Aunt Martha’s mother was the kindest, gentlest soul you’d ever meet. She went out of her way to make you feel at home. Food and drink were hallmarks of her cordial greeting. But she couldn’t open a package, twist open a jar or cut a cake. Her fingers were so badly gnarled that no two pointed in the same direction. Some of the joints formed the letter “Z.” Yet, despite the pain she must have borne, her loving smile prevailed. She was victimized by rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in an era when research was in its infancy, barely crawling.
This nefarious disease causes pain, swelling, stiffness and loss of function in joints— mostly hands and fingers, though it can strike any. It hits women more often than men, starting between ages twenty-five and fifty-five, though some statisticians start at forty. Unlike osteoarthritis, RA is an autoimmune condition that can affect body parts besides joints, such as the eyes, mouth and lungs. Nobody knows the cause. It could be genes, maybe the environment, or maybe hormones that direct the immune system to attack the body’s own tissues. Whatever it is, RA afflicts more than a million Americans, a sizeable fraction being kids.
The inflammation of RA can reach to the tendons, ligaments and muscles in some patients. Its chronic nature causes degradation of cartilage, bone and the ligaments that bind bones, causing deformity. Active disease presents with fatigue, appetite loss, low-grade fever, muscle and joint aches, and stiffness, the last being most notable in the morning or following periods of inactivity. Because RA is a systemic ordeal, its malevolence can inflame the glands around the eyes and mouth, causing Sjögren’s syndrome. RA-induced pleuritis is the inflammation of lung lining that causes pain with a deep breath. Because the number of red blood cells is reduced, anemia occurs, while a drop in white cells can be associated with an enlarged spleen and increased risk of infection.
Following examination of inflammatory blood markers and other criteria, the doctor can make a proper diagnosis, at which time medications probably will be prescribed. Cortisone and aspirin have been first-line drugs for decades because they act quickly. The slower ones are called disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs—DMARD’s—and include some heavy duty chemistry, not all of which is anti-inflammatory, but most of which has truly nasty side effects, many you have learned from television ads. What may not be realized is that some drugs destroy the substances your body needs to work the right way. The package insert that comes with the drug doesn’t tell you this, so you’ll think the absence of pain has all the bases covered. This is sufficient reason to visit an integrative dietitian or holistic-minded physician, the rare one who knows about nutrition.
Keeping your physician in the loop, you may opt to explore integrative measures to deal with RA. The good news is that there are recognized mediators of inflammation-induced bone damage (Nanjundaiah, 2013). Because of space constraints, we’ll address those with a pretty reliable track record, starting with gamma linolenic acid (GLA), an omega-6 fatty acid found in borage and evening primrose oils. While it is true that borage contains almost twice the levels of GLA as evening primrose, it is also true that borage contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can tax the liver. Though possibly in non-toxic amounts, these alkaloids are nonetheless there. For that reason, EPO is often a preferred source of GLA. On the other hand, borage oil is used in clinical and observational studies because of its higher GLA values, thus requiring a smaller dosage (that may influence subject participation) and reducing cost. A University of PA study done in the early 90’s found that patients who took borage oil capsules for three months experienced reductions in pro-inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes, leading to noticeable clinical improvement in RA symptoms (Pullman-Mooar, 1990).
Supplementing GLA at 3.0 and 6.0 grams a day enhances its conversion to the anti-inflammatory dihommo-gamma-linolenic-acid (DGLA), causing neutrophils to synthesize less pro-inflammatory leukotriene and platelet-activating factor (PAF—a major trigger of thrombosis), thereby attenuating discomfort (Johnson, 1997). Compared to placebo in a six-month trial in Philadelphia, GLA was found to reduce the number of tender joints by more than a third and swollen joint count by more than a fourth, in a study from which no one withdrew (Leventhal, 1993).
Not to be outdone by its omega-6 counterpart, omega-3 fish oil flexed its anti-inflammatory muscle in trials that included non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) as part of the treatment. Swelling index and duration of early morning stiffness were used as markers for RA severity, and were found to have improved in subjective assessment by virtue of a decrease in pro-inflammatory leukotrienes (van der Tempel, 1990). Patients who received fish oil in combination with naproxen fared better in similar assessments than those without the fish oil or with placebo oil in studies carried out in Norway (Kjeldsen-Kragh, 1992) and New York (Kremer, 2000). A Canadian meta-analysis of seventeen n-3 studies concluded that morning stiffness and number of tender joints were reduced in those who used n-3 PUFA’s (Goldberg, 2007). Those who supplemented their OTC medications with omega-3’s from cod liver oil were able to reduce their dependence on NSAIDS (Galarraga, 2008).
In early reports, Danish scientists found that RA patients were deficient in the only mineral with anti-oxidant properties—selenium. They noted that those with the most active disease had the lowest values, and that there is significant correlation of selenium status with the number of affected joints (Tarp, 1985). Almost a decade later, the same researchers confirmed their initial findings, but also found that some subjects lack the physiological wherewithal to convert selenium to functional anti-oxidant enzymes, a state that can be overcome by supplemental mineral (Tarp, 1994).
From frankincense through ginger, to the resveratrol of grapes, science is takinga deliberate look at additions to the arsenal of RA treatments.
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*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent any disease.