Rheumatoid arthritis, gut health link

January 17, 2015 | Herbal medicine

x-ray handHerbalists and naturopaths have long recognised that autoimmune joint disease and gut health are often connected, but now there is growing medical evidence as well. A recent article in the Atlantic summarises some of the work towards understanding this connection between the health of the gut and the condition known as rheumatoid arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory joint condition, which in some cases can also lead to inflammatory changes in other organs. The underlying process seems to be an autoimmune reaction, where the immune system becomes “confused” and starts to attack what is known as “host tissue” – in other words, your own tissues. Autoimmune conditions are complex, and the attempt to find a single cause of autoimmunity is probably futile. Clearly each individual is different, and the causative and contributing factors can be many and varied, even in different people with the same disease. However a steadily increasing body of research is showing that the digestive system is strongly connected with the immune system in a number of ways, especially via the gut flora.

Our digestive systems play host to masses of bacteria and related organisms collectively referred to as our gut flora. Many of these organisms help in the process of digestion, synthesise vitamins for our use, and regulate immune function. An appropriate balance of the various organisms contributes to good digestion and balanced immunity. Imbalance (sometimes called “dysbiosis”) can be caused by overt gut infections, poor diet, antibiotics, and other factors, and this dysbiosis has been implicated in a wide range of problems, including autoimmune disease, allergies, and even mood disturbances.

Interestingly it is quite common traditionally for herbalists to treat the gut as part of managing autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. If a patient has a history of digestive issues, that is often a clue as to the possibility of a link between their digestion and their autoimmune disease. Even some of the herbal medicines classically used for treating patients with rheumatoid arthritis also have good effects on balancing digestive function. For example, Populus tremuloides (White Poplar Bark), Filipendula ulmaria (Meadowsweet) and Harpagophytum procumbens (Devil’s Claw) all have specific effects on digestion as well as being excellent anti-inflammatories in rheumatoid arthritis.

As always though, it is important to remember that each person is different, and thus the contributing factors to their disease may also be different. This is why it is best to consult your herbalist or naturopath for an individualised and focused assessment and treatment.

Copyright Ian Breakspear, 2014