Arthritis can be hell to live with, but you don’t have to put up with it. There is a range of natural approaches that can help ease the pain.
Anyone who has arthritis knows it can be a nightmare. It causes inflamed, stiff and swollen joints, leading to chronic pain. And, contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to be over a certain age to get it. Of the eight million people in the UK with arthritis, a million are under 50, with 27,000 aged 25 or younger.
What is arthritis?
The word arthritis literally means inflammation of the joint. The most common forms are rheumatoid arthritis, which is an inflammation of the tissue surrounding a joint, and osteoarthritis, where the cartilage in the joints become damaged. Conventional treatment is with steroids and painkillers, the most common being non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). There are more than 24 million prescriptions written for NSAIDs in the UK each year. They help reduce inflammation and pain, but can have a number of side effects such as stomach problems, heartburn, indigestion, rashes, kidney problems and wheeziness.
There are ways you can help treat the condition naturally, but don’t stop taking your medication without seeking advice from your doctor first.
Changing your diet
Making simple changes to your diet can be effective in controlling arthritis. Dr John McDougall, of the McDougall Wellness Clinic in California, points out that, while arthritis affects around 70 per cent of people over 65 in the West, it is very rare in African and Asian countries.
‘As recently as 1957, no case of rheumatoid arthritis could be found in Africa, and up until then people in Africa had diets based on grains and vegetables,’ he says. He prescribes a low-fat vegan diet based on starches, fruit and vegetables and if improvements aren’t seen in two weeks, he advises the elimination of wheat and corn, then other foods, until the culprit is identified. His approach is backed up by studies; one, published in The Lancet, looked at 46 adults with rheumatoid arthritis who eliminated dairy products and cereals from their diets. Of these, 19 went into complete remission for between one and five years and a further 17 showed improvements.
It is important, though, that you visit a nutritionist before you exclude any foods from your diet.
Do supplements help?
The most popular supplements for arthritis are glucosamine and chondroitin. These help to hold water in the cartilage, giving strength to the joint surface. Last year, researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine found that both glucosamine and chondroitin may help in the repair and maintenance of cartilage. There’s currently no recommended daily allowance (RDA) for glucosamine or chondroitin, but McDougall says an effective dose is 1,500mg and 800mg respectively. They aren’t suitable for vegetarians as they’re made from animal ingredients, but research into supplements containing gamma linolenic acid (GLA), such as evening primrose oil and starflower oil have shown encouraging results.
How herbs can help
‘Problems affecting the joints make up an extremely large proportion of the average herbalist’s case load, but they can often be treated with good results’, says medical herbalist Kate Butler. ‘Many people find that they can reduce the amount of painkillers they are taking, have more pain-free days, reduced levels of stiffness and increased mobility.’
For best results, you should always consult a registered herbalist before taking herbs (and tell your GP what herbs you are taking) but the following remedies can help. ‘The daily dosages should be split into three and taken throughout the day’ says HH medical herbalism adviser Andrew Chevallier.
Turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, is a mild painkiller and strengthens connective tissue between joints.
Contraindications: Avoid if you have gallbladder problems or are taking anticoagulants; it can also increase sensitivity to sunlight.
Dosage: 2-4g of dried herb or equivalent in tablets (take as directed); 14ml (1ml is about 15 drops) of tincture.
White willow bark has similar anti-inflammatory and pain relieving actions to aspirin, without the side effects on the stomach and digestive system.
Contraindications: Avoid if you’re allergic to aspirin or taking anticoagulants.
Dosage: 2-4g of the dried herb or equivalent in tablets or capsules (take as directed); 14ml of tincture.
Devil’s claw is useful for a wide range of joint and muscular problems as it’s an anti-inflammatory herb.
Contraindications: Do not take if you have a stomach or duodenal ulcer, are taking anticoagulants, or are pregnant.
Dosage: 2-5g of the dried herb or equivalent in tablets or capsules (take as directed); 14ml of tincture.
Ginger is anti-inflammatory and can be used internally and externally.
Contraindications: As with devil’s claw.
Dosage: 0.5-3g of dried herb or equivalent in tablets (take as directed; 3g per day will make you feel hot); 1.4ml of tincture.
Nettle strengthens and supports the whole body and improves elimination of waste via the kidneys, in particular uric acid, making it a useful cleansing remedy.
Dosage: 2-10g of dried herb or equivalent in tablets or capsules (take as directed); 14ml of tincture.
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