NATURE’S ANSWER TO ARTHRITIS: Herbs, Nutrients, Anti-Inflammatory LifestyleMichael Vertolli, RH December 1, 2006
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 who are suffering from various conditions characterized by chronic inflammation and pain. Among these, by far the most common is arthritis. There are few conditions that can so effectively reduce the quality of our life.
Arthritis is characterized by inflammation of the joints with accompanying stiffness and pain. As the condition advances, it can lead to severe degeneration of the joints which can be crippling.
Arthritis is not a single condition. There are a number of different kinds of arthritis that are defined based on variations in the symptoms and causes. Essentially they are rheumatic conditions of the joints. They are related to other forms of rheumatism which includes various chronic inflammatory conditions affecting muscles, ligaments, tendons and other connective tissues. These conditions, however, are distinct from osteoarthritis. This condition is characterized by degeneration of cartilage and other tissue in the joints primarily due to excessive wear and tear over many years. Although mainstream medical treatment of all of these conditions is similar, the herbal treatment of osteoarthritis is different from the treatment of other rheumatic conditions because the underlying causes are very different.
The standard treatment for arthritis involves the use of both steroidal and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. Although these drugs may help to temporarily alleviate the symptoms, they are completely ineffective at addressing the underlying causes. In the long run they actually contribute to the progressive degeneration of the condition.
In contrast to the failure of modern medicine to be able provide any significant benefit to those who suffer from arthritis and other rheumatic conditions, herbalism and other natural systems of healing can be extremely effective. For many people, herbal treatment supported by appropriate diet and lifestyle changes can completely eliminate rheumatic conditions, especially when begun earlier in their development.
WHAT CAUSES ARTHRITIS
From an herbalist’s perspective, the primary cause of most rheumatic conditions is chronic accumulation of toxicity within our body fluids and tissues. This develops over many years due to unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits. 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 level, it will irritate the tissues in our joints and interfere with the health and proper functioning of the 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 some other forms of chronic stress. The purpose of the inflammatory response is to improve local circulation, thereby increasing the availability of oxygen and nutrients and the elimination of toxins and waste products from the local tissues, activate the immune response and accelerate the process of tissue repair and healing.
Inflammation is also a very important means by which our body can communicate to 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 can not resolve the problem and the inflammation will likely get progressively worse. Eventually, as tissue degeneration due to toxicity progresses, our immune system will begin to attack the damaged tissues, possibly resulting in an autoimmune response. Once this occurs, tissue degeneration will accelerate.
THE PHARMACEUTICAL APPROACH
The use of anti-inflammatory drugs is counter-productive on a number of fronts. Firstly, these substances add to the toxic stress load on our liver. Since our 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. In addition, pharmaceutical anti-inflammatories, especially the steroidal variety, disturb immune functioning. In the long run, this interferes with the healing process and can also aggravate the autoimmune component of the condition. Finally, any relief from the pain and stiffness that the drugs do provide will give us a false sense of security. We are mislead into believing that the drugs are helping our condition and continue to indulge in the negative dietary and lifestyle practices that created the problem in the first place while the underlying condition progresses at the same or an accelerated rate.
THE ANTI-INFLAMMATORY LIFESTYLE
The treatment of rheumatic conditions, like all chronic conditions, requires significant commitment and effort. There can be no half measures for anyone who truly wants to be healed. Although the use of herbs and nutritional supplements is an integral part of the program, creating a healthier diet and lifestyle is just as important. Without the personal initiative the results will be partial, at best, and the condition will eventually return full force when the herbal treatment is discontinued.
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 will also aggravate the condition. For some more sensitive people, it is also a good idea to reduce consumption of vegetables from the nightshade family, especially eggplant and tomatoes. Tomatoes are less of a problem if they are field grown and naturally ripened on the plant.
Reducing sources of toxicity is extremely important. Some means by which this can be accomplished include: avoiding foods that are heavily processed and include additives such as preservatives and artificial flavors, colors 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 home; reducing the use of synthetic products that out-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 only natural cosmetics and personal hygiene products (including unbleached cotton tampons and menstrual pads for women); reducing consumption of pharmaceuticals, alcohol and social drugs; quitting smoking; avoiding exposure to chemical solvents in our home and work place; reducing exposure to environmental pollutants as much as possible; and maintaining a healthy body weight.
Among the most harmful pharmaceuticals are those that are specifically prescribed for arthritis. It is impossible to obtain significant improvement in this condition as long as these drugs continue to be used. A gradual process of reducing and eventually eliminating their use is necessary at the beginning of the treatment program. However, due to the potential risks associated with reducing the dosages of some drugs and the possibility that they might interact with the herbs being used, this weaning off process should always be monitored by a qualified herbalist or other natural health care practitioner who is experienced with the use of herbs. Do not attempt this on your own if you are on anti-inflammatory medications.
Stress can be a significant contributor to arthritis and other rheumatic conditions as well. If our stress level is high, some kind of stress management program that will help us to deal with stress more effectively is very important. Examples include counseling, tai chi, yoga, meditation, prayer, visualization and biofeedback. What matters is that we choose something that we feel comfortable with.
Exercise is an important part of every healthy lifestyle. Exercise helps improve circulation, reduce stress and is essential for efficient detoxification. At the minimum, it essential that we practice 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 important to build up slowly. It is also important to avoid unhealthy exercise habits that increase our toxic stress load like jogging beside roads and swimming in pools containing chlorine or bromine.
NUTRITIONAL MEDICINE FOR ARTHRITIS
There are a number of nutritional supplements that are beneficial in the treatment of rheumatic conditions. They include B vitamins and trace minerals for stress and general health. A low potency 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. Do not use products with minerals in other forms such as carbonates, gluconates and oxides.
Antioxidants are extremely important for all inflammatory conditions. The most important way to get them is by eating lots of fruits and vegetables. In addition, it can also be useful to supplement vitamin A (a good multivitamin will usually have enough), the various carotenes, vitamin C (in the form of calcium ascorbate), vitamin E, selenium, bioflavinoids, 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. The best source is organic flax seed oil that has been manufactured using a process that protects it from light and oxygen.
There are a number of supplements that are beneficial to help our 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 very advanced cases of rheumatoid arthritis. When this occurs these supplements may be useful. They include silica (in the form of aqueous horsetail extract), chondroitin sulphate, glucosamine sulphate, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) and methyl sulfonyl methane (MSM).
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 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 the liver, kidneys and colon. All of the herbs listed below that support these various 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 (Zanthoxylem 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.), Joe-Pye rhizome (Eupatorium spp.), 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 15-30 minutes before meals or before bed. Add the tincture to a small amount of water 20-25 ml (.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 (a dropper is the amount of tincture that you get in the glass tube of the dropper when you completely press the bulb once) of your of the formulation (not each individual herb). 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 5-6 droppers. It’s also a good idea to change a couple of the herbs in your formulation every three to four months.
Another important element of detoxification that is very beneficial for rheumatic conditions is periodic juice fasting. If we choose to incorporate this into our treatment program, it is important that we follow a balanced fasting protocol. Anyone who hasn’t fasted before should start off slowly with a two or three day fast the first couple of times. Gradually build up to a five to seven day fast. It is not recommend to fast more than three to four times per year. Those who are using any pharmaceuticals or have a very serious health condition should first consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health care practitioner before attempting a fast.
It is important to keep in mind that arthritis and other rheumatic conditions develop over many years. Consequently, they do not heal overnight, even with the best herbal treatment protocol. It takes commitment, effort and time. It can take many months to several years to completely eliminate this type of condition, depending on the specifics of the case and the severity and duration of the condition.
A typical program takes 12-18 months. These can be relatively complex conditions and do not always respond well to self-treatment. However, it doesn’t hurt to try if your condition is not too serious or complicated by the use of pharmaceuticals. At the very least you will get some improvement and learn a lot in the process. However, if you don’t see significant improvement within three to six months, it is best to seek help from a qualified practitioner.
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. Visit his website: www.livingearthschool.ca Blog: michaelvertolli.blogspot.ca