What is rheumatoid arthritis?

Understanding your condition

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition mainly affecting the joints. The body’s own immune system attacks cells in the fluid and tissues of the joint capsule causing inflammation and the breakdown of cartilage, bone and ligaments. This can result in pain, swelling and stiffness in the joints, affecting mobility and day to day tasks, and can be debilitating. Rheumatoid arthritis is most common in the hands, wrists, feet, ankles and knees.

swollen hands of older person with rheumatoid arthritis
older man elbows rested on kitchen bench holding cup of coffee in two hands smiling

Rheumatoid arthritis natural treatment

Rheumatoid arthritis can be treated effectively with natural evidence based treatment strategies, such as those that our rheumatoid arthritis specialists provide. Reducing pain, improving the immune system response, and reducing triggers and inflammation can all be achieved with natural herbal medicines, supplementary nutrients, dietary changes and lifestyle medicine. Our rheumatoid arthritis functional medicine practitioners use effective and holistic treatment strategies personalised to suit you.


What are the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis?

Rheumatoid arthritis symptoms develop over weeks or months, with fatigue and stiffness commonly showing as early symptoms. Symptoms can vary from day to day, with flares of more intense pain, fatigue, and inflammation occurring.

Symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include:

  • Heat and swelling at the joint site
  • Joint pain and stiffness in the morning or after resting, lasting for more than 30 minutes
  • Three or more sensitive areas, and swollen joints, simultaneously
  • Pain with pressure in the legs and arms
  • Symmetrical symptoms - the same joints on both sides of the body are affected, which are typically the small joints of the hands, wrists, feet and ankles
  • Large joints such as hips and knees can be affected less commonly
  • Rheumatoid nodules formed at pressure points e.g. elbows, knuckles, lower leg and spine, ranging from a pea to a mothball in size
  • Deformity of joints, often to fingers and hands
  • Symptoms in other parts of the body such as lungs or eyes
  • Persistent flu like symptoms, mild fever and fatigue
  • Loss of appetite and weight loss

Rheumatoid arthritis can affect people at any age, but usually occurs between 30-60 years of age, and affects women more than men.

What causes rheumatoid arthritis?

The causes of autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis are still not entirely clear, however emerging evidence shows that most cases arise from a combination of genetic and epigenetic factors.

People with a genetic predisposition towards rheumatoid arthritis can trigger the condition, as a result of exposure to risk factors, such as:

  • Smoking (a strong risk factor)
  • Viral, bacterial or parasitic infections
  • Dysbiosis of the gut microbiome
  • Mucosal inflammation
  • Systemic inflammation
  • Environmental exposures to dust (silica) or air pollution (particularly high exposure such as a workplace)
  • Diets high in red meat, sodium and iron
  • Obesity
  • Low Vitamin D intake / levels
  • Low omega 3 fatty acid consumption
  • Low dietary antioxidants
  • Hormone changes (especially early menopause, PCOS and pre-eclampsia)
  • Dental disease and other sources of inflammation

These factors have been associated with rheumatoid arthritis, and may contribute to the ‘turning on’ of specific genes that trigger the development of rheumatoid arthritis.

A link between food reactions and rheumatoid arthritis exists, which the following foods being common triggers for rheumatoid arthritis flares:

  • Wheat
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Dairy
  • Sugar
  • Citrus fruits
  • Tobacco
  • Coffee
  • Animal protein, especially red meat
  • Vegetable oils (except extra virgin, and cold pressed pure seed and nut oils)
  • Nightshade vegetables (which may inhibit collagen repair needed for joint healing in some people)

What causes eczema?


Research has found people with the ‘atopic triad’ have a defective barrier of the skin and upper and lower respiratory tracts.

These genetic alterations cause a loss of function of filaggrin (filament aggregating protein), which is a protein in the skin that normally breaks down to create natural moisturisation and protect the skin from penetration by pathogens and allergens.

Filaggrin mutations are found in approximately 30 percent of people with atopic dermatitis, and also predispose people to asthma, allergic rhinitis (hayfever), keratosis pilaris (dry rough patches and bumps on the skin), and ichthyosis vulgaris (a chronic condition which causes thick, dry, scaly skin.)If one parent carries this genetic alteration, there is a 50 percent chance their child will develop atopic symptoms. And that risk increases to 80 percent if both parents are affected. 

Food allergy and sensitivity

Food hypersensitivity has been found to cause or exacerbate atopic dermatitis in 10-30% of cases, and 90% of these are caused by eggs, milk, peanuts, soy and wheat.

Compromised gut health

The connection between the gut microbiome and skin health is complex, however, research has found the microbiota contributes to the development, persistence, and severity of atopic dermatitis through immunologic, metabolic and neuroendocrine pathways.

Nutritional deficiencies

Deficiency of Omega-6 essential fatty acids (EFA) has been linked with the increased incidence of atopic dermatitis, along with the inability for the body to efficiently metabolise EFA’s to gamma linoleic acids (GLA) and arachidonic acids (AA).

Weather and environment

Changing weather conditions can certainly aggravate eczema symptoms, but the triggers are subject to change among individuals.


Hormones also play a role in the course of atopic dermatitis, including the stress hormone cortisol which triggers an inflammatory immune response affecting all organs of the body, including the skin.

Mould exposure

Mould exposure and susceptibility to mould can cause Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome (CIRS), of which dermatitis is a manifestation.

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Rheumatoid arthritis treatment - the conventional approach

The conventional approach to rheumatoid arthritis treatment in Australia involves diagnosis and treatment to reduce the impact of symptoms. Your doctor may first require blood tests to look for signs of inflammation, and specific rheumatoid arthritis antibodies in tests such as:

  • Anti-cyclic citrullinated peptide or anti-CCP
  • Rheumatoid factor (RhF)
  • C-reactive protein (CRP)
  • Erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR)
  • Antinuclear antibody (AA)

Not all people with rheumatoid arthritis will test positive for antibodies, so your doctor may also require X-rays to look for the degree of joint damage. If it is suspected that you have rheumatoid arthritis, you will most likely be referred to a specialist rheumatologist.

There is no conventional treatment cure for rheumatoid arthritis, however, your doctor may prescribe medications, such as:

  • Non steroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Disease modifying antirheumatic drugs (DMARDs)
  • Biological DMARDs
  • Corticosteroid injections, or medicines

Unfortunately, all of the above medications have side effects, may cause further complications or additional symptoms, and do not address the causes and contributing factors.

Your doctor may also prescribe exercise, as a way to keep muscles and joints strong and flexible. Surgery may be considered in severe conditions where there is loss of function or joints are very painful.

Many people seek more natural treatments like the functional medicine approach to avoid unwanted side effects of medications, and improve their symptoms and quality of life by addressing the root cause.

What is the best diet for rheumatoid arthritis?

The best diet for rheumatoid arthritis is one that is tailored specifically to what you require. No two people are exactly alike, and each person will have different triggers that may not just be limited to food. It is important not to exclude any whole foods that are not triggering, as this can lead to nutritional imbalances which can make symptoms worse.

Generally, an anti-inflammatory diet is recommended for anyone with an autoimmune condition as inflammation is a common factor. In addition, the following foods are often included in a personalised rheumatoid arthritis diet plan:

  • Wild caught oily fish - such as sardines, mackerel, herrings anchovies and salmon
  • Fresh whole unprocessed fruits and vegetables
  • Turmeric, ginger, green tea
  • Extra virgin olive oil (shown to be equivalent to ibuprofen as anti-inflammatory)
  • Berries, nuts and seeds
  • Green juices and smoothies, reducing acidity of tissues

Having the guidance of a nutrition expert who understands the nutritional requirements of autoimmune conditions, especially in rheumatoid arthritis, will help create a dietary food plan for your specific set of circumstances.

Rheumatoid arthritis natural treatment - the functional medicine approach

Functional medicine is well placed to treat chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. As a holistic healthcare modality, your functional medicine rheumatoid arthritis practitioner will first take a detailed case history to identify the triggers and other contributing factors that may be aggravating your condition. In your initial 4-hour consultation, your practitioner will investigate:

  • Your family history and genetic predispositions
  • Your personal medical history from birth
  • Your environmental exposures, at home, work and leisure
  • Diet and lifestyle
  • Stress and mood health
  • Hormonal health
  • History of medications
  • Digestive health

With this information, your rheumatoid arthritis specialist practitioner will have a greater insight into which body systems are affected, and design a personalised treatment plan. Your evidence based treatment plan will include dietary modifications, to remove any food intolerances, allergies or sensitivities, and any foods that are triggers for pain and inflammation. Your diet plan would include anti-inflammatory foods that provide specific nutrients to support your body. This multi-pronged approach will be designed to reduce triggers, improve joint healing, and address other factors contributing to pain and inflammation.

Your treatment may include the following strategies:

Reducing systemic inflammation which contributes to flare ups:

  • Including improving gut microbiota species make up and diversity with probiotics, dietary fibre and supplemental prebiotic fibres
  • Ensuring any dental/oral inflammation is being treated
  • Treating any signs of intestinal hyperpermeability (also known as leaky gut) to reduce inflammation and further allergic reactions
  • Treat other conditions that may exacerbate symptoms e.g. diabetes, hypothyroidism, lupus, etc.
  • Improve digestive and liver function to ensure elimination of any toxins or irritants that might be contributing to inflammation

Reducing pain and inflammation with herbal and supplementary medicines such as:

  • Curcumin - a powerful anti inflammatory, which down regulates proinflammatory cytokines (chemical messengers that promote inflammation)
  • Corydalis - herbal pain relief
  • California poppy - herbal pain relief, sleep aid
  • Devils claw - pain relief
  • Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish oil) - reduces pain and inflammation
  • Vitamin D, Zinc, Selenium, glutamine, glucosamine - all required for healing and immune function

Modulating immune reactivity with herbal and supplementary medicines, such as:

  • Cat’s claw, curcumin, echinacea, baical skullcap
  • Mushroom extracts, such as maitake, shiitake, reishi, cordyceps, P. linteus

Reducing fatigue and supporting the nervous system function (particularly, with corticosteroid use) with herbal and supplementary medicines such as:

  • Withania and/or rhodiola
  • Magnesium

Lifestyle practices to promote weight loss, for stress resilience and promote mobility such as:

  • Gentle daily exercise, walking - particularly in nature, yoga, tai chi, stretching
  • Meditation and mindfulness
  • Vagal nerve stimulation techniques such as singing, and gargling, yawning, and laughing

In our signature six month program, your rheumatoid arthritis specialist will guide your treatment, while your health coach will support and empower you to make the changes necessary to reduce pain and inflammation and improve your health and quality of life.

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Is rheumatoid arthritis hereditary?

Yes, the susceptibility to develop rheumatoid arthritis is most often inherited. However, having the genes does not necessarily mean you will develop the disease.

Functional medicine autoimmune disease specialists often say “The genes load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger” and that environment can be anything from smoking to air pollution, allergy, viral infections, poor diet or other exposures.

If you can minimise your exposure to triggers, and improve your immune resilience to give yourself the best chance of avoiding switching on those genes that trigger the expression of rheumatoid arthritis.

What is the best natural treatment for rheumatoid arthritis?

Firstly, it’s important to identify what your triggers are. They can include:

  • Smoking
  • Alcohol
  • Allergen exposure
  • Infections, such as a virus, bacteria, gum disease or dental abscess
  • Dietary triggers, or food intolerances
  • Gut flora disruptions (IBS, SIBO)
  • Suboptimal diet

The next step is to treat, eliminate and reduce these triggers. Measures to reduce pain and inflammation and promote healing can be applied, such as:

  • Curcumin, a molecule found in the turmeric plant, has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, immune modulating and antioxidant, which can reduce pain and inflammation, and reduce a flare up response.
  • Ginger, as a tea or in food - for reducing inflammation
  • Green tea – for reducing inflammation, and it also has antiviral and antibacterial properties
  • Good quality fish oil which contains Omega 3 fatty acids, which has been shown to modulate the inflammation reaction and reduce pain. Cheap fish oil tablets are generally more harmful than helpful, so ensure you buy a high quality product.

Seek the help of a rheumatoid arthritis functional medicine specialist who will make a personalised treatment plan that helps address your overall health picture for effective, long lasting results.

What is the difference between osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis?

Osteoarthritis is damage to the joints that occurs due to wear and tear, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune condition where the body’s own immune system attacks cells within the joint capsule called synoviocytes which then causes the breakdown of the cartilage, tendons and bone of that joint.

Osteoarthritis is much more common, and may occur in large joints such as the knees or hips, in only one place, or to one side of the body. Generally, pain is more intense after work, or at the end of the day.

Rheumatoid arthritis is usually found in the small joints of the fingers, wrists and hands, toes, or ankles, and is generally symmetrical i.e. on both sides of the body, equally. Less commonly it affects large joints such as the knees or hips. Early morning stiffness and pain that usually subsides with movement is a key feature. Rheumatoid arthritis pain can become more severe in flares, which are often associated with triggers such as specific foods, allergens, stress, and environmental exposures e.g. mould, exhaust fumes and silica dust.

Can you treat rheumatoid arthritis naturally?

Yes, pain and inflammation can be reduced and the immune system modulated with herbal medicines such as:

  • Curcumin
  • Corydalis
  • California poppy
  • Devils claw
  • Omega 3 fatty acids (Fish oil)
  • Vitamin D, Zinc, Selenium, glutamine, glucosamine - all required for healing and immune function

Identifying your specific triggers is important, as every person is different and this is why a holistic rheumatoid arthritis specialist in Melbourne can help.

A rheumatoid arthritis functional medicine practitioner in our Melbourne clinic will identify your triggers and sources of inflammation, and help to reduce your immune reactivity with a personalised treatment plan, and your health coach will support you to implement it to turn your health around.

Is there a specialist natural treatment for rheumatoid arthritis in Melbourne? Is a rheumatoid arthritis specialist near me?

Yes, a rheumatoid arthritis specialist at Melbourne Functional Medicine can help you feel great again in our unique 6 month program, where we provide personalised, comprehensive treatment and the support you need to get better.

Practitioners like Rebecca Hughes, Mark Payne or Vicki van der Meer will create a rheumatoid arthritis natural treatment plan, and one of our health coaches will help you implement your plan to meet your health goals.

What are usually the first signs of rheumatoid arthritis?

Everyone will have a different experience, however, fatigue and stiffness in the joints, particularly on rising in the morning are common early symptoms.

Which specialists treat rheumatoid arthritis naturally?

Naturopathic or functional medicine rheumatoid arthritis specialist practitioners use holistic treatment strategies that are personalised.

They will identify and address the underlying triggers, food intolerances, food allergies, and environmental exposures that may be causing flares.

They will reduce the inflammation in your body that makes symptoms worse, and treat the fatigue and other symptoms you may be experiencing using natural or naturopathic remedies for rheumatoid arthritis.

Is rheumatoid arthritis considered a disability in Australia

While rheumatoid arthritis is considered a disabling condition because of the loss of function and disfigurement that can develop in severe cases, according to the list of disabilities cited by Australia's Department of Social Services, rheumatoid arthritis is not considered a permanent disability in Australia.

However, you may be able to get a disability support pension or other payments to help support your living expenses. See here for more information.

Can’t find what you’re looking for? Reach out to the team directly – we’ll be happy to assist.