The majority of rheumatoid arthritis (RA) sufferers eventually require prescription drugs, but everyone with the condition can benefit from natural approaches that reduce inflammation, pain and stiffness.

This blending of natural and conventional treatments often allows patients to reduce the frequency and doses of medications, which is important for curbing side effects, such as dizziness and increased risk for infection and, in rare cases, cancer.

Best natural treatments for RA…

• Get regular low-impact exercise. Any form of low-impact exercise, particularly walking and swimming, will increase joint lubrication and reduce inflammation, which helps people with RA perform daily tasks, such as dressing, without pain. Exercise will also increase endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.

• Give up meat. Studies have shown that RA sufferers who don’t eat meat have less pain and greater mobility. Reason: Beef (even organic, grass-fed beef) and other meats, such as lamb and pork, increase levels of arachidonic acid, a fatty acid that’s transformed into inflammatory, pain-signaling compounds.

What we recommend for our RA patients: Avoid all meat (beef, lamb and pork), and replace it with other sources of protein—for example, from plants (such as legumes, including beans, and whole grains), poultry and fish. Fish is particularly good because the omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation. A fish oil supplement, which contains omega-3 fatty acids, also is sometimes advised. Consult your doctor for dosage.

• Identify and manage food sensitivities. The evidence isn’t conclusive, but it appears that many people with RA are sensitive to one or more foods. For example, one of my patients has an immediate RA flare-up when he eats foods that contain corn syrup.

Helpful: An elimination diet to identify which food(s) you might be sensitive to. How it works: Your doctor will advise you to stop eating certain foods, such as corn syrup, dairy, citrus, tomatoes, wheat and corn, for one to two weeks. Then, you reintroduce the foods, one at a time, over a period of weeks to see whether symptoms reappear.

• Use anti-inflammatory spices, such as ginger, turmeric, cumin, cinnamon, cardamom and garlic. They contain potent antioxidants that can reduce inflammation even in the amounts typically used in cooking.


Natural approaches can help control RA, but unless you have an unusually mild case, you’ll want to combine them with medication for the best results. That’s because natural treatments help reduce pain and swelling but don’t stop joint damage, which can become permanent if not promptly treated with medications.

Joint damage can be detected earliest with imaging tests, such as an X-ray, MRI or ultrasound. Important: Start medications right away if imaging tests show any degree of “destructive” arthritis. The natural approaches outlined earlier can be continued while you are undergoing drug therapy.

Last year, the American College of Rheumatology released updated guidelines that call for the aggressive treatment of RA. In the past, doctors were more likely to use “mild” medications, such as ibuprofen (Motrin) and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), before escalating to more potent drugs. The problem is, NSAIDs are usually good at relieving pain and stiffness, but they won’t prevent joint damage. Also needed…

• DMARDs. Most people who experience severe and frequent RA symptoms should take one or more disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs), such as methotrexate (Rheumatrex), hydroxychloroquine (Plaquenil) or sulfasalazine (Azulfidine).

DMARDs, which suppress the immune system, reduce RA flare-ups and reduce risk for serious joint damage. If a DMARD is effective, it is usually continued indefinitely.

Important: DMARDs may make you more susceptible to infection. Other side effects may include nausea, abdominal pain or, rarely, liver damage. Be sure to get the appropriate vaccinations for flu, pneumonia, etc.

• Biologics. If you don’t get adequate relief from one or more of the DMARDs, your doctor might switch you to a biologic drug. Medications in this class include etanercept (Enbrel), adalimumab (Humira) and others, and can actually delay or prevent joint damage.

These meds also increase the risk for infection, so ask your doctor about prevention strategies. In rare cases, these drugs can increase cancer risk as well.

Source: Harris H. McIlwain, MD, a board-certified rheumatologist, founder of the McIlwain Medical Group, Tampa Florida, and former chair of the Florida Osteoporosis Board. He is author, with Debra Fulghum Bruce, PhD, of Diet for a Pain-Free Life.