A Functional Medicine Guide To Rheumatoid Arthritis

rheumatoid arthritis

There’s a good chance that you or someone you know suffers from arthritis, a disease that makes the joints stiff, swollen, and painful. It does, after all, affect a pretty large portion of the population — as much as 30% in some states! (1) What you might not know, however, is that there are different types of arthritis, and one that I’m seeing more and more often in my office is rheumatoid arthritis, also known as RA. 

RA is rarer than osteoarthritis, the most common type of arthritis, but can be more severe and requires a holistic treatment approach. Keep reading for my functional medicine guide to this condition.


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What is rheumatoid arthritis? 

RA is different from osteoarthritis in that it is an autoimmune disease, which means it is caused by an underlying issue with the immune system that leads it to attack the body’s own tissues. Autoimmune disease can target virtually any part of the body, including the skin, the brain, the eyes, and the colon. But in the case of RA, the body’s immune attack is aimed at the joints and the fluid and tissues that surround them, causing the cartilage, bone, and ligaments in that area to deteriorate and cause stiffness, swelling, and pain. RA most frequently targets the wrist and hands or the feet, ankles, and knees. 

What are the symptoms of RA? 

Because RA stems from an issue with the immune system, the symptoms of RA can be more centralized than other types of arthritis. For example, you may experience fatigue, muscle aches, loss of appetite, or a random low-grade fever along with more recognizable symptoms of RA, like: 

  • Joint pain 
  • Swelling or heat around the joints
  • Stiffness in the morning or after sitting or laying down 
  • Loss of mobility 
  • Nodules under the skin around the joint that are hard to the touch 

If RA is allowed to occur without treatment, it can escalate into a more systemic illness called “inflammatory arthritis,” which can cause other complications like an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, shortness of breath and chest pains, carpal tunnel syndrome, kidney problems, anemia, rheumatoid nodules, brittle bones, frequent infections, headaches, and drastic appetite changes. 

How do I treat patients with RA? 

If you’re struggling with RA, I highly recommend working with a practitioner trained in functional medicine to create a personalized treatment plan based on your symptoms and test results. That said, when someone with RA comes into my office, there are a few suggestions I know almost everyone can benefit from, including: 

1. Move regularly

If you have RA you may not feel like moving or feel pain when you do. Here are some low-impact exercises that you can start with: 

  • Yoga
  • Thai chi 
  • Walking 
  • Stationary bicycle 
  • Water aerobics 
  • Pilates 

2. Alleviate stress

If there’s one thing I know for sure it’s that stress has never helped a medical condition. RA is no exception. If you have any chronic medical condition but especially an autoimmune condition, make sure you’re prioritizing self-care and carving out time to relax. Here are some of my favorite stress management techniques: 

  • Journaling 
  • Meditation 
  • Yoga
  • Epsom salt baths 
  • Reading 
  • Forest bathing

Any one of these done regularly will go a long way towards reducing symptoms and preventing any stress-induced exacerbations of your condition. 

3. Remove trigger foods

For every medical condition — especially those related to pain and inflammation — there are foods and ingredients that help and those that hurt. When it comes to RA, some interesting trends have developed that are worth knowing about. The following is a list of conditions that may exacerbate arthritis. If you suffer from RA, it would benefit you to limit them or remove them from your diet for at least 30 days to see how you feel:

  • Coffee 
  • Tobacco 
  • All sugar except natural fruits
  • All citrus fruits
  • Wheat, corn, and soy
  • Animal protein 
  • Dairy 
  • Vegetable oils 

Coffee and tobacco are a particularly high priority because studies have established a clear connection between these two ingredients and RA. For example, one study showed that coffee consumption may be a risk factor for increase rheumatoid factor (a protein produced in RA patients) in the blood. (2)

4. Incorporate anti-inflammatory ingredients

Now, onto the foods that HEAL. The following is a great list of anti-inflammatory ingredients that may help you feel better!  

The ingredients above can be taken in food form or as a supplement. For example, you can get omega-3s from foods like chia seeds and fatty fish; you can get turmeric by drinking fresh turmeric tea or eating curry, and you can get capsaicin by incorporating chili peppers into your diet. 

5. Try CBD 

CBD and other cannabis-based remedies have shown some promise for RA. (3) This is because cannabinoids not only reduce inflammation and fend off the pain, they also target T4 cells, which are the cells of the immune system involved in an autoimmune disease that leads to the body attacking itself. So, while more research needs to be done, CBD and medical cannabis (if it’s available and legal in your state) is definitely something to try alongside your more traditional medications. 

A rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis can feel overwhelming and scary, but I can tell you from experience that making targeted diet and lifestyle changes can lead to an improvement in symptoms. As a functional medicine practitioner, what I love most about my job is helping you feel like you have agency over your health — and RA is no exception!

As one of the first functional medicine telehealth clinics in the world, we provide webcam health consultations for people around the globe. 

Photo: unsplash.com

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  1. Arthritis-Related Statistics. (2018, July 18). Retrieved January 20, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/arthritis/data_statistics/arthritis-related-stats.htm
  2. Heliövaara, M., Aho, K., Knekt, P., Impivaara, O., Reunanen, A., & Aromaa, A. (2000). Coffee consumption, rheumatoid factor, and the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Annals of the rheumatic diseases, 59(8), 631–635. https://doi.org/10.1136/ard.59.8.631
  3. Gonen T, Amital H. Cannabis and Cannabinoids in the Treatment of Rheumatic Diseases. Rambam Maimonides Med J. 2020;11(1):e0007. Published 2020 Jan 30. doi:10.5041/RMMJ.10389

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Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.