15 Health-boosting Tips for Women with RA

by Sarah Fielding Health Writer

If you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), staying healthy can sometimes feel like a catch-22: The joint pain from inflammation that comes with this systemic autoimmune disease can make exercise and sleep more difficult—yet, regular physical activity and getting consistent, quality shuteye are both key to controlling RA symptoms. Having RA can also cause stress, anxiety, and depression, especially in women, who get RA three times more often than men—yet, stress has been shown to help trigger flares. What can women do to stay ahead of their symptoms? Read on.

Work It Out

Although you may find intensive exercise difficult, try to engage in regular physical activity, even at low or moderate levels. “Research suggests that exercise is essential in improving physical function, mobility, weight reduction, and improving blood sugar levels,” all of which are important for managing RA symptoms, says Orrin Troum, M.D., a rheumatologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. Consult your doctor, and do what you can handle—even yoga or stretching can be helpful, Dr. Troum adds.

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Keep Tabs on Your Blood Sugar

People with RA are 50% more likely to develop diabetes, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Here’s why: Both are autoimmune disorders that trigger inflammation, which causes RA pain and contributes to insulin resistance, a driver of high blood-sugar levels. Plus, RA medications sometimes increase those levels, too. This means it’s doubly important to stay on top of your checkups, and watch for early signs of diabetes, which include feeling extra thirsty, urinating more frequently, and feeling unusually hungry.

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Watch Your Weight

Being overweight is a risk factor for RA, and RA’s symptoms—joint pain, fatigue—can lead to weight gain. Yet, some people with RA lose excessive weight due to loss of appetite, fever, or from side effects from medications. People with RA should avoid both extremes. Research shows that obese people—those with a BMI of 40 or higher—with RA have an increased risk for faster disability progression, and those with RA who lose weight share this same added risk. Women facing menopause may already be keeping an eye on the scale. If you have RA, try to maintain a healthy weight.

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Be Good to Your Heart

As if having RA isn’t enough—this condition makes you more susceptible to cardiovascular conditions, too. “Having RA increases your risk of heart attack and stroke because of chronic inflammation,” says Linda Lee, M.D., a rheumatologist at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, NJ. By actively treating your RA and being heart-smart, you’ll decrease that risk. That said, be sure to keep up with regular heart-disease screenings, including monitoring your blood pressure and cholesterol.

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Try NSAIDs Instead of Steroids

For decades doctors have prescribed corticosteroids and steroidal medications to people with RA to help reduce inflammation and regulate autoimmune activity. Yet a study of 8,384 participants found that people with RA who took steroids had a 68% greater risk of having a heart attack. Each time their dosage was upped by 5 mg, the risk increased. “Try to avoid long-term use of prednisone when possible,” advises Dr. Lee. With the popularity of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for RA, the use of steroids is becoming less necessary, she adds. Check with your doctor on whether NSAIDs would be a good steroid-alternative choice for you.

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Ask How The Pill Might Help

Taking birth control to feel better? It may help if you have RA. One study shows that taking oral-contraceptive pills can decrease the severity and activity of RA symptoms. Researchers monitored 100 female RA patients of reproductive age and found that those on OCs experienced less joint swelling and better overall health. Sex hormones such as estrogen, androgens, and progesterone may affect RA because of their role in the immune system, researchers noted, although the connection is not yet fully understood.

Stub Out Your Cigarette Habit

Quitting cigarettes is one of the most important things anyone can do for his or her health. For women with RA, it’s especially urgent, says Dr. Lee, since studies show how the habit can decrease the effectiveness of RA-fighting drugs. Quitting smoking can also protect women with RA from developing cardiovascular disease and a variety of cancers. So, no more ifs, ands, or (cigarette) butts: Explore the CDC’s resources for smoking cessation tips, where you can also set up one-on-one coaching via text, app, or telephone.

Dine on Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Your diet can make a big impact on your RA symptoms. That’s because some foods trigger inflammation—and others help tame it. So, go ahead: Fill up on healthy fiber. Then, sack refined sugars. Cook with olive oil and plenty of garlic—but avoid fried and processed foods. Add fatty fish like salmon and mackerel to your regular mealtime rotation, says Dr. Troum, since research shows a link between the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and a decrease in RA symptoms. Every woman’s triggers are different—so take the time to notice how certain foods make you feel.

Limit Alcohol Consumption

Can people with RA safely drink alcohol? Some studies suggest that, yes, you can enjoy a drink occasionally, as you long as you do so with your doctor’s OK—alcohol may interact with your medications—and in moderation, meaning, no more than a single drink at a time for women. While one study suggests people with RA may experience negative effects from drinking (reduction of immune functionality and disruption of sleep), another indicates the severity of RA symptoms may decrease among women who drink beer a few times a week. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you.

Prioritize Your Zzzs

Everyone needs enough sleep to feel good, but quality shut-eye—defined as 6 to 9 hours each night—is critical to containing RA flares. According to one study, more than 56% of people with RA experience disrupted sleep, with pain being a leading factor. Fortunately, sleep treatments such as physiotherapy, meditation, massage, sleep scheduling, and imagery exercises can make a big difference in how well people with RA sleep. And if that doesn’t work, you may try treating the pain that’s keeping you up in the first place. See which sleep aid is most beneficial for you—and then rest easy.

Address Your Stress

Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t feel life’s pressures so acutely? Unfortunately, many of us, including women with RA, are more susceptible to stress. A recent study found that experiencing a traumatic event increased the chances of people with RA of having a flare. Unfortunately, stress doesn’t have an on-off switch, so practicing stress management techniques is critical to protecting your health. Regular exercise (like yoga), journaling, and therapy can all help, too, in your ongoing quest to decompress.

Meditate on This

Meditation, too, can do wonders to help keep your mind calm. Australian researchers reviewed 15 studies on the effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs on people with a variety of chronic diseases, including RA, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular conditions. They tracked positive changes across the board, noting that mindfulness and meditation lead to improved coping with symptoms and overall quality of life, plus enhanced health outcomes. There are tons of meditation apps and programs that you can tap into on your own so you can enjoy the quiet power of zen. Or, talk to your doctor to see if they have any insight about joining a structured MBSR program near you.

Mind Your Overall Mental Health

RA can affect your emotional well-being: One study found that 20% of patients with RA experience anxiety, while nearly 40% of participants reported having depression. What’s more, depression can interfere with women’s RA treatments, making them 20% to 40% less effective, according to one recent study. If you’re newly diagnosed with RA and have a history of depression, be upfront with you doctor in order to proactively treat it with medication, therapy, or other recommended approaches. If you’re further along on your RA journey, pay attention to any mood changes you feel along the way.

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Join A Support Group

Connecting with others who have walked a mile in your shoes may ease a sense of isolation, boost your mood, and even provide you with practical advice to better control your RA. If you feel as if friends and family—loving as they are—don’t fully “get” your condition, you may benefit from a peer-led group, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Many women already have their go-to peeps—a solid support system—and may get more out of an educational group led by a professional. Either way, look for sessions with a trained leader who can keep the discussion positive and productive.

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Talk to Your Doctor on the Regular

No one knows your condition better than the doctor who regularly treats you for it. Maintaining open communication with your rheumatologist—and always alerting your physician to any side effects, flares, or other concerns—means you’re more likely to receive early treatment and keep your RA under control. If you see another doctor for something that seems unrelated to your RA, full disclosure is always a good idea. Certain medications can impact your disease, and your symptoms may be related. Be sure to keep all your doctors in the loop!

Sarah Fielding
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Fielding

Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City and the cofounder of Empire Coven, a digital space for highlighting trailblazing women across New York City. Her work covers a range of topics, with a special focus on mental health, sex, and relationships content, and has appeared at Bustle, Insider, Healthline, Men’s Health, mindbodygreen, Fashionista, Greatist, HuffPost, Architectural Digest, and more. Sarah has also spent time living in Italy and Australia, writing as she traveled.