Many people suffer from arthritis, but not many realize how serious it can be and that it can impact people of all ages. Unrecognized and untreated arthritis and active inflammation can become debilitating, so it’s important to take action.
While it is improving, Western society has trained us to believe that taking medicine is the main solution for all health issues. Doctors are quick to prescribe pills and recommend supplements with side effects before working with the patient to see if diet, lifestyle changes, and alternative treatments make a difference.
As an autoimmune patient myself, I know how frustrating this can be. You want to feel your best and take your life back, but it seems like nothing is working, and you’re spinning your wheels trying to find answers.
I am passionate about the fact that treatment isn’t one-size-fits-all. Treating and even reversing inflammation takes a delicate balance of lifestyle changes, alternative therapies, and traditional medicine to identify the root cause and help the patient feel their best. This post is aimed to help you to understand your options, the role that supplements play, and decide what is best for you.
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease which means that your immune system attacks your body, causing chronic inflammation. It can affect multiple organs in the body but often manifests in joint pain and swelling. It is different from osteoarthritis, which is a non-inflammatory form of the disease commonly caused by wear and tear to joints.
If you suspect that you might have a form of arthritis, talk to your doctor right away. Swollen and painful joints from arthritis over time can cause erosion of the bones, joint damage at a molecular level, and eventually irreversible deformities.
Here are some signs of inflammatory arthritis.
- Joint swelling
- Morning stiffness that lasts longer than 30 minutes
- Pain is worse in the morning than at night
- The pain improves with movement
- Pain worsens with rest
- You wake up from pain at night
Everywhere we look these days, there’s a new health gimmick or supplement being advertised to us. While I am not saying that it’s all bad, and I certainly do recommend supplements to my patients when appropriate, the sad truth is that a lot of these companies are preying on patients’ fears and deep desires to feel better, only to make a buck. The truth is, a lot of the products out there are not all they’re cracked up to be, so you have to approach the supplement world critically.
When they first come to me, patients often view supplements as a natural option, but the reality is that supplements are also drugs with side effects and, unlike prescriptions, they’re unregulated. Typically, my recommendation is to try diet and lifestyle changes before turning to medication and supplements, but this varies based on the patient since more advanced cases should be treated more aggressively.
My biggest tip when it comes to supplements is to look at the side effects and talk to your doctor before taking any! Taking too many supplements, poor-quality supplements, or combining them with the wrong medication can potentially be harmful.
What about “immune boosting” supplements?
The immune system is very complicated. I work with it every single day as a rheumatologist, and sometimes, it even spins me in circles. There are a lot of unanswered questions when it comes to immunity, especially for autoimmune patients. For this reason, when I hear the term “immune boosting supplements,” there are a lot of questions that run through my head.
I could get into the weeds about T cells, B cells, antigen-presenting cells, etc., but the bottom line is that your best bet for boosting immunity is to eat certain foods, exercise, and sleep. We often over-complicate our health and cause more problems in the process.
While there are supplements out there that could potentially strengthen your immune system, these supplements can come with consequences. Your best bet is to drop the fancy immune boosters and, instead, get your boost from fruits and vegetables at your grocery store. Work with your doctor to determine what the best option is for you.
Food is medicine
Food is medicine. This is a fact. No doctor ever told me that. Medical school and residency never taught me that, either. I had to figure it out on my own. Food as medicine is no secret. This simple fact has to get out to people, and not enough people are aware.
With all the misinformation on the internet, it’s very hard for people to find out where the medicine is in food. Food is powerful! I am the walking testament to that because I was able to reverse my arthritis with diet and lifestyle changes. Here are some “immune boosting” foods to consider incorporating into your diet. While some contain doses of vitamins A, C, E, and antioxidants, others contain a heavy concentration of sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin, that fight infection. A lot of these plant-based options are also rich in fiber, which serves as a prebiotic to feed the healthy bacteria in your gut (those natural “immune boosters” we discussed earlier):
- Citrus fruits – Vitamin C galore! Watch for sugary enhancements to store-bought orange juice and other citrus beverages.
- Red bell peppers – As much Vitamin C as an orange!
- Broccoli – One of the healthiest foods you can eat! Rich in a variety of vitamins and a great source of fiber.
- Garlic – Contains allicin and helps to fight infection.
- Ginger – Anti-inflammatory properties
- Spinach – Also a Vitamin C-rich food with antioxidants as well
- Almonds – Healthy fats and vitamin E
- Sunflower seeds – Full of nutrients, including phosphorus, magnesium, and vitamins B-6 and E. Looking for a healthy swap, drop the potato chips or buttery popcorn for this nutritious option (just watch the sodium).
- Turmeric – Anti-inflammatory properties
- Green tea – Anti-inflammatory properties
- Papaya – packed with Vitamin C. One medium fruit contains double the daily recommended amount, and it also contains potassium, magnesium, and folate.
- Kiwi – These little wonders contain folate, potassium, Vitamin K, and Vitamin C.
Combined with a healthy lifestyle, exercise, and a nontoxic environment, a healthy diet can do wonders for your overall health. In some cases, however, patients can make all of the right lifestyle choices and still experience severe symptoms, which is where supplements and medications come into play.
Always consult with your doctor before self-prescribing
Supplements and other forms of medication can be extremely beneficial, but always consult with your doctor before self-prescribing. I am all about addressing the root cause of RA and typically like to lead with lifestyle changes, but sometimes this is not enough. If whatever you are doing doesn’t work and you are still experiencing flares, then it is time to pivot. Pivoting can either be adding medications, switching medications, or adding holistic ways on top of using medications.
Be an advocate for your health, ask questions, and educate yourself on the options out there that can help you take control of your arthritis and feel your best.
If I had told you it was easy to reverse my arthritis, I would be lying to you. It wasn’t easy, and it took a lot of trial and error over the span of a decade to find out that I could actually reverse my autoimmune disease. I had to suffer for a very long time through debilitating pain and swelling, but in the end, it was all worth it. I have developed healthy lifestyle habits and am more equipped to handle challenges in the future.
Stay strong, and I hope you find the balance of treatment options that are best for you! Please reach out if I can support you in any way. All the best, Dr. Yu.