What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means that the immune system mounts a full-scale attack on the body’s own tissues. In rheumatoid arthritis the attack is centered on connective tissue near joints. Early symptoms include inflammation, pain, stiffness, tenderness, and swelling. However, this disease also has wide-ranging systemic effects including fever, reduced appetite, weight loss, and fatigue.
Rheumatoid arthritis is generally progressive—it gets worse with time. There may be periods of remission when
even temporarily disappear. Long-term, it can be disfiguring and turn fingers
into stiff, twisted digits. About 20 percent of people with rheumatoid arthritis develop lumpy nodules under the skin. In some cases it becomes completely disabling.
symptoms decrease or
It is possible that some cases of rheumatoid arthritis are triggered by an immune response to a viral infection. Whatever the triggering event, the severity of the disease reflects a highly disturbed immune system that cannot distinguish friendly cells from foes. To many observers it looks as though immune cells are chasing after biochemical ghosts.
Considerable research has shown that people with rheumatoid arthritis are commonly deficient in multiple nutrients. These deficiencies can impair immune function, and the benefits of nutritional supplementation have been confirmed by numerous studies. Several cases of scurvy (extreme vitamin C deficiency) have been reported with rheumatism as the most obvious symptom. Low levels of vitamin C lead to a weakening of blood vessel walls, allowing red blood cells to leak into surrounding tissue, where they trigger an immune response. Vitamin C supplementation resolved the symptoms in these patients.
How Common Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
An estimated 2.5 million Americans (about 1 percent of the U.S. population) have rheumatoid arthritis. It affects twice as many women as men.
Nutrients That Can Help
Many people benefit from the anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3 fish oils. However, it may take several months to see an improvement. A Scottish study of sixty-four men and women found that supplements containing about 3 grams of omega-3 fish oils daily resulted in a significant reduction of arthritic symptoms and less need to take conventional medications. Other research has shown that omega-3 fish oils reduce levels of the pro-inflammatory cytokines interleukin-1 and tumor necrosis factor alpha.
Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), an anti-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid, may be even more effective in rheumatoid arthritis. GLA boosts levels of anti-inflammatory prostaglandin E1, which suppresses proinflammatory prostaglandin E2. Human trials with GLA (approximately 1.4 grams daily) have shown consistent benefits over several months, reducing symptoms by roughly one-third to one-half. Of course, results will vary from person to person, and a combination of supplements will likely have greater benefits.
Increased intake of olive oil also can reduce symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Olive oil reduces the activity of adhesion molecules, which enable white blood cells to attach to and attack normal cells.
People with rheumatoid arthritis tend to have low antioxidant levels, and two studies so far have found that natural vitamin E supplements significantly reduce symptoms of the disease. The dosage used in these studies was relatively high, 1,800 IU daily. Vitamin E also lowers levels of interleukin-6 and C-reactive protein, both of which promote inflammation.
Selenium, another antioxidant, also might help, but the research has not been consistent. The mineral boosts production of glutathione peroxidase, one of the body’s main antioxidants.
People with arthritis have low levels of numerous other nutrients, such as vitamins B2 and B12, folic acid, calcium, and zinc. Deficiencies of folic acid and vitamin B12 are often exacerbated by methotrexate, one of the drugs used to treat rheumatoid arthritis. Methotrexate interferes with the metabolism of these two B vitamins.
What Else Might Help?
Many studies point to the apparent role of allergylike food sensitivities in rheumatoid arthritis. These adverse reactions to food can ramp up immune activity and inflammation. Dairy products and gluten-containing grains (such as wheat, rye, and barley) are among the most common food allergens, and studies have found that their avoidance eases arthritic symptoms, including morning stiffness and the number of swollen joints in many people, as well as reducing C-reactive protein levels. The elimination of allergenic foods may explain why fasting and gluten-free vegetarian diets help some people with rheumatoid arthritis.
According to Loren Cordain, Ph.D., a researcher at Colorado State University, lectins also might trigger symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis in some people. Lectins are a family of plant proteins found primarily in legumes,but also in wheat and rice. Like gluten, lectins may cause an inflammation of the gut, leading to a more generalized immune response. Temporarily avoiding lectin-containing foods may confirm a sensitivity to them.
Two additional supplements also might be of benefit:An animal study found that the antioxidant extract of green tea blocked the activity of several pro-inflammatory compounds, protecting against rheumatoid arthritis.
Other research suggests that supplemental cetylmyristoleate also might lessen symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.