Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune condition that occurs when the body begins attacking the joints, mistaking them as foreign invaders. The body attacks the thin membrane surrounding joints, allowing fluid and immune complexes to build up in the joints and cause significant pain. Normally these immune complexes filter out of your blood on their own, but when there is a build-up, they tend to settle into different joints and cause local inflammation and tissue damage. When these immune complexes build up in the joints, they can cause pain and swelling characteristic of RA.
Typically, RA starts in the small joints such as hands, fingers, and toes. It progresses to larger joints like the wrists, ankles, knees, and hips. The pain and swelling is usually on both sides of the body or in bi-lateral joints.
If someone in your family has RA or any autoimmune disease, then you are more likely to develop RA in your lifetime. If you have already been diagnosed with RA, then you are three times more likely to develop a second autoimmune condition. Additionally, studies using identical twins found that genetics only account for 25% and environmental factors account for 75% of autoimmune conditions.
How is it diagnosed?
The diagnosis is based on a combination of symptoms, physical exam, and blood tests. Typically, your doctor will order the following blood test to look for signs of inflammation as well as autoimmunity. An x-ray of the affected joint or joints may also be ordered.
Symptoms and severity of rheumatoid arthritis can vary from person to person, but common signs include:
Joint pain, swelling, tenderness, stiffness, and deformity in the joints or fingers
Unintentional weight loss
Nodules or stiff bumps under the skin
Frequent urinary tract infections
Conventional treatment for rheumatoid arthritis
Conventional medicine is focused on managing the symptoms of RA rather than finding the root cause. For this reason, treatment is based solely on medications. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Ibuprofen are used as the first line of treatment. Once NSAIDs no longer alleviate symptoms, then steroids such as Prednisone are prescribed. If the steroids top controlling the symptoms, then a host of other harsh medications are prescribed that either modulate or suppress the immune system as a whole. Methotrexate, Plaquenil, Imuran, Enbrel and Remicade are some of the drugs used, and they have very harsh side effects including liver damage, bone marrow suppression and increased susceptibility to infections. When I was an ER resident working in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), I took care of a young woman in her 20’s with RA. She came into the ICU with liver failure and nearly died after taking Remicade. Thankfully, she received a liver transplant and survived.
In order to truly solve the problem and stop your immune system from attacking your joints, you must take a functional medicine approach and find the underlying cause of the imbalance.
5 Underlying Causes of Rheumatoid Arthritis
If you suspect that you have an RA, the most important steps to stopping and reversing your disease are to identify and then to treat the underlying cause. Conventional doctors only treat the symptoms of autoimmune diseases; they don’t look to find the root cause.
Gluten is a huge problem for most people these days because we hybridized it, modified it, and it’s in everything! Worst of all, it can wreak havoc on your gut and set you up for a leaky gut. Once the gut is leaky, gluten can get into your bloodstream and confuse your immune system. Since the building blocks of gluten share a similar molecular structure with building blocks of many other tissues in your body, the immune system can get confused and accidentally attack your joints and other organs. This process is called molecular mimicry.
2. Leaky gut
In order to absorb nutrients, the gut is somewhat permeable to very small molecules. Many things including, gluten, infections, medications and stress can damage the gut, allowing toxins, microbes and undigested food particles – among other things – directly into your bloodstream. Leaky gut is the gateway for these infections, toxins and foods – like gluten – to cause systemic inflammation that leads to autoimmunity. You must heal your gut before you can heal yourself.
Mercury is a heavy metal that is capable of altering or damaging the cells of various bodily tissues. When cells are damaged, your immune system can mistake them as foreign invaders and begin attacking its own organs. Studies show that individuals with higher mercury exposures have an increased risk of getting an autoimmune disease.
I have discovered that many of my patients with autoimmune disease are actually living or working in environments that have toxic mold. Toxic molds produce mycotoxins, which are volatile organic compounds (VOC) and can be toxic to genetically susceptible people.
Recent studies have shown a strong correlation between an overgrowth of gut bacteria and the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. While it has not yet been proven as the sole cause of rheumatoid arthritis, it is certainly suspected that the gut bacteria, Prevotella copri and Proteus mirabilis, play a significant role in the onset of rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. Gut bacteria, like P. cpori and P. mirabilis, can cause leaky gut, which is a frequent cause of immune dysfunction and inflammation in the body.
In addition to bacteria, the Epstein-Barr virus is also believed to be a potential trigger of rheumatoid arthritis. Often times, the antibodies seeking out this virus mistakenly attack joint tissue, through a process called molecular mimicry. This allows fluid and immune complexes to build up in the joints, causing pain and inflammation.
The Myers Way Approach to Rheumatoid Arthritis
1. Remove gluten from diet
I recommend that all of my patients remove gluten from their diets because it’s simply an inflammatory food. For my patients any autoimmune disease, including RA, I highly recommend removing all grains and legumes from the diet as well. These foods contain proteins known as lectins, which act as a natural pesticide for crops and can wreak havoc on the lining of your gut. Changing your diet is the first step in getting well. I created The Myers Way® Comprehensive Elimination Diet eCourse which you can do at home, and it’s the foundation that I use with my patients to begin recovering from illnesses.
You may need to take antibiotics to treat bacterial infections such as Prevotella copri or Proteus mirabilis. I often use herbs to treat these infections as well. I also use coconut oil and Monolaurin to help treat the Epstein-Barr virus if it is currently active.
4. Test for heavy metals
We are exposed to heavy metals in a number of different ways: amalgams, fish consumption, and the environment. I recommend having your MTHFR genes tested and doing a DMPS chelation challenge test through a functional medicine practitioner to determine if mercury or other heavy metals are an issue for you. If your mercury or lead levels are high, then you may need to go through chelation.
5. Test for mycotoxins
Common environmental mold testing does not test for mycotoxins. The mycotoxins are what seem to wreak havoc on the gut and immune system. I use a urine test from Real Time Labs to assess the level of mycotoxins in the system, and then follow Dr. Shoemaker’s protocol using glutathione, anti-fungal medication, and Cholestyramine. Surviving mold is a great resource if you feel like this is an issue for you.
6. Support the immune system
Supplements like vitamin D, omega-3 fish oils, and glutathione are powerful immune modulators, which means that they can help support your immune system. Vitamin D has been shown to help regulate the immune system. Omega 3 fish oils help to reduce inflammation in the entire body. Glutathione is the most powerful antioxidant in the body which can help reduce inflammation and improve detoxification in the body.
If you need further assistance, find a functional medicine physician in your area to help you get to the root cause of your illness and to help you reverse your disease. It can be done.