13 Supplements That Can Help Your RAby Jerilyn Covert Health Writer
First, real talk: No one pill is going to cure your rheumatoid arthritis (RA).But! Research suggests some dietary supplements can help.
In fact, a holistic approach that includes taking your meds, eating well, exercising, and stress management is your best bet for controlling RA symptoms, says Weijia Yuan, M.D., a rheumatologist at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City. For some RA patients, she adds, this includes taking supplements. Before you start popping, though, ask your doctor about the proper dosage and any potential medication interactions. (You knew we were going to say that, right?)
Possibly the trendiest vitamin of the moment, vitamin D has been linked to greater bone density and immune health. People with RA tend to have lower levels of vitamin D in their bodies. One study in the Journal of Autoimmunity also found that those with RA are less sensitive to vitamin D, which may increase the need for supplementation. That was true for HealthCentral RA patient advocate Cathy Kramer, 51, who’s been living with RA for 10-plus years and has taken vitamin D to help cope: “It gives me more energy.” Look for vitamin D3, which is more easily absorbed, recommends Dr. Yuan.
A recent study review in the journal Nutrients found that this supplement can significantly reduce joint pain and stiffness in RA patients. Credit its omega-3 fatty acids, in particular EPA and DHA, which fight inflammation. “I’ve tried tons of supplements over the years,” Kramer confides. “The one I keep going back to is fish oil.” She finds it helps ease her dry eyes, another common symptom of RA.
This anti-inflammatory spice from India contains a chemical called curcumin, which may reduce joint swelling in people with RA. Dr. Yuan has noticed it’s especially helpful in her patients with milder symptoms. As a bonus, it may relieve acid reflux, a possible side effect of some RA medications. Just don’t expect results overnight; give it at least three months, suggests Dr. Yuan.
Due to the side effects of corticosteroids—often prescribed to treat RA symptoms—people with RA have an increased chance of developing osteoporosis, a condition that causes weak, brittle bones. Enter: calcium! A calcium supp can help mitigate the osteoporosis risk. If you do add calcium, try taking it with vitamin D, which can improve the body's absorption.
A powerful antioxidant, vitamin C is key for immune function, making it important for anyone with a chronic disease, says Robert Hylland, M.D., a rheumatologist in Muskegon, MI. It also plays a role in bone health, repairing and maintaining healthy bones throughout the body—which, like calcium, can help RA patients reduce their increased risk of osteoporosis.
Not just the stuff of the Three Wise Men, this herb may be an effective supplemental therapy for RA, some studies suggest. Boswellic acids have strong anti-inflammatory effects and analgesic properties, and can also fight cartilage loss.
Folic acid is a key supplement for RA patients taking methotrexate, a medication known to cause side effects such as GI issues, mouth ulcers, and liver damage. Folic acid can help alleviate these effects, and even help patients tolerate a higher (and possibly more effective) dosage of the drug. In fact, a recent study by the Cochrane Review found that just 1 mg of folic acid a day was enough to help patients taking methotrexate.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin
These are important components of cartilage and connective tissue. Studies show they may be effective against osteoarthritis, and a few have investigated the impact on RA too. The supplements are safe to try, but if you don’t notice any improvement after a couple of months, you likely never will.
Coenzyme Q10, or CoQ10, is an antioxidant that feeds your cells. It’s found in meat, fish, and whole grains, though not in high enough amounts to meaningfully impact the levels in your body, per The Mayo Clinic. Taking it as a supplement may improve your RA symptoms. In one randomized clinical trial, RA patients who took 100 mg of CoQ10 a day saw inflammatory markers in their blood go down after two months. Still, if you’re on blood thinners, take note: It may interfere with the drug, increasing blood clot risk.
You know rheumatoid arthritis can wreak havoc on your bones and joints. But grape-seed extract may slow the destruction—that’s what some animal research suggests. In a PLOS One study, the extract appeared to suppress cells responsible for bone degradation while boosting those that promote bone growth.
Up to two-thirds of people with RA have anemia which could be anemia of chronic disease or Iron deficiency anemia. The former gets better with RA treatment. The latter, Iron deficiency anemia happens when your blood does not have enough hemoglobin to transport oxygen throughout the body due to lack of Iron.
Beneficial bacteria in the gut help regulate inflammation, making them especially important for those with RA. You can get them from some yogurts, sauerkraut, and kimchi. But if you’re not a fan of those foods, try a supplement. Look for products with a USP label. This means a third party has verified the ingredients. Dr. Yuan has her patients rotate different brands to ensure they get a variety of bacteria strains.
Your prebiotic intake is important too, says Dr. Yuan. These dietary fibers feed the good bacteria, promoting their growth. Jerusalem artichokes, raw asparagus, dandelion greens, and onions (raw and cooked) are all good sources. Bananas are too, but only if they’re still green, she adds. You can buy green-banana flour—try it in pancakes!