Ominous Ache

The inflammation of rheumatoid arthritis can cause cardiovascular trouble.

by Claire Sykes

February 2014

For 30 years, Bill Clark enjoyed hiking Colorado’s high desert and skiing its Rockies. He mountain-biked and played a mean game of handball. Even with a bad back, hip and knees, he kept going.

“Then in 2008, I was bedridden with pain. My hands felt like they were trapped in a car door,” says the retired environmental scientist, who lives in Grand Junction. Now? His health has improved, but Clark has trouble opening a jar.

Joint Attack

Clark endured two decades of increasing pain and disability before learning he has rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Unlike the more common osteo­arthritis, in RA the immune system mistakenly attacks the body itself. This creates inflammation that especially affects the joints and connective tissues. It is usually diagnosed in people between the ages of 30 and 60. Risk factors include smoking, obesity and toxin exposure.

Blood vessels can be affected by RA. This can lead to cardiovascular disease, especially among people with severe RA. Women with the disorder who go through menopause before age 45 also appear to be at a greater risk of developing heart problems.

RA often attacks the hands and wrists, causing morning stiffness that can last for hours. Osteoarthritis may also attack these areas “but usually involves fewer joints, like the base of the thumb and the big toe,” says Sharon L. Kolasinski, MD, FACP, FACR, professor of medicine at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University in Camden, New Jersey. “The biggest difference between the two types of arthritis is the noticeable swelling of multiple joints in RA. The rheumatoid type can come on abruptly, or develop gradually over weeks and months, becoming increasingly worse.”

RA symptoms vary from day to day and from patient to patient, with flare-ups lasting for days or weeks. If you think you have RA, consult with your practitioner. Untreated RA can lead to permanent joint damage.

RA has no cure, although medication is generally used to reduce the inflammation and slow disease progression. But a wholesome diet, nutritional supplements, exercise and natural relaxation techniques can help boost the immune system and relieve symptoms.

Natural Approaches

Digestive tract dysfunction can lead to RA development, especially a condition called intestinal permeability. “That’s when the gastrointestinal tract is inflamed and food fails to break down enough. Instead, it leaks through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream,” says Keith Wilkinson, ND, of Integral Naturopathic Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona (integralnatmed.com). “The immune system reacts, causing inflammation throughout the body.” Disruptions in the microbes normally found within the digestive tract may play a role. One study found a link between overgrowth of Prevotella copri, a species of intestinal bacteria, and RA onset (eLife 11/5/13).

To ease intestinal permeability, Wilkinson recommends an anti-inflammatory diet heavy on minimally processed foods—fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, grass-fed meats and fish. Olives provide hydroxytyrosol, which helps ease inflammation, as do enzymes such as those found in pineapple and other fruits. Brightly colored berries provide a full spectrum of antioxidants, which fight cell-damaging free radicals. “Glutamine, an amino acid, and high-dose pro­biotics can strengthen the gut,” adds Wilkinson.

Studies have shown that fish oil can ease joint pain and stiffness. “Eat foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, albacore tuna, flax seeds, walnuts, and canola or flax seed oils,” says Christine McKinney, RD, registered dietitian at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center in Baltimore.

Selenium can help control inflammation as can vitamin D. And Origanox is a standarized extract of oregano, which has been found to reduce immune-system substances that promote inflammation.

Exercise is crucial. “Moving less results in muscle weakness and atrophy,” says Kolasinski. “The weaker your muscles, the less they support the joints.” Clark, the retired scientist, says, “When you have fatigue or pain sometimes you can’t move, so you must move when you can.”

McKinney says, “Being overweight puts more stress on knee and leg joints, and can put you at risk for cardiovascular disease.” Clark eventually lost 30 pounds.

In addition, Clark took up yoga. “Yoga and tai chi are good for balance, strength and reducing the emotional stress of chronic disease,” says Kolasinski. Acupuncture can help reduce pain, as can relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and hypnosis. Massage and applying heat to achy joints also help.

Clark, currently in remission, sees his diet and exercise program not “as temporary measures, but as a way of living.”

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