At 35, Chicago flight attendant Michele Mason says her bones felt like “pins and needles” were in them, and her hands were so swollen that she found it difficult to put on her infant son’s socks. Her knees ached, too. “I couldn’t even get out of the bathtub by myself,” she says.
When her doctor suspected rheumatoid arthritis, Mason worried that traditional medicines might not be good for her breastfeeding baby. So with her doctor’s blessing, she took a very low-dose steroid and turned to herbs and supplements, including boswellia (Indian frankincense) and fish oil, to help relieve the pain and inflammation.
A year later, her diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis was confirmed. “I was happier to go with what I felt was a safer route with herbs,” she says. “While they didn’t make it go away, they did give me some relief."
Like Mason, about 30% of patients surveyed from North Carolina with rheumatoid arthritis have tried supplements, according to a study in Preventing Chronic Disease. “And use is increasing,” says study co-author Leigh Callahan, PhD, associate professor of medicine, orthopaedics and social medicine at the Thurston Arthritis Research Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
So what are the best herbs and supplements for RA? And, are they safe? Here's what you need to know.
First, know that herbs and supplements haven't been studied in the same way that prescription medicines for RA have. “There’s a tremendous disconnect between their widespread usage and people’s belief in their efficacy compared to what we’ve actually proven scientifically,” says Chaim Putterman, MD, chief of rheumatology at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
That is changing as the National Institutes of Health has a well-established center dedicated to studying complementary and alternative medicine. In the meantime, experts say that although some herbs and supplements may help relieve inflammation, don’t count on them to cure rheumatoid arthritis. “At best, they’re adjunctive therapies,” says William St. Clair, interim chief of the division of rheumatology at Duke University Medical Center. “It’s not a good reason to throw out their disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs.”
Always talk to your doctor first, because herbs and supplements may interfere with other medicines you are taking. Remember, too, that since they are not regulated in the same way that drugs are, you cannot always be sure what you are buying, says St. Clair.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends that women who are pregnant or nursing, or those considering CAM use in children use extra caution and consult their health care provider.
With that in mind, here are the herbs and supplements some experts suggest for RA.