In 2016, I started experiencing some very strange, life-altering symptoms: debilitating fatigue, GI issues, and unbearably sore joints. 18 months and many doctors later, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease called reactive arthritis.
It was a frustrating process, and I wish I would’ve had more information about how to better manage my condition at the time.
Autoimmune diseases are notoriously hard to diagnose, and oftentimes even harder to treat.
And while there are many approved drugs for certain conditions, some of them come with unwanted side effects, which leads many of us to seek out supplements and alternative / homeopathic treatment options that might help.
In this article, we’ll look at supplements that may help with certain types of autoimmune disease. More research is definitely needed in this area, but there are some clinical studies available to help us understand what may work and what appears not to.
It should go without saying, but always talk to your healthcare professional before taking supplements for your autoimmune conditions … especially if you’re taking other medications.
Let’s jump right in …
What Is An Autoimmune Disease?
This description from Cleveland Clinic sums it up well:
Imagine that your body is a castle and your immune system is your army fighting off invaders like bacteria. If your army malfunctions and attacks the castle, you may have lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and/or psoriasis, among a hundred other autoimmune diseases. You may experience pain, fatigue, dizziness, rashes, depression and many more symptoms.
Autoimmune conditions are becoming more and more common. 1 in 15 people in the U.S. now have an autoimmune disease. And unfortunately, they’re one of the top 10 causes of death in women in all age groups (up to age 64).
Let’s look at some of the different types …
Types of Autoimmune Disorders
There are over 100 types of autoimmune diseases. Here are just a few of the most common:
- Rheumatoid arthritis (RA)
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus
- Guillain-Barre syndrome
- Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy
- Celiac disease
- Graves’ disease
What Causes Autoimmune Disease?
The causes are still unknown but there are several risk factors that can increase your likelihood of getting one, including:
- Certain medications (some blood pressure meds, statins and antibiotics appear to increase risk)
- Exposure to toxins
- Being female — 78% of people who have an autoimmune disease are women
Scientists have also implicated the gut microbiome in numerous autoimmune conditions, including lupus, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
Treatment Options for Autoimmune Disorders
Most autoimmune diseases are not curable, but you can manage symptoms with the right treatment methods. Everyone’s immune system, genetics and environment are different, and it’s important to work with your doctor (often a rheumatologist) to determine the best treatment approach for your autoimmune condition.
Common treatment options for autoimmune diseases include:
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Depression and anxiety meds
- Sleep meds
- Plasma exchanges
- Rash creams and pills
- Intravenous immune globulin
- Drugs that suppress (subdue) your immune system (like Humira and Enbrel)
Best Natural Supplements for Autoimmune Disease
Supplements can also play a role in keeping symptoms at bay. Here are few that show promise:
According to a 2018 metaanalysis, zinc deficiency is associated with increased susceptibility to infections and higher risk of autoimmune diseases. People with autoimmune disorders tend to show lower zinc levels.
A research team published a 2020 review that states:
The immune system is highly affected by fluctuations of zinc. Zinc is required for the proper functioning of every immune cell; thus maintaining adequate zinc homeostasis is essential for supporting an effective immune response.
An analysis of more than 130 studies showed an inverse association between vitamin D and the development of several autoimmune diseases, such as SLE, thyrotoxicosis, type 1 DM, MS, iridocyclitis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis vulgaris, seropositive RA, polymyalgia rheumatica.
And a 2021 research team hypothesized that high doses of Vitamin D may be used to treat autoimmune diseases.
Vitamin D resistance provides a plausible pathomechanism for the development of autoimmune diseases, which could be treated using high-dose vitamin D3 therapy.
Quercetin is a natural flavonoid (neuroprotective antioxidant with anti-inflammatory and immune system benefits) that’s in nearly all fruits, herbs, and vegetables.
According to a 2021 research paper titled Potential Implications of Quercetin in Autoimmune Diseases
In several recent studies quercetin has reportedly attenuated rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and systemic lupus erythematosus in humans or animal models.
Quercetin will be expected to become a potential opportunity and supplement for the treatment and prevention of autoimmune diseases.
However, the research team went on to point out that the direct effects of quercetin on immune imbalance in patients are still unconfirmed and further randomized, controlled clinical studies are needed to better understand the efficacy and safety of quercetin for the treatment of autoimmune disorders.
Turmeric / Curcumin
Curcumin is a yellow-hued polyphenolic compound that’s the primary bioactive substance in turmeric, a flowering plant of the ginger family best known as a spice used in curry.
It has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-boosting properties, and is used as a supplement to help with many conditions.
Studies have shown that curcumin may support patients suffering from autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Curcumin inhibits these autoimmune diseases by regulating inflammatory cytokines such as IL-1beta, IL-6, IL-12, TNF-alpha and IFN-gamma and associated JAK-STAT, AP-1, and NF-kappaB signaling pathways in immune cells.
The use of purified active compounds such as curcumin at higher doses for therapeutic purposes needs further study.
It has poor bioavailability alone, necessitating special formulations (notably black pepper extract) to be efficiently absorbed.
Glucosamine / Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate are the building blocks for cartilage and appear to stimulate the body to make more cartilage.
There are conflicting studies on the efficacy glucosamine and chondroitin, but based on what we know now it does appear that glucosamine and chondroitin can reduce the rate of collagen (joint tissue) degradation and symptoms of osteoarthritis, particularly in the knees.
Glucosamine and chondroitin’s effectiveness for rheumatoid arthritis isn’t as clear, as only a handful of studies have been conducted in relation to RA. Here’s what we know so far …
For RA patients, glucosamine appears to have positive effects for pain. When compared to NSAIDs for pain relief, glucosamine has shown evidence to produce similar pain reduction in RA patients as NSAIDs, without the side effects.
Here’s what Hugh Duckworth, M.D. from the Rheumatoid Arthritis Support Network has to say:
In general, when taking Glucosamine and Chondroitin Sulfate supplements, if no improvement is seen in two months, you’ll likely not see any improvement over time. Most physicians advise patients to stop taking the supplements altogether after six months if no indication of improvement presents itself.
Fish Oil / Krill Oil
Zingiber officinale is a plant belonging to the Zingiberaceae family, which has traditionally been used for treatment of RA in alternative / homeopathic medicines of many countries.
According to a University of Michigan Medicine study, the main bioactive compound of ginger root, 6-gingerol, is therapeutic in countering the mechanism that fuels certain autoimmune diseases in mice (notably antiphospholipid syndrome and lupus). Hopefully this will lead to human trials to further test the effectiveness of ginger for autoimmune diseases like lupus.
And in a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, seventy active RA patients were allocated randomly into two groups who either received 1500 mg ginger powder or placebo daily for 12 weeks.
Disease activity score and gene expression of immunity and inflammation intermediate factors were measured before and after the intervention.
The research team found that ginger can improve RA by decreasing disease manifestations via increasing FoxP3 genes expression and by decreasing RORγt and T-bet genes expression.
Again, further study is needed but ginger may be a supplement worth talking to your doctor about.
Research on the role probiotics play in autoimmune disorders is limited, but there are a few randomized, controlled trials that have shown that microbial modification by probiotics may improve gastrointestinal symptoms and multi-organ inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and multiple sclerosis.
One research review found that synbiotics and probiotics supplementation has significant effect on some inflammatory and oxidative stress markers; but, “the number of trials was too small and further investigations may be needed.”
One thing is for certain though: our microbiomes play a role in many autoimmune diseases. An article published in the journal Nature had this to say:
Scientists are trying to understand the mechanisms behind the apparent ability of the gut microbiota to trigger or to sustain autoimmune conditions. They hope to turn that knowledge into better therapies for conditions that are currently difficult to treat — perhaps even in the form of simple probiotic pills.
Future studies are definitely needed to assess safety issues and understand optimal strains and combinations.
Summary: Will Autoimmune Supplements Work for You?
Ultimately, it’s up to you and your doctor(s) to decide which treatment options are best for your autoimmune conditions.
Before taking any supplement, it’s important to have a conversation with a healthcare professional so they can evaluate the potential benefits, risks, and side effects based on your unique condition. This is especially important if you’re taking medications to ensure there are no drug interactions you need to worry about.
More research is definitely needed in this area, but supplements may be able to help you alleviate at least some of your symptoms, depending on your condition.
Again, talk to several different healthcare experts so you’re armed with as much knowledge from as many experts as you can and then use that knowledge to make informed decisions that are best for your unique autoimmune condition.
Speaking from experience, it can be an arduous journey, but once you identify 1 or 2 supplements that work well for you, it can make quite the difference in how you feel.