Arthritis is one blanket name for a wide variety of diseases, all characterized by the same symptom: inflammation in the joints. This inflammation leads to joint pain, stiffness, and swelling. It tends to decrease your range of motion, and some people find that the skin surrounding affected joints is red.
Some varieties of arthritis have additional symptoms. Rheumatoid arthritis, for example, may come with additional tiredness and loss of appetite. Anemia is also common.
What Causes Arthritis?
To learn how to treat arthritis with supplements, you have to know what the cause of the disease is in the first place. Unfortunately, there no one cause for arthritis, because the same symptoms can be caused by several different issues. This makes it difficult to treat properly.
One primary type of arthritis is Osteoarthritis. This is common because it's basically just wear and tear on your joints. Your joints are places where two bones meet, surrounded by cartilage and anchored with tendons. Cartilage is firm but flexible, and it acts as a sort of shock absorber for the natural stress of moving your limbs.
When this cartilage ages, as you age, it loses some elasticity. It can wear down, it can become stiff, and it can put more stress on the actual bones involved in your joints. All of this is like a machine slowly wearing down. Osteoarthritis can be exacerbated by your body lacking certain nutrients it needs to keep cartilage healthy, akin to the oil in your car.
Another type of arthritis is called rheumatoid arthritis. It's actually an autoimmune disorder. The symptoms of arthritis in this case are caused by your immune system deciding, for whatever reason, that the synovium – a soft tissue in your joints that lubricates them and nourishes the cartilage directly – is a foreign intruder and must be destroyed. This attack causes the inflammation and pain you feel.
Standard Treatments for Arthritis
There are a variety of different existing treatments for arthritis, but they aren't always ideal. Some have side-effects or complications you may not like, some are more invasive, and certainly they aren't entirely healthy. Supplements may have the potential to help, but more on them in a moment.
The traditional treatments for arthritis tend to be symptomatic. In other words, they treat the symptoms, but don't address the root cause of the disease in the first place. For example, taking NSAIDs like ibuprofen and salicylates help reduce inflammation. This acts as something of a painkiller, but does nothing to treat the destruction of cartilage, synovium, or the joints themselves.
Analgesics are also used – like hydrocodone or acetaminophen – as painkillers. They don't address inflammation, but they help make you not notice the arthritis pain, which helps you go about your day in a more normal fashion.
Another common means of treating the pain of arthritis is using a topical cream that is absorbed through the skin. Menthol and Capsaicin – mint and hot peppers, basically – serve as a sort of temporary nerve block, overriding pain signals with signals of warmth or chill. There is also some evidence that CBD oils may have a similar effect, though since they are still broadly unregulated, semi-illegal, and inconsistent, research is still ongoing.
For the autoimmune form of arthritis, immunosuppressants can help. By preventing your immune system from acting, you prevent it from attacking your joints. Of course, these can have long-term side effects, since your immune system is an important part of your body.
At the extreme end, you also have invasive options like surgery. A joint replacement will fix inflammation in that joint by removing it entirely, but that's still a highly invasive procedure and comes with a whole host of side effects.
How to Treat Arthritis Healthily
There are a few key factors for treating arthritis.
- Minimizing physical stress on the joints.
- Keeping the body healthy to provide means to heal itself.
- Supplying the body with adequate nutrition to heal itself.
As such, sometimes some supplements may help with arthritis. You may be able to keep it from getting worse, slow down is progression, or even help prevent it from happening at all if you start soon enough.
You can broadly break down supplements into three main categories for arthritis treatment.
First, you have supplements to promote weight loss. If you're overweight, you're putting excess stress on your joints simply by existing. This is most readily apparent with the ankles, knees, hips, and shoulders, though all joints can be affected. Losing weight helps to minimize the physical stress you're putting on your joints.
Second, you have supplements that help restore your joints. By providing your body with the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients it needs to remain healthy, you help prevent damage and heal that damage more readily. Thus this second category of supplements tend to be packed with nutrients your body needs.
Third, you have supplements that help reduce inflammation. These supplements are much like the symptomatic treatments above; they don't do much to "cure" arthritis, but they can help reduce the symptoms, which makes it easier to manage.
There are three things you need to keep in mind with these supplements.
- Supplements are not going to be a miracle cure. Arthritis is not a curable condition. You can manage and minimize it, but that's it. If you expect too much out of your supplements, you're setting yourself up for disappointment.
- Improving your lifestyle by means of low-impact exercise like swimming will help a lot as well. Pair your supplements with an improvement in your diet and your exercise routine. Try to opt for exercises that don't put undue stress on the joints, rather than high-impact exercise like running.
- Supplements only really serve to help with certain kinds of arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis, as an autoimmune disorder, is unlikely to respond to dietary changes. It will likely need to be managed in a different way. Some research suggests a gluten-free diet may help, so you could try that.
And, of course, as always remember that there is little research into many of these supplements. They may work, or they may not, and whether or not they work depends on the person as much as the supplement. The important thing is to keep trying.
Category 1: Losing Weight
If you're in a healthy weight range, you can skip this section. Some of the supplements included here can help in other ways, but they shouldn't be your core focus for treating arthritis. And no, this isn't a "healthy at any size" situation. While some people may be clinically obese but healthy in terms of cardiovascular and neurological systems, arthritis is strictly a matter of mechanical wear. The more mass you're putting on your joints, the more those joints will wear down.
Supplements aimed at weight loss generally fall into three categories. Some of them promote weight loss by reducing appetite, making you less likely to eat and thus intake calories you need to lose. Some of them promote weight loss by reducing the body's ability to absorb nutrients, primarily fats, preventing them from being stored. Finally, some of them promote weight loss by increasing the amount of calories you burn when you exercise, meaning it's easier to burn the excess energy.
First let's talk about supplements that reduce appetite. Fenugreek is an herb, and we typically use the seeds. It's high in fiber, which slows down how quickly your stomach processes food, which makes you feel full longer after eating. Glucomannan is another fiber supplement that performs similarly. Gymnema Sylvestre is an interesting one; it makes sugar taste less sweet, which can help fight sugar addiction, and thus cravings. Green tea extract contains both caffeine and catechins (caffeine we'll talk more about in the third section). Catechins, meanwhile, are metabolism boosters.
Now what about those supplements that prevent your body from storing energy? Your body needs to store some fat; zero fat is bad for you. However, we typically have too much fat, so preventing the body from storing some of the nutrients you digest will help prevent weight build-up. In this case, it's less about supplements and more about whole foods. Decrease your intake of processed sweets, white bread, white rice, and soda. Increase your intake of whole vegetables, grains, and fibers. There may be evidence to suggest that Garcinia Cambogia can also inhibit fat production.
Finally, you have the supplements that increase the calories you burn. Typically, we call these stimulants or amphetamines. You have to use caution with these, as low levels can cause jitters, and high levels can lead to heart attacks. Caffeine is one of the most common weight loss supplements for this reason; it gives you energy to be more active, to burn more calories. Polyphenols include nutrients like curcumin, and can help promote gut health.
Category 2: Promoting Healing
Next up, you have the supplements that help promote healing and restoration of cartilage, bone, and tendon. Cartilage is made up of a structure of collagen, which you can get from or promote the production of through supplements. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the best route to take, since studies have shown that cartilage doesn't really heal.
Glucosamine is a compound found in cartilage and harvested from the shells of shellfish. There are a handful of different kinds of glucosamine, and it's glucosamine sulfate that you should specifically look for.
Chondroitin sulfate is another nutrient present in cartilage which can be taken as a supplement. It's usually manufactured from animal cartilage sources, so it's not suitable for the vegans out there.
Collagen supplements are also a common recommendation. While they may not have a huge impact on cartilage, they can help surrounding tissues, and they have a range of other beneficial effects on the body besides.
Category 3: Reducing Inflammation
The third section of arthritis supplements are those that help reduce inflammation. Since inflammation is the primary source of arthritic pain, reducing inflammation goes a long way towards managing the disease.
Curcumin was mentioned above, but may also have anti-inflammatory properties. It's found in turmeric, but turmeric doesn't contain enough of it alone, so you want more pure supplements.
Fish oil is a common supplement aimed at reducing inflammation. It's a convenient way to get Omega-3 fatty acids your body needs for a variety of functions, though you can get these from a bunch of different sources, including just eating fatty fish.
Alpha-lipoic Acid is an antioxidant and a fatty acid that can be useful for inflammation in a variety of bodily locations. Remember to follow proper dosage instructions, however. This supplement may also interfere with diabetes medications.
Resveratrol is another antioxidant and is found in the skin of dark fruits like blueberries and grapes, and also in red wines derived from those fruits. It has primarily been shown to affect ulcerative colitis, but may also have more widespread benefits for bodily inflammation.
Boswellia, also known as Indian frankincense, is a tree extract and herb that has some anti-inflammatory properties, though it's also not well studied as of yet. You'll find this to be true of many ayurvedic herbal remedies.
Flax is another great source of fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial in a range of different ways.
Now, how do these supplements stand up compared to medical anti-inflammatories like NSAIDs? Chances are many of them will have less effect. However, your body may respond better to some of them than to others, so they can be worth a try, particularly if you're unable to take NSAIDs for another medical reason.
Arthritis may not be a curable condition, but with the right selection of supplements – and some healthy lifestyle changes – it can be surprisingly easy to manage.