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Rheumatoid Arthritis: Best and Worst Supplements and Herbs

WebMD explains which supplements and herbs may help relieve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms and which ones you should not take.

Supplements and Herbs for RA: The Best

Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatories found in products like fish oil, says David Leopold, MD, director of integrative medical education at the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine. Fish oil comes from coldwater fish such as salmon and tuna. Studies of fish oil in chronic inflammatory diseases show benefits such as decreased pain and morning joint stiffness and lowered use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

The downsides: Fish oil may increase risk for bleeding, especially if it is being taken with certain other medicines. It can also interact with other medications you may be taking for conditions such as high blood pressure. It can taste fishy and can cause gas, diarrhea, and bloating. Leopold recommends getting good products that don’t taste that fishy, and freezing capsules. “By the time they melt, they’ve gone past the point where they can cause a fishy burp,” he says. Check for supplements that contain mercury-free fish oils.           

Borage oil:  Borage oil reduces swollen and tender joints, says Robert Zurier, MD, professor of medicine in the division of rheumatology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. With it, patients may need less prednisone, a steroid, for relief of symptoms, he says. Borage oil may cause bloating or an upset stomach. Borage oil products may hurt the liver and may also increase risk for bleeding, especially in those who are also using NSAIDs or anti-clotting medications.

Green tea extract (EGCG),  curcumin (turmeric), quercetin, ginger,white willow bark, boswellia: These are potential anti-inflammatory agents. “They act very similarly to ibuprofen, but at a lesser level,” says Leopold. Curcumin, boswellia, and ginger have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for inflammatory conditions, according to the NCCAM, which is supporting research with these botanicals in the treatment of arthritis and asthma.

According to the NCCAM, ginger may increase risk for bleeding and should not be used in people with bleeding problems, heart problems, or diabetes, Curcumin may cause upset stomach and diarrhea and shouldn't be used in people with gallbladder disease or gallstones. Boswellia may also cause upset stomach. White willow bark can cause a serious allergic reaction to patients with a history of allergy to salicylates (aspirin allergy). Other side effects may include upset stomach, bleeding, rash, and kidney problems.

Avocado-soy unsaponifiables: This vegetable extract made from avocado and soybean oils “seems to help the body regenerate normal connective tissue,” says Leopold. ASUs, as they’re often called, may cause upset stomach. Even just eating avocado and soy should give people “a mild effect,” he says.   

SAM-e may act as an anti-inflammatory and analgesic but may cause vomiting, diarrhea, headache, and nausea. 

Cat’s claw, from the bark of an Amazon vine, may slightly reduce joint swelling and pain, but there is no conclusive evidence that it can successfully treat rheumatoid arthritis. Cat’s claw may cause nausea, headaches, and dizziness.


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