Relieve Arthritis with Diet Changes
According to the CDC, about 46 million (one in five) American adults have arthritis. In fact, arthritis is used to categorize over 100 diseases and conditions, all contributing to joint inflammation and swollen, stiff, or achy joints. Arthritic adults commonly experience limited mobility and are placed at an increased risk for weight gain, diabetes, and even heart disease.
For decades, people have been trying to overcome arthritic symptoms through diet and exercise instead of surgery and prescriptions. As a dietitian, I applaud those who attempt to experiment with such proactive measures. It seems logical to incorporate more whole foods, which are naturally rich in inflammation-fighting nutrients such as antioxidants, vitamin D, flavonoids, capsaicin, and omega-3 fatty acids. Diet's impact on arthritis is still being measured in studies around the globe. Until the medical society has a solid study confirming the benefits, the link remains controversial.
In 2010, authors from the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (J Am Diet Assoc. 2010; 110:727-735) reviewed data from previous studies on arthritis. They concluded that there is not yet enough evidence to scientifically confirm the healing effects of diet in relation to arthritis. However, authors did find other relevant data from previous clinical trials.
They were able to document a link associated with a vegetarian or Mediterranean diet and reduction in pain. When followed correctly, a vegetarian diet is overflowing with antioxidants in the form of whole grains, bright produce, dark leafy greens, beans, nuts, and seeds. The Mediterranean diet tops those healthy foods off with a touch of fatty fish and olive oil – all helping your body defend itself against inflammation. Note: I did NOT mention red meat, fried food, or sugary beverages, as these have been found to increase inflammation.
What Causes Inflammation?
Before I move on to discuss how certain nutrients may help reduce inflammation, I think it is worthwhile to first gain a better understanding of inflammation. Inflammation is not inherently bad. It is the body’s response to an infection or injury. Immediately upon spotting foreign invaders (germs, bacteria, etc.), the body reacts by sending mass amounts of white blood cells to help fight them off. However, in Arthritis, an autoimmune disease, the body mistakenly believes it is the enemy. It directs the white blood cells and inflammatory chemicals to attack its own healthy cells. While the initial reaction occurs unseen, it’s likely that the person experiencing the inflammation may feel the next phase, in which the inflammatory chemicals cause a rush of blood into the joint, often resulting in redness, swelling, and stiffness. Pain is also quite common, though the exact reasoning is not well understood.
Food for Relieving Symptoms
Okay, now back to the subject of food and your arthritis. Below are some healthy suggestions for each one of the nutrients showing demonstrated relief for arthritic symptoms.
- Antioxidants. Antioxidants help slow or even prevent oxidative damage by fighting free radicals. These disease fighters are found in a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, as well as whole grains and teas. Specific antioxidants include vitamin A, C, E, carotenoids, and selenium, to name a few. When it comes to the powerful antioxidants in green tea, studies have found drinking 3-4 cups of green tea per day may help fend off inflammation.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D is found in salmon, shrimp, sardines, egg yolk, and vitamin D-fortified milk; yet many are commonly deficient in this nutrient as food does not provide very high amounts. Our primary means of obtaining vitamin D is from the sunshine, as our skin is able to use the sun’s energy to create this valuable nutrient. Studies have found that those with higher vitamin D intakes were able to slow disease progression by up to 1/3 when compared with those with lower intakes. Recent studies have also found a link between low vitamin D levels and greater chronic pain. There certainly seems to be enough claims out there to warrant a visit to your physician to test your own vitamin D levels before beginning any new supplement regime.
- Flavonoids. Flavonoids make up a large group of phytochemicals (fight-o-chemicals), carrying both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. They are found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and, yes, even green (black and white) teas.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Omega-3 fats have been proven to help reduce inflammation, while omega-6 fats (corn, soybean, peanut, and sunflower oil) do just the opposite. Salmon, flaxseed, and walnuts are all great sources of omega-3 fats. Anti-inflammatory properties may also be found in walnuts, olives, olive oil, avocados, and hempseed. Finally, watch out for saturated and trans fats, as both increase inflammation.
Keep Lifestyle in Mind
If you are overweight, weight loss is the first important remedy advised to decrease inflammation. In fact, obesity alone is a risk factor for developing certain types of arthritis, including osteoarthritis. With this in mind, it is certainly possible to slim down by simply improving your eating habits and following a healthier lifestyle to find relief from arthritic symptoms. If you do choose to experiment with your diet, perhaps through the elemental or elimination diet, I encourage you to consult a registered dietitian before making this transition to ensure you are still getting all of the nutrients your body needs.