.
Difficult to Digest
Almost all autoimmune diseases start in the gut, with irritating foods. “Leaky gut” means your cells don’t form an effective barrier to large molecules of food, which leak into the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. Pretty soon your immune system is revved up and reacting to all sorts of things, including your own tissue.
Friends and even physicians may tell you to take aspirin or ibuprofen to treat RA pain. But that strategy can make the leaky gut worse, which makes it much more difficult to heal from this chronic condition. The key is to treat your gut right, and avoid problem foods; some of the most problematic are wheat, dairy, corn, soy, shellfish, tomatoes, coffee, eggs, peanuts, and artificial coloring/flavorings. Instead, eat lots of dark leafy greens, yellow and orange vegetables, and foods high in vitamin C such as strawberries, bell pepper, and citrus.
When your immune system decides that something in your body is “non-self,” it creates antibodies to the “non-self” tissue. One way to neutralize these antibodies is to ingest material that’s similar to the stuff that your body is attacking. For example, the ground-up chicken gristle in Knox gelatin is very similar to the cartilage in joints. So if your body is producing antibodies to cartilage, you can tie up those antibodies in the intestinal tract by eating Knox gelatin—one packet daily in a glass of water taken without letting the gelatin thicken.
Bromelain, from the inner core of the pineapple plant, is commonly used to digest meat when taken with a meal. But if taken without food, it can get into the circulation, where it can enzymatically “digest” the debris of inflammation. Take 500–1000 mg daily on an empty stomach. Other helpful supplements for reducing the chronic inflammatory pain of RA include fish oil (that contains at least 2 grams EPA), selenium (200 mcg daily), vitamin E (400 IU daily), zinc (50 mg daily), copper (1 mg daily), and manganese (15 mg daily).
Heat is your friend if you have RA. Weekly paraffin hand baths provide a lovely deep heat. Warming liniments (topical tinctures) rubbed into the small joints can be soothing, and warming herbs such as ginger and cayenne can help. Devil’s claw, yucca, and chaparral are also helpful herbs, as is black cohosh, especially when RA worsens during menopause.
Exercise is also a good thing. Not moving the joint will make it stiffer and ultimately less functional. Don’t exercise to the point of pain, but try to move your whole body every day.
Natural Help for Osteoarthritis
Also known as degenerative joint disease (DJD), osteoarthritis is a wear-and-tear syndrome that’s been commonly treated with steroids in conventional medicine. The latest popular treatment, however, is to inject a synthetic synovial fluid (Synvisc) into the joint (usually knee), which may help for a while and is probably less damaging than steroids.
In my practice, I’ve found that glucosamine sulfate supplements (without chondroitin) can be quite effective in maintaining or even rebuilding cartilage. It’s an essential supplement (1,500 mg daily) for the aging athlete.
In general, DJD pain is best helped at home with heat in the morning and a brief ice treatment at the end of the day if there is swelling. But acute inflammation is actually your friend with DJD—it brings nutrients, oxygen, fluid, and growth factors to the damaged joint. Chronic swelling, of course, is no good. But if you can use heat in the morning and ice at night instead of anti-inflammatories (such as Ibuprofen), your joints will heal faster.
Prolotherapy, or regenerative injection therapy (RIT), is another treatment worth investigating. Before getting a joint replacement, look for someone in your area who is trained in this effective method, or search at www.acam.org.
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Emily A. Kane, ND, LAc, has a private practice in Juneau, Alaska, where she lives with her husband and daughter. She is the author of two books on health, including Managing Menopause Naturally. Visit her online at dremilykane.com.