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Q: What are some natural things I can do to ease rheumatoid arthritis pain?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease associated with inflammation. Irritating molecules that are released by different cells, especially immune cells in the body, cause inflammation. In a healthy person, these irritating molecules are an important weapon that the immune system uses to destroy harmful invaders like microbes. Under normal conditions, this is a good thing that lasts a short amount of time.
When a person has an autoimmune disease, however, their immune cells are continuously activated and release compounds that attack their own tissues. This causes inflammation (i.e., redness, swelling). Sometimes, inflammation occurs where you can see it, like in the joints of the fingers. And other times, you can’t see it, but you can feel the pain on the inside (e.g., in the hip joints).
The best way to reduce inflammation from any autoimmune disease is to help your immune system stop releasing these inflammatory molecules. In functional medicine, which addresses the underlying causes of disease, the goal is to heal the immune system in order to reduce inflammation.
Foods to Avoid
Avoid saturated animal fat from dairy and corn-fed beef (beef not labeled as “grass fed”).
Different foods trigger inflammation in different people. The best way to find out which foods are promoting inflammation is with an elimination diet. This involves removing a possible inflammatory food for three weeks, and then eating it again to see if it triggers a reaction. Common problem foods include gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers). Remove all of these for three weeks and notice if your symptoms improve. Then, eat each of these foods again—one at a time—and see if any of them trigger inflammation or joint pain the next day.
Add More of These Foods
- Foods rich in omega-3s and omega-6s, especially sardines and wild Alaskan salmon; nuts; flax and other seeds; and flax oil.
- Foods made with the herb turmeric, usually found in curry.
- Colorful fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants.
Probiotics: Healthy flora in the gut is crucial for a strong immune system, which is necessary for combating autoimmune disease and inflammation. Use a high-dose probiotic with at least 30 billion mixed bacteria each day, and preferably 50–60 billion.
Vitamin D: This helps turn off activated immune cells. I test blood levels in my practice, and prescribe 5,000 IU of vitamin D every day until my patients’ levels are over 50.
Antioxidants: Vitamins A, C, and E, and EGCG (from green tea).
Omega-3 fish oil: Aim for 2,000–3,000 mg of EPA and DHA.
Omega-6: Take 400–500 mg each day of GLA (rich in omega-6).
Curcumin: A potent anti-inflammatory compound from the spice turmeric. Follow label instructions for dosage.
Stress hormones throw the immune system out of balance by suppressing some cells and overactivating others. These “overactivated” cells are the ones that secrete inflammatory molecules. Anyone with rheumatoid arthritis can tell you that stress
Finding time every day for relaxation is one of the best ways to help with stress. Most people can’t completely eliminate all of their stressors, but everyone can find a way to relax so stress doesn’t make them sick. Whatever methods you choose (e.g., meditating, listening to music), make them part of your daily routine.
Meet Our Expert
Susan Blum, MD, MPH, is author of The Immune System Recovery Plan: A Doctor’s 4-step Program to Treat Autoimmune Disease, founder of the Blum Center for Health in Rye Brook, New York, and an advisor to the Institute for Functional Medicine. She also serves on the Medical Advisory Board for The Dr. Oz Show. An assistant clinical professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Blum has been treating and preventing chronic disease for more than a decade. She lives in Armonk, New York with her husband and three sons.