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Natural Remedies for Rheumatoid Arthritis

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Updated May 16, 2014

rheumatoid arthritis
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What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis is an inflammatory condition that causes pain and swelling of the joints, especially the smaller joints of the hands and feet. It generally affects both sides of the body at the same time.

Other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis are:

  • Aching or stiffness of joints, especially after sleep or rest
  • Loss of motion in the affected joints
  • Decreased strength in the muscles attached to the affected joints
  • Fatigue
  • Low grade fever
  • Joint deformity over time
  • Small lumps, called rheumatoid nodules, that form under the skin

Rheumatoid arthritis is believed to be an autoimmune disease, resulting in the immune system attacking tissues that lines joints.

Natural Remedies for Rheumatoid Arthritis

There is no known cure for rheumatoid arthritis. Alternative therapies are popular among people with rheumatoid arthritis, however, they should complement, not replace, conventional care. Here are some natural remedies that are used for rheumatoid arthritis.

1) Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are a type of fat. Our bodies can't make omega-3s on their own, so we must obtain them through our diet.

There is reasonably strong evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may help people with rheumatoid arthritis. The results of over 13 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies involving a total of more than 500 people suggest that omega-3 fatty acids may improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. One of the ways it appears to work is by decreasing the production of inflammatory chemicals.

Although omega-3 fatty acids reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, they don’t appear to slow the progression of the disease.

Cold water fish such as salmon, sardines, and anchovies are the richest food source of omega-3 fatty acids. But instead of eating more fish which contain mercury, PCBs, and other chemicals, fish oil capsules are considered a cleaner source of omega-3 fatty acids. Many companies filter their fish oil so that these chemicals are removed.

Fish oil capsules are sold in health food stores, drug stores, and online. Most brands should be stored in the fridge to prevent the oil from going rancid.

Although flaxseed oil is often used as an alternative to fish oil, it doesn't appear to have the same anti-inflammatory effects as fish oil at achievable intakes.

Fish oil capsules may interact with blood-thinning drugs such as warfarin and aspirin. Side effects may include indigestion and bleeding. Fish oil should not be taken two weeks before or after surgery. Fish oil can also cause a fishy aftertaste. To prevent this, fish oil is usually taken just before meals.

2) Gamma-linolenic Acid

Although there is more evidence that omega-3 fatty acids may improve symptoms of rhematoid arthrits, some studies suggest that gamma-linoleic acid, another type of essential fatty acid, may also help. It is found in borage oil, black currant seed oil, and evening primrose oils.

A review of studies by researchers with the respected Cochrane Research Collaboration concluded that there was some potential benefit for the use of gamma-linolenic acid in rheumatoid arthritis, although further studies were needed.

3) Boswellia

Boswellia is a herb that comes from a tree native to India. The active ingredients are the boswellic acids, which have been found to block chemical reactions involved in inflammation.

It is used by people with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Although there have been a couple of preliminary studies that suggest boswellia may reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, we need more research to know whether it's effective. There is also no evidence that it can slow disease progression like some conventional drugs for rheumatoid arthritis.

Boswellia doesn't appear to cause gut irritation that can occur with many conventional pain relievers.

Boswellia is available in pill form. It should say on the label that it is standardized to contain 60 percent boswellic acids. It should not be taken for more than eight to 12 weeks unless under the supervision of a qualified health practitioner.

4) Devil's Claw

Devil's claw is a plant native to southern Africa. Its name comes from the small hooks on the plant's fruit. The active ingredients in devil's claw are believed to be iridoid glycosides called harpagosides, which are found in the secondary root.

Devil's claw has been used for thousands of years in Africa for fever, rheumatoid arthritis, skin conditions, and conditions involving the gallbladder, pancreas, stomach and kidneys.

A study published in the journal Rheumatology compared a devil's claw extract providing 60 mg harpagosides a day and and 12.5 mg a day of the anti-inflammatory Vioxx (now off the market) for 6 weeks in 79 patients with an acute exacerbation of low back pain. Devil's claw was as effective as Vioxx in reducing pain.

More studies, however, are needed before we can confirm that devil's claw is effective for rheumatoid arthritis. For more information about devil's claw, read the Devil's Claw Fact Sheet.

Other Proposed Remedies

  • Acupuncture
  • Adrenal extract
  • Balneotherapy
  • Beta-carotene
  • Burdock
  • Copper
  • Ginger
  • Magnesium
  • Magnets
  • Methyl sulfonyl methane (MSM)
  • Molybdenum
  • Pantothenic acid
  • Probiotics
  • Selenium
  • Turmeric
  • Vegetarian/vegan diet
  • Vitamin B6
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E
  • White willow
  • Yucca
  • Zinc

Sources

Fritsche K. Fatty acids as modulators of the immune response. Annu Rev Nutr. 26 (2006): 45-73.

Lee S, Gura KM, Kim S, Arsenault DA, Bistrian BR, Puder M. Current clinical applications of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. Nutr Clin Pract. 21.4 (2006): 323-341.

Remans PH, Sont JK, Wagenaar LW, Wouters-Wesseling W, Zuijderduin WM, Jongma A, Breedveld FC, Van Laar JM. Nutrient supplementation with polyunsaturated fatty acids and micronutrients in rheumatoid arthritis: clinical and biochemical effects. Eur J Clin Nutr. 58.6 (2004): 839-845.

Soeken KL, Miller SA, Ernst E. Herbal medicines for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review. Rheumatology (Oxford). 42.5 (2003): 652-659.

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