While osteoarthritis (OA) is a simple matter of wear-and-tear on the joints, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a little more complicated. In RA, the immune system gets involved. It may be oversimplifying things to simply say the immune system “attacks” your joints. But basically, that’s what’s happening.

Although both OA and RA involve inflammation and joint damage, there’s a big difference between the two: in OA, the inflammation is a symptom of joint damage; in RA, joint damage is a symptom of the inflammation. And although you can treat RA with the same joint-repairing supplements as OA (many of which were covered last month), you can also approach it by addressing the inflammation directly, or even by looking at what’s triggering the immune dysfunction in the first place.

Foods that make RA worse:

Most autoimmune diseases are aggravated or even caused by certain foods. RA is no different. While it is true that some small studies have not been able to link food allergies to RA, most have found a connection, albeit in a minority of cases. The only way you’re going to know if you have an allergy is to check for yourself. It’s a lot of effort, but it can be worth it. After all, wouldn’t it be great if you were one of the lucky few who could simply cut out a single food, and then you’re better?.

The only 100% accurate way to test for food allergies is to do it yourself. The concept is quite simple, really. All you do is spend a month eating a hypoallergenic diet – that is, a diet free of all common allergens. Then, at the end of the month, you pick a potential allergen and “challenge test” it. For example, let’s say you want to test peanuts: so after a month on the hypoallergenic diet, you eat an entire bag of them. Then wait three days. If the peanuts don’t bother you, you, you breathe a sigh of relief – peanuts are okay – and move on to the next food. But if your symptoms flare up, cross peanuts off your list. Now you know that peanuts are a trigger food. Either way, move on to the next food… then the next…

Here’s a list of all the foods you should test for: peanuts, corn, wheat (including spelt), rye, peppers, eggplant, dairy, soy, eggs, beef, tomato, potato, citrus, onions, garlic, and chocolate. (Many of these foods are long shots, but you should still be thorough and rule them out). That still leaves you rice, millet, beans, lamb, fish, shellfish, chicken, most fruits and vegetables, herbs, spices, and oils.

Before you embark on this process, bear a few things in mind. First of all, you can’t “cheat” a little one day, then make up for it the next. You need to be completely, one-hundred percent strict while you’re doing this. Secondly, only challenge-test one food at a time. And if the food does turn out to be a trigger, don’t move on to the next food until your symptoms have completely died down again.

Although not strictly allergenic, refined starches (like white flour and white rice) and sweeteners (sugar) should be avoided. In all honesty, it’s hard to find decent research here. But my grandmother, Beatrice Stark, swears she cured her RA nearly four decades ago by completely eliminating these foods. I guess I’m just going to take her word for it.

Finally when talking about food, it’s worth looking at compromised digestion. After all, fully-digested food is rarely allergenic. Lowered stomach acid can be an issue, as can “leaky gut” disorder. Grace has a reference book on this subject on file in the store. Come in, sit in our rocking chair and read.

Oil Balance: Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fats:

Another month, another newsletter topic, another opportunity to talk about the importance of fats. Simply put, inflammation mediates many, if not most, of our age-related degenerative disorders. And the fats in our diets have a huge impact on inflammation. That’s why they’re good for nearly everything! Since I’ve already covered fats so many times, this time just remember to minimize basic vegetable oils like sunflower, safflower, canola and grapeseed, and avoid fatty meats, margarine and fried foods. These contain high levels of fats which fuel inflammation. Olive, macadamia, and coconut oil can be considered neutral – neither good nor bad. Eat foods and oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids: Nuts and seeds and their oils, especially flax and hemp. Fatty, cold-water fish are excellent, especially wild fish and free-range eggs.

Beyond food, you can also take oil supplements. And here’s where the clinical research starts to get really impressive. Fish oil in particular appears to be highly effective for rheumatoid arthritis, as does a fat called GLA (gamma-linolenic acid, found in Evening Primrose, Black Currant Seed, and Borage oils). The thing to bear in mind is that doses used in the effective studies are almost always higher than what’s recommended on backs of the bottles, probably because supplement manufacturers don’t want to scare people by the prospect of taking lots of pills or paying lots of money. I’d shoot for at least 1,000 mg of GLA a day, and/or 3,000 mg of EPA/DHA from fish oil. (If you take that much GLA, you should balance it with at least some fish oil). Take them with food. Give it three months. And for goodness’ sake don’t buy some bargain basement fish oil that doesn’t undergo extensive testing for mercury and other contaminants!

The Copper Bracelet:

Wearing a copper bracelet for RA is an old folk remedy. And while it may seem a bit far-fetched, the only published study I could find which examined the bracelet actually seemed to have decent results (do did my grandmother). In this study (published in Agents and Actions, 1976), 160 people were randomized to wear either a real copper bracelet, or an anodized aluminum placebo, which looks like copper. After a month, the groups switched bracelets. According to questionnaires filled out by the participants, the real copper bracelets significantly reduced RA symptoms compared to the placebo.

Natural Anti-inflammatories:

There are dozens of good natural anti-inflammatories, and in the limited space I have here, I can only list them off rather than focus on them in any depth. Here goes:

Proteolytic (or protein-digesting) enzymes are a useful class of herbal anti-inflammatories. Supplements derived from ginger, papaya, and pineapple (“bromelain”) all fall into this category. If you take them with meals, they’ll help digest your food. In between meals, they get into the blood stream and reduce inflammation. One particular product worth mentioning is called Wobenzyme. Wobenzyme is actually the number-two selling over-the-counter medicine in Germany, where it’s second only to aspirin. Because of the way the tablet is coated, you can even take it with food. Another like it is Vitalzyme.

Turmeric and Boswellia are two anti-inflammatory herbs from India. Turmeric is a nice anti-inflammatory, in addition to being one of the best antioxidants we have. It also lowers cancer risk, and supports the liver, too! Good stuff all around. Boswellia is probably more potent as an anti-inflammatory than turmeric is, but not nearly as versatile in terms of all the other good stuff it does.

The New Chapter company puts out two brand-name products worth special attention. Zyflamend is the name of their basic anti-inflammatory, combining traditional herbs like Ginger, Turmeric, Green Tea, etc., all in highly-concentrated forms. The other one is relatively new to me. It’s called Mycomend, and it’s made from mushrooms. Someone I respect who works at another health food store says she’s been getting excellent feedback on the product. Either way, both of them are worth a try. They’re put out by a reputable company, they come with money back guarantees, and they’re good for you in 101 ways anyway!

Alfalfa tablets are an old folk remedy. Once again, little research but worth a try?

Finally, there’s good research on two specialty oil supplements, CMO (cetyl myristoleate) and Lyprinol (which comes from New Zealand Green-Lipped Sea Mussels!). People seem to be having excellent results with these, but they are expensive. We have a very informative handout on the Lyprinol.

So which one or ones should you use? I’d start out with the inexpensive, versatile ones first. Turmeric would be my first option, then if that didn’t work, I’d add perhaps a proteolytic enzyme, Boswellia, or the Mycomend. Remember that oils and food especially, are paramount – they’re truly holistic solutions.

Other Nutrients:

There is good reason to believe the minerals zinc, copper, selenium, boron, and manganese are helpful in RA. Obviously, if you have a deficiency in any of these, you’re going to want to take a lot of what you’re deficient in. Barring that, a good multivitamin is in order. Aim for 15-30 mg of zinc, 1-2 mg of copper, 200 mcg of selenium, 3 mg of boron, and 10+ mg of manganese. There’s some evidence that taking more boron, in the 6-9 mg range, may be extra beneficial.