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Natural Remedies for Arthritis

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More than 53 million Americans have arthritis. Every year, medical expenses and lost earnings associated with arthritis rack up billions of dollars.1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis. Published November 3, 2021. Accessed October 4, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/arthritis.htm

The most common form of joint inflammation is osteoarthritis (OA), often called “wear and tear arthritis” or degenerative joint disease.1 Knee osteoarthritis makes up 85% of all OA cases.2Si J, Sun L, Li Z, Zhu W, Yin W, Peng L. Effectiveness of home-based exercise interventions on pain, physical function and quality of life in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Surg Res. 2023;18(1):503. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04004-z Between 1990 and 2019, the number of people affected by OA expanded by 48%. More cases of OA are expected as obesity rates rise and the aging population grows.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is characterized by an overactive immune system that mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy cells, joints, and tissues. Scientists believe a combination of genetic factors and exposure to environmental toxins are responsible for RA, where inflammation leads to pain, tenderness, swelling, and stiffness.1Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis. Published November 3, 2021. Accessed October 4, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/arthritis.htm

Herbs and Supplements for Arthritis

Herbal medicines and supplements can reduce arthritis pain and discomfort by nurturing the immune system, minimizing inflammation, and keeping the gut microbiome in check.

Curcumin

Two bowls of turmeric powder on table

Curcumin is the main compound of turmeric (Curcuma longa). Rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols, curcumin significantly reduces pain and inflammation while promoting a healthy gut. Research demonstrates the herb works similarly to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs commonly used for RA pain relief.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

In one study, curcumin worked as well as ibuprofen in reducing OA pain and improving function, with less digestive distress overall.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812 The herb lessened knee pain and stiffness and decreased oxidative stress more effectively than a placebo.4Srivastava, S.; Saksena, A.K.; Khattri, S.; Kumar, S.; Dagur, R.S. Curcuma longa extract reduces inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers in osteoarthritis of knee: a four-month, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Inflammopharmacology. 2016;24(6):377-388. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10787-016-0289-9

Garlic

Research has found that garlic considerably decreases inflammation, pain, and fatigue associated with RA. The herb may also restore gut microbiota.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

In a 2023 review of treatments for rheumatic diseases, the benefits of taking garlic versus participating in a rehabilitation program included more control of knee pain, muscle strength, and higher quality of life.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Ginger

Ginger extract has anti-inflammatory properties that may support RA pain management. Ginger also strengthens the gut lining, reduces inflammation in the intestines, and cultivates healthy gut bacteria.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

A 2023 review examined the effects of ginger extract in people with knee OA. After six weeks, participants who consumed ginger reported more relief from pain and stiffness, particularly when standing up and after walking, compared to those who received a placebo.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Saffron

Heaping spoonful of saffron

Derived from the flowering plant Crocus sativus, saffron has anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting properties. Scientists consider saffron a promising RA treatment, as it improves antioxidant levels and mitigates depression, anxiety, and pain. The spice also contributes to a diverse balance of gut bacteria and may protect the intestines.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

In a randomized controlled trial of Krocina, a water-soluble carotenoid made from saffron extract, OA patients noted reduced inflammation and other immune-boosting effects after only four months.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Cinnamon

Recent studies indicate that cinnamon has a significant impact on the immune system, with a potent ability to diminish inflammation. Cinnamon can safeguard the intestines and foster a healthy gut microbiome. In a study of women with RA, those who took a cinnamon supplement for eight weeks experienced less inflammation. Cinnamon also reduced overall pain, swelling, and tenderness.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Boswellia

Boswellia serrata, or Indian frankincense, is a widely used Ayurvedic remedy. Its extract has therapeutic potential for inflammatory conditions such as RA, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease. Boswellia’s anti-inflammatory components have improved pain relief, decreased stiffness, and enhanced overall function for many patients. Research suggests the plant extract is an effective OA treatment when taken consistently for at least four weeks.5Yu G, Xiang W, Zhang T, Zeng L, Yang K, Li J. Effectiveness of Boswellia and Boswellia extract for osteoarthritis patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Med Ther. 2020;20(1):225. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-020-02985-6

Probiotics and Essential Fatty Acids

Given the digestive system’s vital role in RA management, probiotics could represent an alternative therapy. Studies indicate incorporating probiotic supplements can improve RA symptoms and lessen associated inflammation when used alongside appropriate medications.

Omega-3 fatty acids are renowned for their efficacy in treating various inflammatory conditions, including RA. Two omega-3s—eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)—benefit the gut microbiome and actively inhibit inflammation.

Lifestyle Tips for Managing Arthritis

Staying Active

Two women hike outdoors

Maintaining a healthy weight can go a long way in improving OA symptoms, especially when knees are the concern. Research suggests that even moderate weight loss can lead to improved physical function. For instance, a study of women with knee OA who lost 5 kg saw a 50% reduction in their risk of disease progression. In obese people, extra weight can accelerate knee cartilage degeneration, triggering the onset of OA.6Bliddal H, Leeds AR, Christensen R. Osteoarthritis, obesity and weight loss: evidence, hypotheses and horizons—a scoping review. Obes Rev. 2014;15(7):578-586. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12173

Recent evidence shows that home-based exercises can mitigate OA symptoms. For people with knee OA, exercising at home may reduce pain and psychological distress while increasing physical function, mental health, and quality of life. Working out three times a week more effectively alleviates knee OA pain and disability than twice weekly. Researchers note that various forms of exercise, notably Tai Chi, aerobics, strength training, flexibility training, and resistance training, all help relieve OA pain.2Si J, Sun L, Li Z, Zhu W, Yin W, Peng L. Effectiveness of home-based exercise interventions on pain, physical function and quality of life in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Surg Res. 2023;18(1):503. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04004-z

There are other advantages to home-based exercise. Eliminating clinic visits means less travel and waiting time and reduced transportation costs. A home-based exercise program is particularly beneficial for people experiencing pain and mobility limitations commonly associated with OA. Exercising at home may reduce psychological stress and encourage family members and caregivers to participate.2Si J, Sun L, Li Z, Zhu W, Yin W, Peng L. Effectiveness of home-based exercise interventions on pain, physical function and quality of life in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Surg Res. 2023;18(1):503. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04004-z

Research links aerobic exercise to improved heart health. Not only does this reduce the risk of heart disease (a vital issue for RA patients), but it has been shown to enhance quality of life while also decreasing RA-associated pain and disability. There is also strong evidence for resistance exercises, which significantly reduce inflammation, joint pain, and morning stiffness. One study showed resistance exercises increase walking speed.7Wen Z, Chai Y. Effectiveness of resistance exercises in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: a meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2021;100(13):e25019. https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000025019

Eating a Plant-Based Diet

Inflammation-fighting foods displayed in bowls on table

To benefit most from the antioxidants in curcumin, garlic, ginger, saffron, cinnamon, and Boswellia, avoid exposing the herbs to high temperatures or prolonged heat.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Mixing various spices also has a powerful effect on the gut microbiome. A single serving of a spice blend like Indian curry can alter the gut microbiota and support a healthy balance.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Mixing spices is also a great way to add flavor to plant-based diets and may reduce OA and RA symptoms. Due to the high levels of dietary fiber in plant-based diets, the diversity of our gut bacteria improves, resulting in less inflammation and pain.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Herbs and spices are also essential to the Mediterranean diet, long celebrated for reducing the risk of many chronic diseases. RA patients regularly following this diet have demonstrated improvements in quality of life, pain, and stiffness. Research shows people who follow a Mediterranean diet have much more diverse gut microbiomes than those who eat a standard Western diet. Significantly, this diet can help the body make more short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which are proven to lower inflammation.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Exploring Acupuncture

Acupuncture’s history in pain relief spans more than 2,500 years. Numerous studies indicate that acupuncture can alleviate pain associated with knee OA and support overall joint function. The traditional Chinese medicine practice is known to curb inflammation and regulate oxidative stress.6Bliddal H, Leeds AR, Christensen R. Osteoarthritis, obesity and weight loss: evidence, hypotheses and horizons—a scoping review. Obes Rev. 2014;15(7):578-586. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12173

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Conventional Treatments for Arthritis

In conventional medicine, people with OA are often prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and specific (COX-2) cyclooxygenase II inhibitors. However, these medications can be expensive and may cause side effects, including stomach bleeding, digestive problems, heart issues, trouble sleeping, and nausea.2Si J, Sun L, Li Z, Zhu W, Yin W, Peng L. Effectiveness of home-based exercise interventions on pain, physical function and quality of life in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Surg Res. 2023;18(1):503. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04004-z,6Bliddal H, Leeds AR, Christensen R. Osteoarthritis, obesity and weight loss: evidence, hypotheses and horizons—a scoping review. Obes Rev. 2014;15(7):578-586. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12173 Long-term use may contribute to addiction, as well as liver and kidney damage.6Bliddal H, Leeds AR, Christensen R. Osteoarthritis, obesity and weight loss: evidence, hypotheses and horizons—a scoping review. Obes Rev. 2014;15(7):578-586. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12173

NSAIDs and COX-2 inhibitors do not repair cartilage or bone damage. A high number of NSAID–related adverse events has prompted the demand for safer and more effective treatments.2Si J, Sun L, Li Z, Zhu W, Yin W, Peng L. Effectiveness of home-based exercise interventions on pain, physical function and quality of life in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Surg Res. 2023;18(1):503. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04004-z,3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

A class of medications called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs) are commonly prescribed for RA. However, medication alone may be insufficient to reduce symptoms and slow or stop disease progression. People with RA are also increasingly seeking non-pharmaceutical alternatives.3Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812

Footnotes

  • 1
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Arthritis. Published November 3, 2021. Accessed October 4, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/chronicdisease/resources/publications/factsheets/arthritis.htm
  • 2
    Si J, Sun L, Li Z, Zhu W, Yin W, Peng L. Effectiveness of home-based exercise interventions on pain, physical function and quality of life in individuals with knee osteoarthritis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Surg Res. 2023;18(1):503. https://doi.org/10.1186/s13018-023-04004-z
  • 3
    Charneca S, Hernando A, Costa-Reis P, Guerreiro CS. Beyond seasoning—the role of herbs and spices in rheumatic diseases. Nutrients. 2023;15(12):2812. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15122812
  • 4
    Srivastava, S.; Saksena, A.K.; Khattri, S.; Kumar, S.; Dagur, R.S. Curcuma longa extract reduces inflammatory and oxidative stress biomarkers in osteoarthritis of knee: a four-month, double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial. Inflammopharmacology. 2016;24(6):377-388. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10787-016-0289-9
  • 5
    Yu G, Xiang W, Zhang T, Zeng L, Yang K, Li J. Effectiveness of Boswellia and Boswellia extract for osteoarthritis patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC Complement Med Ther. 2020;20(1):225. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12906-020-02985-6
  • 6
    Bliddal H, Leeds AR, Christensen R. Osteoarthritis, obesity and weight loss: evidence, hypotheses and horizons—a scoping review. Obes Rev. 2014;15(7):578-586. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12173
  • 7
    Wen Z, Chai Y. Effectiveness of resistance exercises in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis: a meta-analysis. Medicine (Baltimore). 2021;100(13):e25019. https://doi.org/10.1097/MD.0000000000025019

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