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Rheumatoid and Osteo Arthritis and Much More: Where to Begin in THIS case?

(This is a sample entry from our Q&A Treasure chest, a database with hundreds of entries to support students with their patient and client work.  Unlimited access is included as part of our Core 101 Semester program.)

Student Question:

This is a patient who is 67, Dx rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.  Renal reconstruction surgery at age 30 and has frequent bladder and yeast infections.  Also stomach bloating and hypertension.

She wants to lose weight and has lost 10 lb since going gluten-free and is now 150 lb @ 5’4″.

Her daily Medications are Amlodipine, Benicar, Crestor, Zetia, Methotrexate 2.5mg-5 tabs weekly, Veramyst nasal spray, and Allegra.

Her supplements are cranberry capsules, Fish oil 1200mg, Vit C 1000mg, and Raw probiotics vaginal care (38 strains, 80 Billion CFU).

We’ve just gotten started. She was also taking folic acid 1mg (I recommended a switch to methylfolate) and aspirin 81mg (which I suggested may be aggravating intestinal permeability given the AI activation). Her PCP recently added Vitamin D3 5000 based on moderate lab values, but I am concerned about her serum calcium of 10.8 mg/dl. She states this value has been high “for a long time” but has never been flagged as notable or investigated.  All other basic labwork seems optimal – or at least WNL.

My challenge is that she is not open to any functional testing (e.g. stool test) at all.  She is open to follow-on bloodwork, but not until after her return from an upcoming six-week vacation roadtrip. I know we have much to investigate and explore over time. My question is this:  where would you begin?

SAFM Response:

A fascinating case!  If you haven’t yet already, I highly recommend you read some of the other posts on various autoimmune diseases and common contributors and etiological factors on our site, especially this one  (searching by “autoimmune” in the Q&A Treasure Chest will bring up many more).  But the details of this case are also a perfect example of why we need to approach every patient with Beginner’s Mind and look for the unique factors and contributors with fresh eyes and an open perspective.

My recommendation is to put some focus (50/50) both on Rapid Relief and on Root Cause investigation and resolution.  You don’t mention whether there is ongoing pain in spite of the methotrexate (MTX).  However, it’s key in my view to aim to reduce joint inflammation in pursuit of minimizing any ongoing damage in addition to symptoms of pain, discomfort, and/or stiffness.  Then I have some interesting thoughts for you with regard to root cause interconnectedness.

In terms of Rapid Relief:

  • I would check the quality of her fish oil supplement and add to it the anti-inflammatory GLA (an essential omega-6 fatty acid) such as 500mg bid evening primrose oil, taking both together in split doses with meals (to maximize absorption). GLA can be  helpful in arthritis via a few pathways; it’s also helpful in countering IL-6 which is implicated as a major inflammatory mediator in rheumatoid arthritis (part of what the MTX is countering), and it has also been shown to reduce platelet aggregation.
  • Given the likelihood of its contribution to enhance intestinal permeability (and dysregulation of immune function in the gut due to damage to the gut lining), I would stop the daily aspirin use for now unless there are immediate signs of cardiovascular disease  (and check with the patient re:any plans for a long plane flight).
  • I would add a ubiquinol (reduced CoQ10) supplement, 100mg bid, to counter the depleting effects of the statin drug.
  • Given the existing autoimmune diagnosis, I appreciate your focus on excessive intestinal permeability. We also know that food sensitivities associated with leaky gut are often at play in osteoarthritis. I would recommend a focused (partial) elimination diet – including both gluten and dairy foods and, in the case of RA, I would add nightshade vegetables to that list. While a full elimination diet might be most helpful for this woman, I am sensitive to the travel ahead and what might be feasible vs. theoretically optimal for her to achieve.
  • Lastly, I would add Undenatured Type 2 Collagen. The link is to a helpful research review. The mechanism is not agreed conclusively, but it appears UC-II works primarily by promoting oral tolerance to collagen that can stop the cycle of ongoing inflammation to endemic tissue, arresting the process. It appears at least 40mg/day is required; I usually recommend 60mg in divided doses on an empty stomach (key!). This is available in many products, some combined with anti-inflammatory agents, especially bromelain and boswellia e.g. Life Extension ArthroMax Advanced, Pure Encapsulations’ Joint Complex, Metagenics OsteoVantiv (note: though it’s <50mg dose, the magnesium oxide may not be well tolerated in this latter option for individual’s with optimal or loose stools).

In terms of Root Cause (but there are some urgent factors in here as well):

  • I too am concerned about the high serum calcium level.  For now, until you can get additional labwork, I would stop the Vitamin D3 supplement and add in a Vitamin K2 and Magnesium glycinate supplement instead.  High Vitamin D is just going to encourage more calcium absorption which, for the moment, is not helpful and potentially dangerous.  This will help to channel available calcium into bone tissue and prevent calcification of soft tissue (which she is likely already vulnerable to from both a cardiovascular as well as renal perspective given her meds and history). The parathyroid gland is largely responsible to keep optimal levels of calcium in the blood.  At your first opportunity, I would recheck Vitamin D, serum calcium, and parathyroid hormone (PTH) all at once. Sustained high serum Calcium in an adult (especially above 10 mg/dl at her age) may be indicative of a parathyroid gland tumor; I have actually encountered this a few times in my own practice.  This is an online resource I have found to be particularly helpful and clinically sound on the topic of parathyroid issues. 
  • When you can seek bloodwork, I would also order a full thyroid panel. There is clinical association (just one example) between hypothyroidism and the development of hyperparathyroidism. We also know that elevated LDL cholesterol (evidence her hypercholesterolemia meds) and gastrointestinal dysmotility (e.g. constipation, IBS-like symptoms) are common symptoms of a hypothyroid state. Thyroid hormone is also key for bile synthesis (see below).
  • Unfortunately, sustained, elevated levels of serum calcium may also have been a key driver of her arthritis by promoting build-up of calcification in the joints.  Arthritis-like complaints are an acknowledged symptom of hyperparathyroidism. Is it also possible that elevated serum calcium contributed to her kidney dysfunction years ago? Or impaired filtration downstream from damaged kidneys is promoting higher calcium in the years since (and now)? Either or both are possibilities worth exploring. Powerful examples of interconnectedness.
  • We know that LPS-mediated inflammation from the gut (due to enhanced intestinal permeability) can be a common driver for rheumatoid arthritis inflammation. The appropriate food eliminations (e.g. gluten and its cross-reactive foods) and healing the gut lining are key. But…
  • I would also investigate the likelihood of impaired bile flow AND synthesis (check alkaline phosphatase, bilirubin, and liver enzymes (ALT, AST, GGT) in the next CMP you order; also ask to make sure she still has her gallbladder – a common item overlooked on intake form submissions!). This woman may need help with clearing out bile ducts and gallbladder (e.g. d-limonene, artichoke) and/or improving liver synthesis (evidence all of the medications and the statins impairing liver function). Those with RA are significantly more likely (50%!) to have gallstones or have had their gallbladder removed.

This woman is taking medication to both suppress synthesis of cholesterol (statin) and block reabsorption of cholesterol (zetia) from the gut. It’s quite logical that this may be impairing bile function overtly and present a fascinating example of interconnectedness where medication to try to prevent disease in one system (cardiovascular) may actually be promoting it in another (gut, joint, kidneys).  Through the functional medicine lens, this medication-mediated interconnectedness is common!

As a final comment, this woman may or may not have a pathogenic microbial issue at play in her gut or as an etiology of the RA.  Part of the “catch 22” of using an agent like MTX for relief is that it suppresses immune function and can be actively exacerbating a triggering infection while simultaneously providing key protection of the joints from dysregulated immune function. Supporting this type of patient to be able to remove the MTX (by addressing rapid relief via other agents and at least significantly beginning the journey to address root causes) will likely be key to her having sustainable relief from this dis-ease process.

9 Questions for “Rheumatoid and Osteo Arthritis and Much More: Where to Begin in THIS case?”

  1. 5
    Nancy Fain says:

    My client with RA takes a remicade infusion every six weeks. I expect this drug also suppresses immune function?

  2. 4
    Christina Marino says:

    I have a similar case. FEMALE Age 84 . On 500 mg of Naproxen for Arthritis, Has Parkinsonism and is on Levadopa, and also Synthroid and a statin. She is also on an antidepressant. I am working on getting her off of the statin. The pattern is high Calcium (10.1) and low ALT – 8, low Protein, high glucose. Her doc ran a thyroid panel that is useless. Should I have her get the PTH level? Her Mag and Vitamin D levels are both good. I have her taking HCL and digestive enzymes and I know I need to address her liver. I requested homocysteine and CRP but doctor never ran. I requested a full sex panel and full thyroid. Lipid panel was run but nothing addressing CARDIO IQ or NMR. What am I missing? I recommended that she see an endocrinologist because she has been on Synthroid forever (static dose). Thank you.

    • 4.1
      SAFM Team says:

      Thank you for your question, Christina, alas we don’t address detailed case studies in these Q&A threads and since you are seeking detailed guidance I recommend considering an FM consult with one of the SAFM TAs.
      From the little bit that you describe about your client, I can affirm your choice of HCl and digestive enzymes support simply given the age of your client. It sounds that insulin resistance may be at play and working on the overall food choices may be one of the fundamentals to explore as this will have an effect on the thyroid and the brain. Also, keep in mind that ALT this low can be a sign of insufficient Vit B6 and this can have far-reaching consequences on detoxification, neurotransmitter formation, and hormone balance as well. If you are not sure which direction to take or what to support first consider your client’s symptoms, how do they connect with each other, what causes what, and also what are the goals of your client.
      Hope this helps.

  3. 3
    Lisa Owens says:

    What the difference between reduced coq10 and coq10? Thanks for interesting info.

    • 3.1
      SAFM Team says:

      The ability to convert the widely-used, cheaper, ubiquinone form of CoQ10 to its active (reduced) ubiquinol form declines with age. Therefore, CoQ10 in the ubiquinol form is the preferred form ofr supplementation in mature/older adults. There are multiple studies that confirm superior bioavailability of ubiquinol to ubiquinone, here’s one of good examples: https://accp1.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/cpdd.73

  4. 2
    Marty says:

    In addition to your suggested supplementation, would tumeric/curcumin be a helpful? Thanks. This is wonderful already. Cannot wait for the semester to start!

  5. 1
    Marketa B. says:

    Hello,
    I have a question related to calcification of joints in this case. Is it possible to reverse the calcification, get rid of the calcium deposits around the joints naturally, in a similar way like reversing arteries calcification? I have managed to stop progression of my psoriatic arthritis only through diet, lifestyle changes and a few supplements (UC type II is really great!) and now I´m painless without medication. I don´t think I have inflammation in the joints now, but there are still the calcium deposit. I know I have some kind of calcium metabolism dysregulation too, as I react very strongly to any calcium supplement.
    Any insight would be very helpful, I haven ´t found any information on this anywhere.
    Thank you! Marketa

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