NATURE’S ANSWER TO ARTHRITIS: Herbs, Nutrients, Anti-Inflammatory LifestyleMichael Vertolli, RH February 1, 2019
Chronic degenerative diseases are increasing at an alarming rate. They are also affecting Canadians at earlier ages than was typical in the past. Of particular concern is the number of people suffering from various conditions characterized by chronic inflammation and pain. Among these, by far the most common is arthritis – few conditions can so effectively reduce the quality of our life.
From an herbalist’s perspective, the primary cause of most rheumatic conditions is chronic accumulation of toxicity within our body fluids and tissues. By the time any symptoms appear, the underlying toxicity is likely to have been accumulating for many years, even decades.
Our joints are particularly sensitive to the accumulation of toxins because they are subjected to significant amounts of physical stress and are largely composed of tissues that have poor blood and lymphatic circulation. These tissues therefore have more difficulty accessing the nutrients they require and eliminating waste products. When significant levels of toxicity begin to accumulate in our body fluids and tissues, they will accumulate in the tissues of our joints as well, especially if we do not get sufficient exercise to ensure adequate circulation to and from our body cells.
When the level of toxicity accumulates beyond a certain point, it will irritate the tissues in joints and interfere with the health and proper functioning of local cells. This will often lead to the development of chronic inflammation. What ultimately determines whether the inflammation will manifest in our joints or some other part of our body, such as our skin (e.g. eczema or psoriasis), is our personal history and constitutional or genetic factors.
Inflammation and pain is not necessarily a bad thing as some would have us believe. It is our body’s natural response to toxicity and chronic stress. The inflammatory response works to improve local circulation, thereby increasing the availability of oxygen and nutrients and accelerating the elimination of toxins and waste products. It also activates the immune response and speeds up the process of tissue repair and healing. Inflammation is also an important means by which the body can tell us that something is wrong, and depending on how and where it occurs, what the nature of that ‘something’ might be.
Unfortunately, unless the underlying toxicity is reduced significantly, the inflammatory response cannot resolve the problem and the inflammation will likely get progressively worse. Eventually, as tissue degeneration due to toxicity progresses, our immune system may begin to attack the damaged tissues, possibly resulting in an autoimmune response. Once this occurs, tissue degeneration will accelerate.
Among the most harmful pharmaceuticals are those specifically prescribed for arthritis. The use of anti-inflammatory drugs is counterproductive on a number of fronts. Firstly, they add to the toxic stress load on the liver. Since the liver is our primary organ of detoxification, this will interfere with the ability of the liver to reduce the level of toxicity within our body by increasing its workload. In addition, prescription anti-inflammatories, especially steroids, disturb immune functioning. This interferes with the healing process and can also aggravate the autoimmune component of the condition.
Finally, any pain relief that the drugs do provide will give us a false sense of security. We are misled into thinking that the drugs are helping our condition so we continue to indulge in the dietary and lifestyle practices that created the problem in the first place; meantime, the underlying condition progresses at the same or an accelerated rate.
Gradually reducing and eventually eliminating these medications is a necessary component of the treatment program. However, due to potential risks associated with reducing dosages of some drugs and the possibility that they might interact with the herbs being used, this weaning-off process should be monitored by a qualified herbalist or other healthcare professional experienced with the use of herbs. Do not attempt this on your own if you are on anti-inflammatory medications.
The Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle Heals Disease
The treatment of rheumatic conditions, like all chronic conditions, requires commitment. Although the use of herbs and nutritional supplements is essential, creating a healthier diet and lifestyle is just as important. The overall goal is to implement health-promoting habits while reducing sources of toxicity. Dietary changes are important. Some general recommendations include: increasing consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables; eating whole, natural, organic foods as much as possible; reducing consumption of red meats, dairy products, sweets, and caffeine-containing foods and beverages. Smoking tobacco and marijuana can also aggravate arthritic inflammation. For some more sensitive people, it might be necessary to reduce consumption of vegetables from the nightshade family, especially eggplant and tomatoes.
Reducing sources of toxicity is also very important, such as:
– avoiding foods that are heavily processed with preservatives and artificial flavours, colours, and sweeteners;
– avoiding foods laced with agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and nitrates;
– drinking clean spring or filtered water that is not bottled in plastic;
– reducing the use of chemical cleaning and deodorizing products in our homes;
– reducing the use of synthetic products that off-gas such as PVC, plastics, particle board, and synthetic carpets;
– taking showers instead of baths and getting a shower filter to reduce exposure to chlorine;
– using natural cosmetics and personal hygiene products (unbleached cotton tampons & menstrual pads for women);
– reducing consumption of pharmaceuticals, alcohol and social drugs; quitting smoking;
– avoiding exposure to chemical solvents in homes and workplaces; reducing exposure to environmental pollutants;
– maintaining a healthy body weight.
Stress can also be a significant contributor to arthritis and other rheumatic conditions. If our stress level is high, finding effective ways to blow it off and chill out becomes very important. Recommended de-stressing strategies include bodywork, psychotherapy, hypnotherapy, tai chi, yoga, meditation, prayer, visualization, and biofeedback.
Exercise is an important part of every healthy lifestyle. It helps improve circulation, reduce stress, and is essential for efficient detoxification. At the minimum, I recommend a good aerobic exercise for 30-45 minutes, three to four times per week. It is also important that we get some milder form of exercise such as walking or biking on a daily basis. This is in addition to a more intensive aerobic exercise regimen. If you do not currently exercise on a regular basis, it is best to build up slowly.
There are a number of beneficial nutritional supplements for the treatment of rheumatic conditions. They include B-complex vitamins and trace minerals for stress and general health. A multivitamin will satisfy this as long as it contains trace minerals such as zinc, manganese, and chromium. It is also important that all of the minerals are in an efficiently assimilated form such as citrates or amino acid chelates.
Antioxidants are important for all inflammatory conditions. The best way to get them is by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. It can also be useful to supplement vitamin A, the various carotenes, vitamin C (in the form of calcium ascorbate), vitamin E, selenium, bioflavonoids, quercetin, and other antioxidant polyphenols such as those found in green tea, grape seed, pine bark, bilberry and other berry extracts. Also important are omega-3 fatty acids.
Some supplements are beneficial to help the body repair cartilage damage. These are usually not used for the treatment of rheumatic conditions, but rather for osteoarthritis. However, severe tissue damage in the joints can occur in advanced cases of rheumatoid arthritis. When this occurs, these supplements can be useful: silica, chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine sulphate, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and methyl sulfonyl methane (MSM).
Herbal Medicine for Arthritis Relief
Herbs are essential for the treatment of arthritis and other rheumatic conditions. The main emphasis in the treatment of all of these conditions is on herbs that nourish and support the various channels of detoxification. It is necessary to use a combination of herbs that improves the general blood and lymphatic circulation to and from the tissues, and supports the functioning of liver, kidneys, and colon. All of the herbs listed below that support these functions are herbs that are particularly useful for the treatment of rheumatic conditions.
For blood circulation: cayenne fruit (Capsicum spp.), ginger rhizome (Zingiber officinale), turmeric rhizome (Curcuma longa), rosemary leaves (Rosmarinus officinalis), cinnamon bark (Cinnamomum verum), prickly ash bark (Zanthoxylum spp.).
For lymphatic circulation: burdock root (Arctium spp.), cleavers herb (Galium aparine), purple coneflower root (Echinacea spp.), horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense), purple loosestrife herb (Lythrum salicaria), red clover flowers (Trifolium pratense), dandelion root (Taraxacum officinale), figwort herb (Scrophularia spp.), yellow sweet clover herb (Melilotus officinalis), stinging nettle herb or rhizome (Urtica dioica), prickly ash bark.
For liver function: yellow gentian root (Gentiana lutea), yellow dock root (Rumex crispus), elecampane root (Inula helenium), wormwood herb (Artemisia absinthium), milk thistle seed (Silybum marianum), burdock root, dandelion root, turmeric rhizome.
For kidney function: goldenrod herb (Solidago spp.), horsetail herb (Equisetum arvense), celery seed (Apium graveolens), horseweed herb (Conyza canadensis), Queen Ann’s lace herb or root (Daucus carota), burdock root, cleavers herb, dandelion root or leaves, horsetail herb, elecampane root, stinging nettle herb or rhizome.
Strong laxatives are not recommended. However, if we include a couple of good liver herbs, they will support colon function as well, as all herbs that stimulate bile secretion have a mild laxative effect.
The best way to use these herbs is in the form of 1:5 fresh herb tinctures taken three to four times per day, on an empty stomach, 10 to 15 minutes before meals or before bed. Add the tincture to a small amount of water (20 – 25 ml or .5 – 1 ounce) and hold it in your mouth for about 30 seconds before swallowing. Begin at a relatively low dose of about two droppers* of your herbal combination – not each individual herb. (*Note: a dropper is the amount of tincture that you get in the glass tube of the dropper when you completely press the bulb once.)
As long as you don’t get any unusual symptoms, increase the unit dose by one dropper every week until you reach a maximum dose of 4 to 5 droppers. It’s also a good idea to change a couple of the herbs in your formulation every two to three months.
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/