Clients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis (as well as your garden variety joint pain) often come to me for help. Rheumatoid arthritis, caused by an overactive immune system, is especially scary, since the medical protocol can be quite intense (such as chemotherapy and other therapies which suppress the immune system). Because of this common medical treatment, I do not suggest any immune-enhancing herbs (such as Echinacea or Goldenseal). Instead, I’m going to recommend herbs to treat inflammation (the true root cause of all disease, in my humble opinion) as well as herbs which cleanse the blood and strengthen the body in general.
Alterative herbs help cleanse metabolic waste products and toxins from our body, and are a staple of herbal medicine. Alteratives work by supporting the natural cleansing functions of the kidneys, large intestines, increase blood flow and aid lymph drainage. Allowing these wastes and toxins to circulate throughout the body is a cause of inflammation and, when the body is attempting to stem inflammation, it’s not able to do much else in order to support our health. Here are a few herbs to help stem inflammation and aid the body in its detoxing efforts. (Note: these herbs are helpful for anyone with illness—not just arthritis or other inflammatory conditions).
1. Burdock Root (Arctium lappa or Arcticum minus):
One of the greatest things you can do for pain, joint or otherwise, is increase your intake of essential fatty acids. Burdock contains fatty oils which (along with its sterols and tannins) contribute to burdock’s reputation as an anti-inflammatory. You can eat burdock root in stir-fries (very popular in Asian cuisine, by the way), make a decoction (To do so: chop 2 tablespoons of fresh burdock root—if you do not have the fresh root available you may use 2 teaspoons of dried root as an alternative. Add the root to the boiling water and allow to simmer for 10 minutes then turn off the heat. Strain and drink while still warm—3-4 cups a day is ideal), or take the herb in capsule form (follow dosage directions, but remember, these are for a 150lb adult—calculate the appropriate dose using your own weight).
2. Flax ( Linum usitatissimum):
Flaxseed is one of the best vegan sources of Omega-3 (ALA), which is so important to a strong immune system and for fighting inflammation (the vegan bit is important because animal fats often lead to inflammation in arthritis sufferers). Try to include two tablespoons of flaxseeds or flaxseed oil in your daily diet. Note: do not heat or cook seeds or oil. Also, if you suffer from a digestive condition such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), use the oil rather than the seeds—they could irritate your condition.
3. Turmeric (Curcuma longa):
Turmeric is an extremely effective anti-inflammatory herb, and thus an effective pain reliever. It contains at least two chemicals (curcumin and curcuminoids) which decrease inflammation (and are very much like the oft-prescribed non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs). Incidentally, this anti-inflammatory effect is also why turmeric is often recommended for treatment of cancer, cataracts and Alzheimer’s.
While you can totally add this spice to your daily diet, you will need to take turmeric in supplement form in order to experience the full medicinal benefits. When cooking, try adding black pepper or dried ginger to help activate turmeric. The herb can also be applied topically to relieve pain.
4. Nettles (Urtica dioica):
Yup. If you’ve read my other articles, then you know that nettles is an herb with mad-skills incredible for pretty much anything. Nettles are insanely good for you, containing protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, beta-carotene, along with vitamins A,C, D, and B complex, all in a form that is easy for the body to use.
Stinging nettle is a wicked herb for those with all types of arthritis and gout. Its anti-inflammatory amazing-ness combined with its minerals (boron, calcium, magnesium and silicon) ease pain while helping to build strong bones. While NSAIDs are often a necessary evil for most with arthritis, using nettle may help you to decrease the amount you need to take. (Herbalists’ disclaimer: ALWAYS discuss herbal supplementation and prescription decreases with your physician). Nettle leaf tea (a cup or more daily) relieves and prevents water retention and inflammation and nourishes the kidneys and adrenals.
A side note: many arthritis sufferers have found that striking the inflamed joint with a fresh cutting from a nettle plant helps relieve joint pain (the stinging part of the nettles draws blood to the joint, relieving pain and inflammation). I know this sounds like a nutty treatment, but the brave amongst you can give it a try.
5. Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra):
Licorice acts much like your body's own natural corticosteroids (which reduce inflammation). Licorice decreases free radicals at the site of inflammation and inhibits the enzyme production that's involved in the inflammatory process. Glycyrrhizin is the component in licorice which blocks and relieves inflammation. It also supports the body's release of cortisol (which suppresses the immune system, easing the pain and occurrence of arthritis), but it also inhibits some of the side effects of cortisol (such as adrenal fatigue and anxiety). Use in supplement form or as a tea.
Please note: Licorice is not a good remedy for those with blood pressure issues. People who regularly take large amounts of licorice (20 grams/day or more) may experience serious side effects such as headache, high blood pressure, and heart problems. If you already have high blood pressure, heart or kidney disease, or low potassium (hypokalemia), please avoid the herb altogether.
All in all, aside from herbal protocols, the best treatment for arthritis is a diet filled with fresh produce, essential fatty acids, and fiber (and reducing or eliminating foods that cause an inflammatory response such as fried foods, animal fats, dairy, and anything else which might cause an allergy sensitivity). Yoga (especially Yin Yoga) and gentle stretching go a long way toward arthritis prevention and pain relief by opening joints, and encouraging the distribution of synovial fluid, which lubricates the joints.
image via James Bowe