Plus 5 true complementary therapies that can help soothe your pain, starting today
Modern medicine botches a lot of things. But the way it treats rheumatoid arthritis may be one of the worst examples.
For centuries, rheumatoid arthritis (RA) has largely been a mystery. A very painful one at that.
The problem is, once again, that western medicine only focuses on ONE aspect of the disease.
Modern medicine has classified RA as an auto-immune disease. Of course, when I was in training during the 1970s, that’s what the experts ended up calling a lot of diseases they simply didn’t understand.
Today, we know there is indeed an immune component involved in rheumatoid arthritis (RA). But, as is the case in many other auto-immune disorders, there’s also a strong mind- body connection. And, more recently, yet another factor has come to light— the nervous system connection.
Finding real relief from this mysterious chronic condition requires treating all three aspects. Unfortunately, most doctors simply aren’t.
That said, make no mistake: RA is a dangerous systemic condition that requires management by a competent rheumatologist. And the good news is, more and more doctors are recognizing that there are also complementary approaches that can help soothe RA. More on that in just a minute. First, it’s important to understand how it all ties together.
It’s all connected
I’ve talked a lot about the mind- body connection here in Insiders’ Cures. But I have to—because western science separated the two long ago. And that was—and is—a huge mistake. Other ethno-medical traditions in Asia and around the world never separated them. This is one reason these other medical traditions appear more “wholistic” to us today.
But even based on modern science, growing evidence shows the mind and body are linked—or “married.” For better or worse, in sickness and in health.
It boils down to three inter- connected components:
- “Psycho”—the mind/brain connection
- “Neuro”—the nervous system connection
- “Immunology”—the immune system connection
In fact, today there’s an entire field of medicine called “psycho- neuro-immunology.” Which provides a tangible scientific approach, a physiologic model, and a growing body of data proving the mind-body connections.
Here’s how each component works…
For the “psycho” component, we know that the mind-brain is connected through thoughts, emotional feelings, and levels of consciousness to influence the body. But it’s not just a one-way street. The biochemicals, called neuro-peptides, that we associate as being in the brain, such as neurotransmitters, are actually present throughout the body. In fact, neurotransmitters are found in even greater quantities in the gut, for example, than they are in the nervous system.
Further, the production of specific hormones (which occurs throughout the body in the thyroid, pancreas, adrenal glands, and ovaries or testes) is controlled by specific neuro- peptides released by the pituitary gland of the brain. These hormones are released into the circulatory system and carried to all parts of the body in the blood.
For the “neuro” part of the equation, the nervous system originates in the brain and spinal cord as well. Nerves also travel to all parts of the body, both sensing and influencing all tissues at both voluntary (conscious) and involuntary (unconscious) levels.
But now there’s a third piece being added to the puzzle—“immunology.”
Like neuro-peptides and nerves, the immune system is also present throughout the body. Immune cells (white blood cells) travel throughout the blood. And there are specialized concentrations of these cells in the adenoids, tonsils, spleen, appendix, and throughout the gastrointestinal tract (without fully understanding their role, 20th century surgeons considered them all to be expendable). They are also concentrated in the thymus gland during childhood.
When you look at how each of these three components impacts the body from head-to-toe on their own…it’s not hard to see how they are all inter-related as well. The psycho-neuro-immunology- connection becomes quite apparent.
So what causes rheumatoid arthritis?
One way the immune system works is by making antibodies that match to antigens on invading bacteria and viruses. Antigens are foreign substances that stimulate the immune system. The antibodies attack the antigens and then white blood cells can destroy the microbes.
These microbial antigens are often made up of proteins and/ or polysaccharides that are commonly found in nature. These are some of the same proteins and polysaccharides that exist in normal, healthy biological substances as well. Unfortunately, when the immune system can get out of synch, some of the antibodies it makes against microbes get confused and cross-react with certain normal tissues. Thus, the immune system can attack our own bodies—causing an “auto” immune disease.
RA is the result of your immune system attacking the cartilage in your joints. This confusion can stem from a true bacterial infection, like “rheumatic fever” (see sidebar at the end of this article). Or it can appear more mysteriously from a stress-related immune imbalance—this is the mind-body-immune connection.
While there is accordingly a mind-body component, caution must be exercised with rheumatoid arthritis. It causes real, physical damage with serious complications that require experienced medical management. The best thing you can do is to consult a rheumatologist who can help determine which of the drugs for RA appear to be safe, effective, and appropriate for you. And whether there older ones that are more reliable (as in the case with blood pressure medications).
That said, doctors and patients alike are realizing that there are also natural approaches you can take to help alleviate RA. Especially when it comes to addressing the mind- body connection.
True “complements” to RA treatment
A wide range of “mind-body” approaches can reduce the stress that inevitably accompanies the pain with which RA patients struggle on a daily basis. For those best suited to your emotional type take the short quiz featured on www.drmicozzi.com, or in my book with Michael Jawer Your Emotional Type.
Gentle movements—as in traditional yoga or tai chi—can also be helpful. Likewise, swimming can provide just the right kind of low-stress movement and physical exercise. Light massage, low-impact exercise, and just getting outdoors (walking, riding a bike, or light gardening) can also be good.
For the pain itself, acupuncture can often work wonders.
In China and India, rheumatic conditions are associated with “cold and damp.” So while the inflammation may seem hot, it actually helps to seek warmth and avoid cold and damp circumstances and climates. In fact, one ancient Ayurvedic treatment involves immersing the joints in warm sand.
This can easily be accomplished on a sunny beach (while also providing you, and your bones and joints, with some much-needed vitamin D).
Whatever complementary therapy you decide to try, don’t go it alone. The best way to ensure you get the most relief is to work with a rheumatologist who can recommend the best complementary therapies for your particular needs.
Sidebar: The heart of the matter
Rheumatic fever was relatively common through the mid-20th century. It’s less common now…but it has left some lasting damage. You see, when a child came down with rheumatic fever, their immune system made antibodies to fight it. Unfortunately, these antibodies also attacked the heart valves. So the children would recover from the infection, but they would grow up with damaged heart valves (“leaky” valves) that didn’t work.
When open heart surgery was first developed it was a blessing for adults who suffered from rheumatic heart disease. They could have their damaged heart valves replaced, either with valves harvested from pigs (as they seemed to provide the best match from nature), or mechanical valves.
Heart valve replacement was a very effective use of open heart surgery. However, by the 1970s only about 20 percent of open heart operations were being done for heart valve replacement. What kept the heart-lung bypass machines pumping was the new technique of coronary-artery-bypass grafts, whereby blood vessels are cut out of the legs to sew into the heart to bypass blockages of coronary arteries.
More recently, there are approaches where blocked coronary arteries are opened from within with stents and balloons, introduced through the blood vessels of the legs.
Unfortunately, as I described in Daily Dispatches last summer, there remain a lot of questions as to whether these dramatic but dangerous, expensive, uncomfortable procedures, actually have any real benefits in terms of reducing heart disease and mortality. But don’t count on surgeons and “invasive” cardiologists to give them up any time soon.
Sidebar: RA strikes rich and poor alike
During ancient and historic periods, many infectious and inflammatory diseases were associated with lower socio-economic status. But it was noted that even members of the elite came down with “rheumatic” conditions—showing there’s “rheum at the top.”