If you suffer with rheumatoid arthritis, you have a variety of management options, and drugs are typically the choice doctors recommend. But you should know that what you eat can matter as well, as experts and studies have shown.
Which foods are best for rheumatoid arthritis?
Before naming the foods that are best for rheumatoid arthritis, it helps to understand why some experts believe they make the list. Much of the reason has to do with the fact that rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease, which means the body attacks its own tissues.
The intestinal tract has mucosa that absorbs and digests nutrients from food, making large food molecules into smaller ones. This process allows the smaller molecules to pass through the intestinal wall, leaving behind larger ones, which can cause infections and other problems if they were to escape the intestines.
Individuals with inflammatory arthritis have been shown to have an inflamed intestinal tract, which increases permeability of the intestinal walls and the chance that large molecules will infiltrate the bloodstream. This is a condition known as leaky gut. When these large molecules enter the blood, they can result in an inflammatory reaction.
According to various experts, including John A. McDougall, MD, founder and medical director of the McDougall Program and the author of many books, including The McDougall Program: 12 Days to Dynamic Health, choosing the right foods can maintain the integrity of the protective barrier in the intestinal tract and prevent leaky gut. The right foods include whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Foods that are the biggest culprits in rheumatoid arthritis, they say, are dairy products (which can cause the most severe problems) and other animal foods. This dietary approach should also be low in fats, including vegetable oils (even olive and flaxseed oils), which is a point that differs somewhat from other recommendations (discussed below).
McDougall has noted that his decades of experience with this starch-based, low-fat, no-animal food diet has been successful for a great number of patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Some individuals also need to eliminate wheat and corn from their diet. Patients who have followed these dietary recommendations typically experience improvement in symptoms after 1 to 2 weeks and can typically stop or significantly reduce any medications they are taking.
Other research on diet
How important are fruits and vegetables for rheumatoid arthritis patients? It's known that people with rheumatoid arthritis are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and that regular intake of fruits and vegetables can help prevent this disease.
Therefore, a study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on the impact of fruit and vegetable consumption among 114 individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. They found that daily vegetable consumption (but not fruit) was associated with better arterial function and thus a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Those who enjoy a little wine or other alcohol may be happy to learn that a new study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology reported that "moderate alcohol consumption may also be associated with a reduced risk" of rheumatoid arthritis. One to two drinks per day is defined as moderate use.
Another new study (Nutrition, November 2012) explored the impact of diet at a cellular level in 37 patients with rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers reported that including omega-3 fatty acids, fish oil, and monounsaturated fatty acids (e.g., olive oil) "may have beneficial effects by decreasing inflammation."
Several previous studies have also suggested omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial for people who suffer with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis. A systemic review, for example, published in June 2012 reported that fish oil appears to slow the development of arthritis in animals, and that a review of 23 studies provided evidence that omega-3s are associated with a "fairly consistent but modest benefit...on joint swelling and pain" and other symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
There is also some controversy over whether nightshade vegetables (potatoes [but not sweet potatoes], tomatoes, sweet and hot pepper, and eggplant) can trigger arthritis symptoms. This relationship has not been proven or disproven, but it is something for individuals with rheumatoid arthritis to consider if they want to make dietary changes.
The bottom line
If you suffer with rheumatoid arthritis and you want to find a safe, natural way to feel better and perhaps even reduce your need for medication, then a dietary change may provide some relief. It may take a little experimentation, but in as little as a few weeks, you may discover that what you eat can matter when it comes to rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Bergstrom U et al. Smoking, low formal level of education, alcohol consumption, and the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology 2012 Nov 6
Crilly MA, McNeill G. Arterial dysfunction in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and the consumption of daily fruits and daily vegetables. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2012 Mar; 66(3): 345-52
Hayashi H et al. Nutritional status in relation to adipokines and oxidative stress is associated with disease activity in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Nutrition 2012 Nov; 28(11-12): 1109-14
McDougall John A. Diet: the only real hope for arthritis
Miles EA, Calder PC. Influence of marine n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on immune function and a systematic review of their effects on clinical outcomes in rheumatoid arthritis. British Journal of Nutrition 2012 Jun; 107 Suppl 2:S171-84