Herbal Medicines for Rheumatoid Arthritis

Lene Andersen | May 31, 2017

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Before the advent of modern medicine, people used plant-based treatments to deal with illnesses. In fact, many medications are based on the properties of plants. Increasingly, people with chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), are looking at their options and often including alternative remedies in their treatment regimen. In this slideshow, we’ll explore the potential of herbal medicines for RA.

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Thyme tea

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Thyme tea has been hailed as treatment for a variety of autoimmune diseases, as well as high blood pressure and cancer. Historically, thyme has been used as an antibacterial and antifungal remedy, as well as a treatment for sore throats and colds. There are claims that it boosts immunity and even that it will cure fibromyalgia, RA, and more. There are no studies that support this and as with all extravagant claims, a healthy dose of skepticism can be useful.

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Cat's Claw

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The bark and root of uncaria tomentosa, or Cat’s Claw, a vine from Central and South America, is used medicinally. It is believed to have anti-inflammatory properties, specifically against tumor necrosis factor (TNF), also the target of some biologic drugs. One study found that when taken with a particular DMARD, it resulted in a decrease in the percentage of painful joints. Cat’s Claw is also believed to stimulate the immune system, and may therefore interact with immunosuppressant medication.

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You may have heard that turmeric can be effective in treating RA symptoms. Curcumin is what gives turmeric its golden color, but it also has medicinal effects with pro-inflammatory conditions such as cancer, arthritis, and diabetes. Studies have shown that it blocks inflammatory enzymes and cytokines (proteins) in the same way as a type of NSAIDs. So it can treat the symptoms of joint inflammation, but not the underlying condition of RA.

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Ginger doesn’t just taste good, but it can also ease nausea and reduce joint pain and inflammation. It is commonly used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicines to treat inflammation and pain. One study showed that a ginger extract was as successful as steroids in reducing inflammation in RA synovial cells. Ginger’s anti-inflammatory properties are similar to ibuprofen and COX-2 inhibitors. It may be helpful to treat symptoms of RA, but should not be used if you’re on blood thinners or have gallstones.

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Thunder God vine

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Thunder God vine (Tripterygium wilfordii) is originally from Asia. The root is used in Chinese medicine to treat overactivity of the immune system, as well as inflammation. Some evidence suggests that it suppresses the immune system, and Chinese studies show that it could be as or more effective than certain DMARDs. However, it has the potential for serious side effects, including infertility, and should not be taken at the same time as immunosuppressant medications.

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Fish oil

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Although not an herb, fish oil has been researched more than other natural remedies. “One study shows that it actually helps decrease joint tenderness in RA patients and reduce the use of medication,” says Odessa Gill, N.D. in a telephone interview. The oil of cold water fish such as salmon and mackerel is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. This can help block inflammatory cytokines, as well as protect against heart disease and reduce the symptoms of Raynaud’s.

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Green tea

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Green tea has been heralded as beneficial for certain cancers, in managing blood sugar, and lowering cholesterol. It may also reduce inflammation. Green, black, white, and oolong teas include polyphenols that assist the body in fighting infections. Animal studies show that a substance in green tea called EGCG is a powerful antioxidant and has properties that assist in blocking the cartilage-destroying effects of interleukin-1, a pro-inflammatory protein.

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Rose hip tea

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Roses are pretty and smell good, but the fruit that develops after flowering also has medicinal qualities. It is high in vitamin C and has been used to treat and prevent colds and infections. Galactolipids, a photochemical in rosehips, is an antioxidant and also has anti-inflammatory properties that may be similar to NSAIDs, but without the gastrointestinal side effects. An Australian study of rose hip powder showed that it led to a reduction in pain scores.

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Side effects and interactions of herbal medicines

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You might think that herbal medicine is safe, but this is not always the case. These remedies are medicines and have potential for side effects and interactions with other medications. Spices such as ginger and curcumin “exert a positive benefit because they are highly concentrated compounds … there is always the potential to create an upset stomach,” says Gill. Other remedies have the potential for more serious side effects, as well as interaction with DMARDs, NSAIDs, and other treatments.

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Check with an expert

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“Respect the herb,” says Gill. The knowledge of herbal medicines and how to use them appropriately is highly specialized. If you are interested in exploring this type of treatment, Gill says “my recommendation is to make sure that you’re doing this with someone who can find something specific for you.” You can find a naturopathic doctor in your area, but should also inform your medical team of anything you are adding to your treatment.