A whopping 1.5 to 2 million people nationwide or about 1 percent of the population, currently suffer with rheumatoid arthritis, or RA for short.
There are two main categories of rheumatoid arthritis: juvenile rheumatoid arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. The main distinguishing characteristic between these two categories is that affected young people tend to outgrow symptoms, while adults typically do not.
In this article, learn more about rheumatoid arthritis, how it is diagnosed, the important role of vitamins in lessening symptoms and how RA is treated.
What Is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
While the term “arthritis” is part of the common general vocabulary for most people, this doesn’t necessarily mean arthritis itself is well understood. In fact, currently there are more than 100 different types of arthritis that are collected under the header of “arthritis.” One of these is rheumatoid arthritis.
Rheumatoid arthritis is a particular type of joint disease that affects the body’s autoimmune system, causing the immune response system to attack the body’s joints and, sometimes, other systems as well.
While the extremities (hands, feet, wrists, ankles, elbows, knees) are most commonly affected, and in most cases if one side is affected, the other side will be also, rheumatoid arthritis is what is called a “systemic disease.” This is because it can affect whole-body systems as well, including the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
Causes, Symptoms and Diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis
To date, medical researchers still have not conclusively identified the trigger or cause for RA. However, it is thought that there may be a genetic link.
Adults suffering with RA tend to first show symptoms around or after the age of 30. In children, it can show up as early as age 2. Cases of rheumatoid arthritis can range from very mild (affecting four or fewer joints) to severe (affecting the whole body system). Because of this, symptoms can vary greatly from one case to the next.
In general, these symptoms are commonly reported along with a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in childhood or adulthood:
- Joint stiffness, swelling, feelings of warmth or soreness.
- Stiffness after not moving for a time or in the mornings.
- Feelings of fatigue in the body or joints.
- Unexplained weight loss.
While a list of patient-reported symptoms may provide initial clues about the diagnosis, rheumatoid arthritis can best be diagnosed with a blood test.
Typically, a blood test will look for the presence of any/all of these factors:
- Anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide (anti-CCP) antibodies.
- Rheumatoid factor antibodies.
- Elevated erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR, or sed rate).
- C-reactive protein (CRP).
Tests for anemia can also be helpful in narrowing down the diagnosis, since the low red blood cell count can be a sign of systemic chronic illness.
Finally, imaging tests (X-rays, MRI, ultrasound) can identify what is going on in affected body systems and joint areas to track the progress of the disease itself and of treatment results.
The Role of Vitamins in Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis
According to John Hopkins Arthritis Center, vitamin and mineral intake can be particularly vital for developing effective treatments for RA.
There are a number of reasons for this important link as follows:
- The weight loss (“wasting disease”) caused by RA can deplete the body of vital nutrients and vitamins/minerals.
- Many people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis also suffer from food sensitivities, ranging from specific allergies all the way to celiac disease (gluten intolerance), making getting adequate nutrients especially challenging.
- Eating the wrong foods can contribute to exacerbation of symptoms, particularly joint pain, while eating the right foods can minimize symptoms.
Certain vitamins are considered of paramount importance to help people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis live the most active, productive and pain-free daily lives. If you are suffering from RA or caring for a loved one who has received a diagnosis of RA, these are the vitamins and minerals health experts highlight as most critical to alleviating symptoms:
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and bone growth.
- Vitamin E. Vitamin E can increase the effectiveness (via better absorption) of medications commonly prescribed for RA.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids can ease joint stiffness and nourish body systems affected by RA (particularly cardiovascular). Since the body can’t make these fatty acids on its own, supplementation is essential.
- Folic Acid/Folate (Vitamin B9). Some RA medicines inhibit folic acid absorption, making additional supplementation key to easing symptoms.
- Bromelain and/or Turmeric. These anti-inflammatory aids can serve as natural pain killers for people with RA.
- Gamma linolenic acid (GLA). GLA has shown some promise in research studies to reduce the pain and swelling associated with RA.
- Corticosteroids, commonly prescribed to ease RA symptoms, can interfere with your body’s ability to absorb calcium, which can lead to brittle bones.
As well, it is vital to ensure all other vitamin and mineral levels are adequate for maintaining a baseline level of physical nutrition and health. If blood tests show a vitamin D deficiency, it is important to begin treating your vitamin deficiencies without delay.
It is also important to talk with your doctor before you start any new regiment of vitamin or mineral supplementation, especially if you are pregnant, have cardiovascular issues, are on blood thinners, are taking medications for any health condition where interactions may be a danger.
Vitamin D for Treating Rheumatoid Arthritis
Vitamin D is repeatedly highlighted by medical professionals as a particularly essential vitamin if you are suffering with rheumatoid arthritis.
This is because research has highlighted a link between Vitamin D deficiency and more severe symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and more rapid disease advancement.
Luckily, boosting Vitamin D levels is relatively easy to achieve. Simply getting some daily natural sunlight (about 5 to 30 minutes is now considered safe, providing your doctor agrees) is one of the easiest and also most enjoyable ways to boost your Vitamin D levels naturally.
You can also eat fish (sardines, tuna, salmon) and eggs (both yolk and white) to take in more Vitamin D through your food. Some products such as milk, eggs, cereals, fruit juices and soy-based foods also have Vitamin D enrichment added to them.
If you are unable to or just don’t want to sit in the sun or eat enriched foods, then one of the best ways to take in a reliable daily dose of Vitamin D is through supplements. Supplements are available in many different forms, including liquid and pills.
By understanding how maintaining healthy levels of vitamins can ease the suffering associated with your rheumatoid arthritis, you can begin to supplement your diet as needed to feel better and become more active again.
While there is no doubt that handling rheumatoid arthritis effectively brings with it a lifetime learning curve, medical science is learning new things every day about how to reduce symptoms, enhance mobility, improve quality of life and facilitate healing for joints and affected body systems.
By taking in proper levels of vitamins/nutrients, you can give your body extra fuel to fight RA.