Supplements and RA
Herbal remedies and dietary supplements are often touted to relieve RA pain. And some may indeed help. But keep in mind that no herb or supplements can "cure" RA, and there's no evidence that they can actually stop the disease from progressing, as certain prescription medications (called disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs, or DMARDs) can.
Supplements are not regulated the way drugs are by the FDA, so it's hard to know exactly what's in them. And they can interact with prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Always talk to your doctor about what supplements may be helpful -- or harmful -- for you.
Here are some that may help:
Fish oil. Scientific studies of fish oil or other omega-3 fatty acid supplements show promise in treating RA symptoms such as painful joints and morning stiffness, according to the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). People with RA who take fish oil may sometimes be able to cut back on some of the other medications, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Fish oil may also help lower your risk of heart disease. Keep in mind that fish oil can cause stomach upset and some types of fish oils increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood-thinning medication.
Talk with your doctor before taking any supplement.
Vitamins and Minerals. If you have RA, you may want to take a good multivitamin that also contains minerals. Ask your doctor about whether you need to take calcium and vitamin D supplements. "Vitamin D deficiency is a huge concern in general, and especially for women with RA because they have more bone health issues," says Robinson. "They're more susceptible to osteoporosis even without adding in factors like steroid use, and many people are on steroids, which is also a negative for bone health." Check with your doctor about how much vitamin D and calcium you need.
People who take methotrexate typically need to take a folic acid supplement.
Turmeric and ginger. There is some preliminary laboratory evidence that turmeric and ginger may help curb inflammation. However, both may increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you take blood-thinning medication, and should not be used if you have gallstones.
RA and Diet: The Bottom Line
McNeil says she feels best following a Mediterranean diet. For Lubbers, a basic balanced diet seems to work well.
"I also eat smaller portions more often to keep my blood sugar level even-keeled," Lubbers says. "When it's not, it's another opportunity for a bad physical response. And I feel better when I eat lighter -- more soy and vegetables, and less bread and meat."
Both women say they shifted to a healthier diet not so much to tame specific symptoms but as part of an overall plan to improve their health with rheumatoid arthritis. "When you have a chronic condition," says Lubbers, "you want to have every positive thing you can on your side."