Eat Right for Your Type of Arthritis
Learn about the foods that may help ease pain and inflammation and slow disease activity.
When you have arthritis or a related condition, getting the right nutrients can help to alleviate pain and inflammation and positively affect overall health. Research suggests that what you eat may influence the progression and symptoms of certain types of arthritis and related conditions.
Although there is no magic potion at the supermarket, studies have shown that certain foods have anti-inflammatory properties and specific benefits for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and other inflammatory forms of arthritis, osteoarthritis, gout and osteoporosis symptoms.
RA and Other Inflammatory Forms of Arthritis
Researchers have found a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and phytochemicals supplies the body with powerful anti-inflammatory nutrients. These foods are commonly part of a Mediterranean-style diet of fish, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, nuts/seeds and beans. This diet has been analyzed in small studies for its impact on RA symptoms. Results showed improvements in pain, morning stiffness, disease activity and physical function.
Cold-water fish high in omega-3s (such as salmon, sardines, mackerel, herring and tuna) have shown to be particularly beneficial. Studies published in 2015 in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry and the European Journal of Nutrition looked at the benefits of oleocanthal, a key compound in extra virgin olive oil, for rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers found that this compound had a significant impact not only on chronic inflammation but on acute inflammatory processes, and helps reduce joint cartilage damage. Earlier studies showed that oleocanthal prevents the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes – the same way ibuprofen works.
In the 1990s, a combination vegetarian/vegan diet for arthritis was the focus of a small study of 53 RA patients. The participants started with a vegan diet that also excluded gluten, refined sugar, citrus, alcohol, coffee, tea, salt, strong spices and preservatives. Milk, dairy and gluten were reintroduced after nine months for participants who didn’t have an intolerance to these foods. After one year, participants sustained improvements in tender, swollen joints, pain, duration of morning stiffness and overall health, leading study investigators to suggest that some people with RA may benefit from a vegetarian diet. Since then, additional small studies have reported symptom improvement among very small groups of patients.
The National Institutes of Health has funded animal studies on the impact of green tea for RA. Researchers found that green tea significantly reduced the severity of arthritis by causing changes in various immune responses. They also showed that an antioxidant in green tea blocks the production of molecules that cause joint damage. In May 2015, researchers reported in the International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases on the superior anti-inflammatory effect of green tea when compared with black tea.
C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood is a marker of inflammation associated with RA. Several studies have reported that a high fiber diet helps to reduce CRP levels. Oatmeal, brown and wild rice, beans, barley and quinoa are excellent sources of whole grains.
While some foods seem to ease inflammation, compounds in others have been found to increase it. Eating hamburgers, chicken or other meats that have been grilled or fried at high temperature can raise the amount of advanced glycation end products (AGEs) in the blood. Although no direct correlation between AGEs and arthritis has been identified, high levels of AGEs have been detected in people with inflammation.
Another culprit that may boost inflammation is omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean and cottonseed oils, many snack and fried foods, margarine, egg yolks and meats. Consuming more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s raises your risk of joint inflammation and obesity.
Having a balanced, nutritious diet is an important part of achieving and maintaining a healthy weight. That's good news for your joints, not just your wardrobe. A small study published in Arthritis in 2015 reported on a 6-week intervention of 40 individuals with osteoarthritis who were placed on a plant-based diet of fruits, vegetables, legumes (beans, peas, lentils) and whole grains. The group experienced significantly reduced pain and improved physical function.
Experts have long known that milk is good for bones, but its effects on joints were less clear. A study reported in Arthritis Care & Research in 2015 showed that women with knee OA who drank milk regularly had less OA progression than those who didn’t. But high cheese consumption appeared to make OA worse.
An earlier study published in Arthritis & Rheumatism in 2013, revealed that a compound called sulforaphane, found in Brussels sprouts and cabbage but especially in broccoli, could be key in slowing the progress of OA and the destruction of joint cartilage.
A 2010 study in BMC Musculoskeletal Disorders reported that people who regularly eat foods from the alium family – like garlic, onions and leeks, showed fewer signs of early OA. Researchers think the compound diallyl disulphine found in these foods may limit cartilage-damaging enzymes in human cells – making it a great choice if you have OA.
Of all the forms of arthritis, gout has the most obvious dietary link. When the body breaks down purine, a substance found in many foods, uric acid forms. People who have gout have trouble eliminating uric acid or they produce too much uric acid cause inflammation and severe pain in the joints.
A study published in the Scandanavian Journal of Rheumatology in 2012 showed that a Mediterranean diet decreased uric acid levels and the risk of getting gout. But there have been studies on a few key foods as well. Researchers suspect the anthocyanins in cherries have an anti-inflammatory effect and may help reduce the frequency of gout attacks. Anthocyanins are found in other red and purple fruits, including strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and blackberries (some of the best low-sugar fruits). However, tart cherries have higher levels.
Using data from the 14,809 participants in the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, researchers from Harvard Medical School confirmed that coffee (but not tea) and low-fat dairy product consumption is associated with lower uric acid levels.
Avoiding foods that contain high levels of purines is a critical part of managing gout. These foods include meats (particulary beef, pork and lamb), most seafood (both fish and shellfish) and meat-based broths and gravies. Sugar-sweetened soft drinks and food with fructose also increase uric acid levels. There is a strong association between alcohol intake, especially beer, and an increased risk of gout attacks.
Protect bone health with calcium-rich foods, including low-fat dairy products; green, leafy vegetables; shellfish; and calcium-fortified foods. Vitamin D-rich foods, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, cheese and egg yolks, are equally important since Vitamin D help your body absorb calcium from food. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to get all of the vitamin D your body needs from food sources. On the plus side, the body can make 10,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D in just 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to sunshine. A staple of the Mediterranean diet, virgin olive oil, when combined with vitamin D, may protect against bone loss based on the results of an animal study published in the peer-reviewed journal, PLOSOne in 2014.
Updated May, 2015
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