A Diet Rich in Omega-3s and Plenty of Plant Fiber May Fight Inflammation
The most troubling symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis — pain, stiffness, and swelling — stem from the same source: inflammation. Research hasn’t yet established that changing your diet will definitely reduce the severity of those rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms, but some findings suggest that it may indeed help.
There’s some evidence that diets high in polyunsaturated fatty acids and plant fiber — think omega-3 fatty acids and lots of fruits and vegetables — may decrease the risk of the disease. It’s also thought that both fiber and polyunsaturated fatty acids can lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which is an indicator of joint inflammation.
Researchers theorize that fiber in particular is beneficial, but it may be that the phytonutrients in fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, and grains contribute to lessening it. Studies have also found that regularly eating fish high in omega-3s, such as salmon, herring, mackerel, trout, and tuna, may decrease swollen joints and tenderness.
Although the compounds in many foods are said to improve RA symptoms, more research is needed to determine just how much of those compounds would have to be eaten to derive the benefit.
What scientists know for sure is that there are important links between your stomach and inflammation, and that Western diets, with their emphasis on the fast, cheap, and highly flavorful, create the conditions for diseases like RA to flourish.
It’s certain, for starters, that obesity is a risk for inflammatory conditions. Body fat generates substances that generate inflammation, and the more fat there is, the more inflamed the body will be. In addition, the foods that lead to obesity — ones high in fat, sugar, salt, and processed ingredients — are known to increase inflammation.
Also, scientists are increasingly finding out more about the ways that intestinal bacterial imbalances, which may result from high-fat low-nutrient diets, contribute to these conditions.
That said, changing your diet probably won’t reduce inflammation enough for you to forgo other RA management treatments. But it can help reduce the amount of medication needed and the side effects of the medication, says Lona Sandon, PhD, RDN, an assistant professor in the department of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who is also an RA patient. And, Dr. Sandon adds, eating well has never been known to make any condition worse.
Read on to find out what foods could help ease your symptoms and keep you healthy.
Olive Oil May Work in Much the Way NSAIDs Do
Researchers have become interested in the anti-inflammatory benefits of olive oil because people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet, which is rich in olive oil, seem to have fewer health conditions related to inflammation, such as degenerative joint diseases or diabetes.
Researchers have found that oleocanthal, a compound found in extra-virgin olive oil, appears to suppress the same pain pathway as nonsteroidial anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), such as ibuprofen, which makes it a great oil for use in cooking foods, or in recipes like salad dressings as part of your daily management plan when living with pain.
Citrus Fruits’ Vitamin C Is an Important Ingredient in Tissue Repair
Citrus foods, such as oranges, grapefruit, lemon, and limes, are rich in vitamin C. This dietary component is necessary for the synthesis of collagen, which helps build and repair blood vessels, tendons, ligaments, and bone, and is therefore helpful for people with osteoarthritis, Sandon says.
Citrus fruits are also good sources of inflammation-fighting antioxidants, which are helpful for those with rheumatoid arthritis.
So start your day with a glass of orange juice, have half a grapefruit for a snack, and squeeze lime or lemon juice on foods when you’re cooking to take advantage of the healing power of citrus. Aim for a total vitamin C intake of 75 milligrams (mg) per day for adult women, and 90 mg per day for adult men, the current U.S. recommended dietary allowance.
Berries Are High in Antioxidants and Inflammation-Fighting Potential
Sandon recommends that you make one or more servings of fresh or frozen berries, such as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, or huckleberries, part of your daily diet. These little fruits pack powerful antioxidant compounds, like proanthocyanidins and ellagic acid, which fight inflammation and cell damage. The amount and combination of the compounds vary by the type of berry, Sandon says, so make variety your goal.
Cherry Juice May Increase Antioxidants
A study published in November 2014 in the Journal of Functional Foods found that consumption of Montmorency tart cherry juice reduced levels of uric acid and increased specific anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant, in the bloodstream. But take this news with a grain of salt, Sandon says; more research is needed to determine how much cherry juice one must consume to achieve the benefits.
Carrots Pack Anti-Arthritis Vitamin A and Beta-carotene
Add carrots, squash, and sweet potatoes to your anti-arthritis shopping list, too, Sandon says. These and other orange-hued vegetables are rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene, both of which are believed to fight inflammation. Cooking seems to increase the availability of these compounds. For the biggest benefit, eat these vegetables on a regular basis in recommended serving sizes rather than overdoing it by eating them in large quantities. A single serving of carrots is ½ cup, or about 1 large carrot or 7 to 10 baby carrots.
Whole Grains May Help You Lose Weight and Lessen Pain
Much has been made of the health benefits of whole grains, and for good reason, Sandon says. Whole grains are simply grains that still have all three parts of the original grain: the bran (outside hull), endosperm, and germ.
Whole grains are better sources of fiber and other important nutrients, such as selenium, potassium, and magnesium than refined grains. In addition, a diet rich in whole grains has also been linked to better weight control, which can help reduce pain and symptoms of RA.
So switch from white bread to 100 percent whole wheat, and from regular pasta to whole grain, Sandon says. Also add other whole grains to your menu, like a bowl of oatmeal in the morning or a bulgur salad at night.
Ginger: Spice Up Your Dishes to Turn Down the Flame
Like onions, ginger contains compounds that function in much the same way as anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin and ibuprofen. This versatile root adds flavor too. Add fresh peeled ginger to stir-fries, eat pickled ginger along with salmon sushi, or puree some and add it to an acorn squash soup.
Ginger supplements can also help reduce inflammation, but check with your doctor before taking them, Sandon says. Too much ginger can lead to thinning of the blood, which can be dangerous if you are taking certain drugs, like Coumadin (warfarin). It can also decrease blood sugar levels, raising the risk of hypoglycemia. In addition, ginger may lower blood pressure, which could affect those taking high blood pressure medication.
Pineapple: This Fruit’s Enzymes Can Decrease Swelling
Pineapple is rich in vitamin C and the enzyme bromelain, which has been linked to decreased pain and swelling in both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, Sandon says. So add this tropical fruit to your diet every chance you get. Try it cubed in fruit salad, baked in savory dishes, blended into a smoothie, or added to stir-fries to give a sweet-and-sour zing.
Bromelain is also available in supplement form, but check with your doctor before taking it because it can increase the risk of bleeding, especially if you also take blood thinners such as Plavix (clopidogrel bisulphate), Coumadin, or aspirin. Bromelain may also interfere with the action of antibiotics and sedatives.
By Michele Bloomquist