Written by Emily Wittenhagen, Community Herbalist
Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes chronic inflammation mainly presenting in the joints. The most common type of inflammatory arthritis, RA can cause significant discomfort and decreases in mobility and motor skills for those living with the condition.
At Aria, we see many clients with varying forms of RA, which we help treat case-by-case with a variety of intervention techniques from dietary and botanical to acupuncture and contrast bathing. We also try to keep up with current research and evidence around treatment methods. Below are some of the botanical treatments we’ve found promising evidence for in the management of this unfortunately common, yet treatable condition. As with any herbal treatment, it is best to consult with your doctor on which of these herbs would be safe and effective for your condition.
1 | Devil’s Claw/Harpagoside (Harpagophytum procumbens)
Devil’s Claw may be the herb most commonly associated with the treatment of RA. Considered antirheumatic, this is a known anti-inflammatory agent that has an affinity for the joints and offers painkilling and analgesic properties for relieving pain and swelling, making it particularly effective relief for RA symptoms in some users. Devil’s Claw is an herb that flowers with striking fuschia blooms, but there is also beauty to be found underground, where the roots, or ‘tubers,’ of the plant grow and confer most of the plant’s medicinal benefits.
Some believe the effectiveness of Devil’s Claw can be attributed to the presence of a component called harpagoside, which itself has also become another name for referring to Devil’s Claw. Harpagoside is thought to reduce inflammation in the joints, thought as naturopathic herbalist Dr. Marisa Marciano, ND has noted, “it is clear from the research that harpagoside alone is less effective for alleviating pain than whole extracts of the tuber, indicating that other compounds are involved in the herb’s effects.” As with many botanical medicines, there is good argument for considering the synergy offered by the constituents working together in whole Devil’s Claw root, rather than just one extracted component. While Devil’s Claw is not always effective, herbalist David Hoffman notes, “it is well worth considering in cases of arthritis where there is inflammation and pain” (Hoffman, 1996).
2 | Boswellia/Indian Frankincense (Boswellia serrata)
Some botanical medicines are also found in tree resins, which act as protectors for trees by sealing “wounds” and defending them against unwanted organisms and sometimes also offer healing to humans as well. This is true for Boswellia, also known as Indian Frankincense, a medicinal resin called traditionally called extracted from the Boswellia serrata tree native to the Arabian Peninsula and the mountains of South Asia and the Middle East. Salai guggal has been used for nearly a thousand years in ayurvedic medicine, traditionally for symptoms of arthritis. The resin contains nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory compounds, mainly boswellic acids, thought to be a helpful treatment for RA due to their demonstrated ability to significantly reduce swelling and pain (Ravikumar, 2014).
Belief in Boswellia’s ability to relieve RA symptoms is supported by studies like two 3-month trials involving 81 RA patients who reported significant reductions in swelling and pain with Boswellia use. (Awaiting citation; Source: The Naturopathic Herbalist). Another small Italian study found that Boswellia extract (FlexiQule) was effective in reducing pain, stiffness, and improving walking distance without pain (Belcaro et al, 2015). And as Balick notes, “Studies have shown that boswellia may be as effective as synthetic drugs in treating these conditions, without the side effects of pharmaceuticals” (Balick, 2014).
3 | Turmeric/curcumin (Curcuma longa)
Turmeric and particularly its most recognized healing compound, curcumin, which gives curry its familiar golden hue, can be useful for arthritic conditions including RA, osteoarthritis, tendonitis, bursitis, and pain in general. The medicinal root, which looks much like an orange-toned version of ginger root, is a panacea of sorts thanks to its impressive anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and antioxidant properties. It’s most traditionally used in India and South Asia to which its native and used for supporting everything from digestion to cognition. (Fun fact: Many native Indians reportedly develop a golden hue to their brains and its frequency in the Indian diet is suspected to be a reason that this population is less prone to dementia.)
In Ayurvedic medicine, Duke notes, turmeric has a long history of use antiarthritic effects and is a “safer, more natural, and less expensive cyclooxygenase (COX) inhibitor than pharmaceutical COX-inhibitor drugs” (Duke, 1999). This is echoed by Sherman, who notes that Curcuma has been shown to have marked anti-inflammatory effects comparable to ibuprofen and cortisone (Sherman, 1993).
4 | Yucca (Yucca schidigera)
Yucca is a spiky flowering plant familiarly seen in Southwestern deserts whose stems, trunks, and leaves are harvested to both prevent arthritis and relieve the stiffness and soreness associated with it. Also known as Spanish dagger, its major anti-arthritic components are thought mainly to stem from its polyphenols and the anti-protozoal activity of its saponins.Yucca’s polyphenols may play a variety of anti-arthritic roles. Essentially they work in a couple of ways: one as anti-inflammatory agents that inhibit NFkB, a protein complex in the body that stimulates the enzyme iNOS, which in turn produces the inflammatory agent nitric oxide, and two as antioxidants that scavenge free radicals, which can also help suppress the inflammatory response.
Yucca’s use for arthritis is supported both anectodally by many years as a folk medicine and by clinical trials. As Cheeke et al note in a thorough systematic review of Yucca schidigera’s anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic effects, “anecdotal reports suggest that whole yucca plant powder aids in prevention and treatment of arthritis,“ while a trial they cite demonstrates that daily doses of a yucca saponin extract was effective for the treatment of various arthritic conditions. (Cheeke et al, 2006). This is supported by other trials going back several years, including one by Bingham et al in 1975 that found benefit in yucca schidigera for both RA and osteoarthritis.