This guest post was written by Dr. Shawna Darou, who has been a practicing naturopathic doctor for over 10 years. You can check out her amazingly informative blog about all things health related here.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory autoimmune condition, known to cause significant joint swelling and pain. It typically starts in the small joints, such as the hands, fingers and toes, and later progresses to the knees, hips, wrists and ankles. Rheumatoid arthritis is autoimmune condition means that the body is attacking the joints, and this body attack creates swelling and pain. Other signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include: stiffness, pain and swelling in the joints, deformity in the hands and feet, fatigue, fever, unintentional weight loss and nodules under the skin.
Conventionally, rheumatoid arthritis is initially treated with anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen to manage pain. Once this is no longer effective, steroid medications such as prednisone are prescribed to first control symptoms and then medications which either modulate or suppress the immune system are considered, including Methotrexate, Plaquenil, Imuran, and Remicade. All of these drugs have the potential for significant side effects, ranging from stomach ulcers from ibuprofen to liver damage and bone marrow suppression with the immune medications.
As a naturopathic doctor, my goal with any health condition is to identify and treat the cause, not simply manage symptoms. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, this means looking for the cause of the immune system dysregulation and inflammation.
Top causes to address include:
- Food intolerances.
- Leaky gut
- Heavy metals
All of these issues cause immune system stress and inflammation. Treatment of rheumatoid arthritis is then aimed at addressing the cause, not simply managing pain. It does take longer, but you are restoring overall health and stalling progression of the autoimmune process.
Address nutrition and food intolerance
Testing for food intolerances with a blood test, or identifying trigger foods with an elimination diet are two methods to identify foods that are be causing systemic inflammation. I do recommend that all of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis avoid gluten strictly in their diets too, because gluten is simply a very inflammatory food.
Another nutritional approach for autoimmune conditions is what is called the autoimmune paleo diet. This is a much more strict plan, avoiding all grains, legumes, nightshade vegetables (tomato, potato, peppers, eggplant), dairy, sugar and in some cases nuts. The reason this nutrition plan can be more effective for autoimmune conditions is that it reduces stress on the gastrointestinal lining, allowing the leaky gut or intestinal permeability to heal.
Heal the leaky gut
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Leaky gut is a term to describe intestinal permeability, a condition where the lining of the intestine is too permeable, allowing undigested food particles, toxins and microbial organisms to pass into the bloodstream, activating an immune response. Leaky gut is likely a component of many autoimmune processes. Steps to heal the gut lining include first removing the irritants (food intolerances, imbalances in gut flora, certain medications), and then repairing the lining by providing nutrients such as l-glutamine, liquorice root, slippery elm and zinc.
Clear out infections
Interesting research is linking the development of rheumatoid arthritis with overgrowth of certain strains of gut bacteria (Prevotella copri(1), and Proteus mirabilis (2,3)). In general, imbalances in digestive flora can also cause inflammation and leaky gut which further increases inflammation. Significant work to rebalance the gut microbiome is essential for recovery from rheumatoid arthritis.
Assess for heavy metals
Heavy metals, especially mercury are associated with the development of autoimmune conditions. The first step here is to test for heavy metals in the body, ideally through a urine test, and less reliably with hair analysis. If heavy metal levels are high, chelation treatment to reduce the toxic load is necessary to lower inflammation and support optimal immune system function.
Reduce inflammation and promote optimal immune system function
There are additional steps that can be taken to generally support the immune system and lower inflammation. This includes lowering stress levels, including regular exercise and activity, and also supplements such as vitamin D, omega-3 fish oils, turmeric extracts and glutathione. Remember that this part alone will not reverse rheumatoid arthritis – you do need to find and address potential underlying causes.
In conclusion, rheumatoid arthritis is a condition that can be successfully treated and managed without the use of harsh medications with serious side-effects. Working with an experienced practitioner is necessary here, in order to do the appropriate lab testing, and to address your nutrition, gut, toxins and possible infections.
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