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The Functional Medicine Approach to Arthritis and Why It Works

keys to a healthy heart
December 3, 2018

Many people just like you are feeling the aches and pains of old age. But are these aches and pains normal? Just because it is common doesn’t mean you have to embrace inflammation and deterioration of your body. Just imagine growing old and still feeling your youthful, agile body move with ease. Doesn’t this sound like a dream? Well, it doesn’t have to be just a dream. You can live a life with less pain and more resilience. With a functional approach to your health your body doesn’t have to be subject to arthritis.

What is arthritis?

There are 2 major categories of arthritis. One category is understood as Osteoarthritis and the other is considered Autoimmune arthritis such as Rheumatoid arthritis. These two different diagnoses are typically thought to be inevitable diseases that develop as we age. This is a huge misconception and often we accept these diagnoses without any thought to fully heal. Research is telling us that these two different types of arthritis are actually being diagnosed in younger and younger individuals, including osteoarthritis. This tells us something about the nature of these diseases, that they might be a result of diet, lifestyle and our environment.


This type of arthritis was previously understood as pain and inflammation in the joints caused by inflammation primarily due to obesity. The theory was that the meer excess weight contributed to the deterioration of joints and cartilage. Research has revealed that this isn’t the full story. We now know that the pain and deterioration of joints and cartilage are due to inflammation coming from different parts of the body due to visceral fat storage (fat stored around organs,muscles, and inside joints that burden the body). Osteoarthritis is now considered part of metabolic syndrome in which the hyperinsulinemia (high insulin) contributes to insulin resistance and excess fat which leads to inflammation in the body. This metabolic disorder is a digestive issue and can be reversed with food and lifestyle changes! This process closely mimics osteoporosis which is another manifestation of chronic low grade inflammation.

Rheumatoid arthritis:

Rheumatoid Arthritis(RA) is an Autoimmune disease that afflicts 1.5 million people in the United States. Many are being diagnosed younger and younger. Autoimmune diseases are all similar in their origin, in that the body’s immune system has run off the railroad tracks due to leaky gut. A leaky gut allows undigested foods and bacteria/yeast/viruses to enter the bloodstream and the immune system goes on alert to create antibodies. If this goes unnoticed, the immune system can become hyperactive and confused. It eventually can no longer differentiate between itself and foreign substances. The immune system, which is normally on alert at all times to protect the body from invaders like bacteria and viruses, turns on overdrive and cannot be shut off. In the case of Rheumatoid Arthritis, the body begins to attack tissues, joints and cartilage, which causes inflammation and chronic pain. Most frequently a doctor will check two markers, Rheumatoid factor and Cyclic Citrullinated Peptide (CCP-Ab) antibody to determine this. What is confusing is that you may not have these positive but all the symptoms of osteo or rheumatoid arthritis. There are other markers like CRP-HS, a combination of inflammatory chemicals made in the liver positive. If this is significantly elevated you may have something called polymyalgia rheumatica, and it is then treated with the same drugs as rheumatoid arthritis.

When the tissues around the joint are inflamed, either due to metabolic syndrome or autoimmune origin, the synovial fluid inside the joint becomes thick and swells. This is painful because the synovial fluid is what normally provides a slick and smooth movement when you move your joints. After inflammation continues without any resolve, the cartilage begins to deteriorate. Cartilage is the elastic tissue that covers the ends of bones. Overtime, loss of cartilage and the space between joints results in loose, unstable joints, and permanent damage. For this reason, early detection and prevention of arthritis is a high priority in the medical field. But, the frustrating aspect is most providers are not looking at the infections, foods and environmental factors which are driving the condition!

What is functional medicine?

Functional medicine’s approach is always to get to the root cause of disease in a holistic and systemic approach. By looking at the body’s systems as a whole we can observe indications of illness present before severe imbalances in your blood levels are noticeable. This approach to disease is perfect for chronic diseases such as arthritis in which early detection is paramount to prevention and recovery.

Functional medicine incorporates gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, endocrine, neurological, and psychological treatments to support the entire body’s healing capacity. The functional medicine approach for arthritis recognizes that our gut comprises 70-80% of our immune system. Correcting leaky gut and improving digestion are high priorities for a functional medicine approach to both types of arthritis. This is because all arthritis is caused by chronic inflammation throughout the body. Though each category is slightly different, they both have the same functional medicine treatments focused on the gut and diet. Increasing antioxidants, gut healing and anti-inflammatory foods are ways to get ahead of the inflammation and balance the immune system. Most importantly we must ask the question “why”? Why might I have these issues rather than accepting the common assumption “its genetic” and something I have no choice in.

How does arthritis get worse?

There are many barriers for patients using conventional treatments that inhibit a full remission of arthritis. Typically NSAIDS and other anti-inflammatory drugs are used to turn off the body’s immune system. This might temporarily resolve the inflammation and pain symptoms but these drugs contribute to leaky gut and allow for foreign invaders to freely enter the body without any deterrent (for example prednisone over long periods of time increases your susceptibility to chronic infections). There are also many environmental and genetic factors that trigger RA. One study shows that prevalence of RA increased in urban cities opposed to rural cities 1. These factors must be addressed in the health of an RA patient and taking conventional drugs will not do this.

In osteoarthritis patients the importance of reducing insulin in the body is the key. This is very much a dietary and lifestyle component. Many people continue to eat a diet that is high in processed simple and complex carbohydrates in the forms of grains and packaged foods that contribute to high insulin in the body. Insulin is a fat storing hormone. Its job is to take glucose to the cells or to the liver to be stored as fat. A lifestyle that contributes to storage of fat can perpetuate hyperinsulinemia and inflammation that burdens the joints.

How does functional medicine help arthritis?

“Approximately a year ago I developed joint pain without a known cause. After some research, I visited Dr. Autoimmune. Dr. Hollaman provided me with a foundation on which I could build on to decrease my joint pain and improve my health. He truly has a gift to help people and I’m very thankful I decided to visit Dr. Autoimmune” -Jan

A functional medicine treatment plan for arthritis will include nutrition therapy, supplementation, functional neurology to improve brain function, and other alternative therapies to improve cell function, especially immune system function. A functional approach recognizes that the immune system is in charge of both inflammation and anti-inflammation. Inflammation is needed in the body to allow the immune system to do its job and clean up the ‘bad guys’. The problem of auto-immunity and metabolic syndrome is not that there is inflammation, it is that there is something confusing the body to attack itself and cause chronic inflammation. Functional medicine exposes the root cause of the confused immune system and when we treat this, the body can realign the natural immune response.

Your body has the ability to heal itself and it all starts with an initial examination. During this we will cover a comprehensive neurologic and metabolic exam plus a case review. Then we will want to identify any key areas that need support and give necessary labs to show what needs to be done uniquely for your case. At the report of findings Dr. Ian Hollaman, DC, MSc, IFMCP will give you his best care recommendations and a treatment plan if he is able to help. Rest assured no stone will be left unturned as we look for the root cause!

Contact Dr Autoimmune Today. +1 (303) 882-8447
1 Chou CT, Pei L, Chang DM, Lee CF, Schumacher HR, Liang MH. Prevalence of rheumatic diseases in Taiwan: a population study of urban, suburban, rural differences. J Rheumatol. 1994;21(2):302-306.

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