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Arthritis - A Herbal Approach

by Nicki Woodward(more info)

listed in arthritis, originally published in issue 115 - September 2005

In any way, shape or form, arthritis can be painful and debilitating. It's a condition where damaged joints become swollen, stiff and painful, often due to wear and tear as in osteoarthritis, or autoimmunity as in rheumatoid arthritis. Yet with simple measures, symptoms can be relieved and the degenerative processes even slowed. Nature offers a surprising cache of alternatives to prescribed anti-inflammatories and pain killers, all of which are readily at hand from your kitchen, your garden and beyond.

Look No Further than your Kitchen...

Culinary herbs do more than get the taste buds flowing, as some of them are strong, natural medicines too. For example the rhizome of Turmeric (Curcuma longa) provides a tasty yellow herb that can also work magic on your joints. From the same family as cardamom and ginger, the curcumin in this herb is a first-rate anti-inflammatory ideal for the pain and swelling of arthritis. Turmeric also triggers better bile flow, improving digestive function which is often poor in arthritis sufferers. Yet don't use the herb as an excuse to eat too many high fat curries as you can dose up with turmeric in capsule form, or add it to other healthier dishes that don¡¦t contain as much saturated fat.

Speaking of heat, there¡¦s another treasure likely to be hidden in your kitchen cupboard. Cayenne pepper (Capsicum frutescens) is one of nature¡'s finest hot spices, yet it ironically takes away the pain of inflammatory arthritis. It contains a substance called capsaicin, which when applied topically works partly as a counter irritant, but it also has the ability to block pain impulses with its salicylate content. Clinical trials have confirmed this plant¡¦s value in alleviating pain and discomfort from both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis.

If you suffer from ailing joints, here'¦s another kitchen herb to help lift your spirits. The rhizome of the Ginger plant (Zingiber officinale) has been a medicinal and culinary bulwark for thousands of years. The plant is particularly good news for arthritis sufferers as it contains zingibain and other phytochemical compounds which quench inflammation. It seems to be particularly good at keeping at bay pain-causing and tissue swelling substances. Ginger is also an expert at improving digestion and its antioxidant properties are great for protecting the body cells from free-radical damage.

Inspect your fruit bowl and you may find another natural arthritic remedy, the pineapple (Ananas comosus). This fruit may well make a mean pina colada, yet did you know that it can also ease the ache of inflamed tissues? Concentrated primarily in the stems is a phytochemical called Bromelain which is used to help quash arthritic flare-ups. Studies suggest that Bromelain simultaneously inhibits one body chemical involved in inflammation, whilst triggering the release of another chemical which dampens down inflammation. It¡¦s also a protein-dissolving digestive enzyme, which once again targets the poor digestion commonly experienced by arthritis sufferers.

It's not just fruit but also vegetables that also posses advantages for stiff joints. Take for example the humble celery stalk (Apium graveolens) sitting in your fridge. These stalks are useful medicine, but the seeds of this plant may be even more effective. Celery seed extracts provide the arthritis sufferer with some 25 anti-inflammatory substances, plus other plant chemicals that are natural diuretics. In the herbal world, celery seeds are known as ¡¥joint cleansers¡¦, as they are thought to help remove waste products and excess fluid from arthritic joints. Celery seed can be taken as a refreshing tea, as a single tincture or mixed with other effective plant extracts.

...And your Garden Holds a Few Surprises...

As a common treatment for arthritis, the Romans used to flay their ailing joints with nettles to reduce the associated pain. Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) contains natural anti-histamines and anti-inflammatories, so there is method in this madness. Healing blood flow is also increased to the joint area, and there¡¦s no doubt the pain of nettle rash temporarily displaces arthritic discomfort! Fear not, as taking nettle internally is still very beneficial. The diuretic action of this common weed helps to cleanse arthritic joints of waste materials such as uric acid and other impurities. Meanwhile, the anti-inflammatory substances in nettle combine with the minerals boron and silicon, also found in the leaf, to help ease the pain of rheumatoid- and osteo-arthritis. Sip nettle tea every day, or if it's not your ideal cuppa, it's available in capsule or tincture form.

If you are lucky, you may have a White Willow tree (Salix alba) gracing your garden. You can thank this tree every time you reach for an aspirin to ease the pain of an arthritic knee. It provides us with salicylic acid, and has been used to relieve arthritic pain for over 2,500 years. Aspirin is a synthetic cousin derived in the 1800s by Bayer, but has the disadvantage of being harsh on the stomach lining. An extract or tincture made from the inner bark of the white willow tree is a kinder alternative, and it is revered by herbalists and arthritis sufferers alike for its pain-relieving properties.

Another garden tree is also praised for its healing actions. The Ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba) may sound exotic and a far cry from the British backyard, but it is in fact a common inhabitant of British soils. It¡¦s a popular ornament because of its exquisite fan-shaped leaves. Ginkgo is the oldest species of tree in the world and its plant chemicals (such as the ginkgolides) benefit our aching joints no end. Ginkgo not only improves circulation to damaged joints, but also contains a dozen different anti-inflammatory chemicals and seven natural anti-histamines. Not bad for one little tree.

If you have comfrey (Symphytum officinale) in your garden, this is another prized crop not to be disregarded merely as a weed. Its name is derived from the Latin word ¡¥knitting together¡¦, and it does just that. One of the main therapeutic substances in comfrey (allantoin) is an anti-inflammatory that boosts the immune system, speeds wound healing and encourages new cell growth. This is ideal for sore, eroded joints. It is best not to take comfrey internally but an extract from the root and leaves makes a very effective cream. Combine it with some cayenne pepper to encourage healing blood flow to the area.

If you spot a pretty blue star-shaped flower in your garden it may belong to the Borage plant (Borago officinale). This is highly prized by natural healers for its medicinal seeds. These contain GLA, a fatty-acid that the body requires to make an inflammation fighting and immune boosting chemical. The aerial parts, meanwhile, can be infused to make a tea that supports the adrenal glands. These organs produce stress reducing hormones, and there is nothing that puts more of a strain on the body than a degenerative disorder such as arthritis.

Help from Further A Field...

It's not just British soils that grow effective anti-arthritic herbs; foreign herbs are readily available in this country. For example, there¡¦s nothing quite like Devil's Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) to help soothe the pain and heat of arthritis. This South African vine with its claw-like fruit has a few secrets locked away in its root. As well as being anti-inflammatory, it¡¦s an analgesic, giving it the power to reduce the pain of stiff joints so familiar in arthritis. Harpagoside and other phytochemicals in Devil's Claw have been studied extensively, with some clinical trials showing that the herb promotes a definite improvement in arthritic conditions.

Another foreign treasure is Boswellia (Boswellia commiphora). This plant is indigenous to the Holy Land and belongs to the same family as myrrh. It is a shrub which exudes a resin rich in anti-arthritic plant chemicals and if winter is a time when your joints really begin to stiffen, this remedy couldn¡¦t be more festive. Despite a lack of research on Boswellia, natural healers already know of its healing properties. Its anti-inflammatory properties include boswellic acid and are effective for reducing pain and swelling, and its diuretic nature is ideal for cleansing the impurities from aching joints.

Soothe Away the Stress...

Just a final word on the part of arthritis that is often ignored ... the anxiety, stress and insomnia it often causes. Externally, natural painkillers such as cayenne pepper can be applied topically, but the nervous system can also be soothed internally via a number of herbs. Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) for example is anti-inflammatory as well as a mild sedative. Hops (Humulus lupulus) meanwhile is a soothing remedy for anxiety and insomnia when taken just before bedtime. If you tend to suffer from low moods, avoid using Hops but consider alternatives such as Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) which calms nervous tension and is mildly sedating. Perhaps the king of plants for insomnia and anxiety is Valerian (Valeriana officinalis), with its relaxing properties that quieten the central nervous system. It works particularly well when combined with the herb St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum). If you are on prescribed medication, please check with your doctor before taking St John's Wort.

It seems that despite the rise of modern medicine, Mother Nature still provides the most fruitful and widespread panacea for the natural and effective healing of complaints such as arthritis, many of which are found as close by as your back garden.


Barnes J et al. Herbal Medicines. Pharmaceutical Press. 2002. ISBN 0-85369-474-5.
British Herbal Medicine Association. The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia. ISBN 0-9030-3207-4. 1983.
Duke JA. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook. Rodale Publishers. ISBN 1-57954-184-4. 2000.
Fetrow CW and Avila JR. Professionals Handbook of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Springhouse Press. ISBN 1-58255-098-0. 2001.


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About Nicki Woodward

Nicki Woodward BA Hons DN MED MBANT Dip Phyt MNIMH ITEC is a fully qualified Nutritionist, Medical Herbalist and Massage Therapist who practises in Middlesex and Surrey. She is a member of the NIMH (National Institute of Medical Herbalists) and BANT (British Association of Nutritional Therapists). Her experience to-date includes training, research and supplement development. She may be contacted on Tel: 07989 968 349;

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