Functional Medicine Treatment of Rheumatoid Arthritis

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a common autoimmune disease that primarily affects joint tissue.


Despite its severity - many things can be done to mitigate symptoms and target the potential sources of this autoimmune response. 

Most likely, if you have been suffering from joint pain, the first thing you do is make an appointment with your primary care doctor.  He or she will run tests to confirm the presence of antibodies and then give you a diagnosis. Then, depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor will prescribe medication.  


This medication is usually in the form of NSAIDs (painkillers), steroids (which stop the inflammation temporarily), and a biologic medication (which shuts down your immune system, so you do not have an inflammatory reaction).  


There can be many side effects from these medications - including bone loss, weight gain, digestive problems, disruptions in energy metabolism, and eventual fatigue.


The Functional Medicine Approach to RA


A functional medicine practitioner will approach rheumatoid arthritis differently.  


In your appointment, a full medical history, family history, symptom presentation, and previous testing will be evaluated.  Diagnostic tests will be done to confirm the presence of antibodies.  


Due to the length of the appointment, you will be able to go into detail about your medications and supplements - and any reactions you have to them. 


Your diet and lifestyle will be discussed as well as possible adjustments you can make to reduce the severity of your symptoms. 


The onset of rheumatoid arthritis (especially if it is sudden) can have many causes.


The eventual goal is to calm the inflammatory reaction in your body by implementing diet and lifestyle changes as well as finding and eliminating any biochemical stressors that are aggravating your condition. 


Some of these biochemical stressors could be hormonal imbalances, bacterial infections, nutrient deficiencies, food sensitivities, and heavy metal toxicity. 


The presence of these stressors will be confirmed through the use of diagnostic testing. 


Diet and Lifestyle Changes 


Changing your diet and lifestyle can have a significant effect on reducing the inflammation that is causing your pain.  A diet high in sugar, fatty red meat, and low in fruits and vegetables is conducive to autoimmunity.  


Some diets are effective in reducing autoimmune symptoms by eliminating certain foods. These diets usually eliminate refined flours, refined sugars, processed foods and incorporate a large number of antioxidants in the form of fruits and vegetables. 


'Autoimmune-healing' diets can be effective in reducing symptoms but a diet should not be seen as a ‘cure-all’ for every ailment - there are bacterial and viral infections that will be weakened but not killed off by a diet-only intervention.


There is another component to an 'Autoimmunity-healing diet' that is largely overlooked. ‘Autoimmunity-healing’ diets generally have large amounts of foods that are ‘allowed’ and ’not allowed.' 


Adhering to the ‘allowed’ groups is generally thought to avoid the most common food allergies and sensitivities.  


Sometimes, however, patients can reduce the types of foods they eat to such an extent that they start having IgG reactions (a kind of allergic reaction due to overexposure to the same food) to ‘allowed foods’.


This IgG reaction can cause them to start having symptoms (like headaches, stomach pain, and joint inflammation) as a result of eating previously 'safe' foods.


Eventually, their list of nonreactive foods can be reduced to less than ten different foods.   


I find that many patients have previously unknown food allergies or sensitivities that exacerbate their condition. 


Many patients are still unaware of the range of symptoms that can result from food sensitivities.  These symptoms can include headaches, migraines, vision disturbances, neuropathy, anxiety, sleep problems, and more.


There is usually an underlying problem (like a bacterial infection) that makes the patient more prone to autoimmunity and in consequence, food allergies and sensitivities.  


You can read more about food sensitivities here.


Isolating Causes of Inflammation 


Many biochemical causes could aggravate rheumatoid arthritis. Some doctors who practice functional medicine are against pharmaceuticals in any form, in any circumstance.  I am not one of those doctors.  


Some pharmaceuticals can be very beneficial and life-saving and have relatively minor side effects.  


I do believe, however, that when a problem is better solved through natural interventions with minimal side effects and without the hindrance of lifelong dependence on medication - that is the way to go.  


More often than not, there is a better solution than simply administering a symptom-suppressing pill. 


When all factors are addressed and the underlying causes of rheumatoid arthritis are corrected - true healing becomes possible.