Rheumatoid arthritis is an auto-immune disease that causes painful swelling, typically in our joints and connective tissue. As an auto-immune disease, rather than attacking viruses or bacteria, the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues, leading to inflammation in the body. Over time bones may erode and joints become deformed, leading to considerable pain. Certain genes appear to increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
There are many ways to support rheumatoid health through nutrition. One place to start is in the gut where specific intestinal bacteria produce toxins that some researchers believe can contribute to rheumatoid arthritis. While the research on the role of intestinal bacteria is inconclusive, it may be worth experimenting with to help relieve rheumatoid symptoms. By consuming foods with non-toxic or friendly bacteria, the bad bacteria can get crowded out and based on some research reduce arthritis symptoms.
Friendly bacteria can be found in cultured food products, such as plain yogurt, kefir, miso soup, and pickled and fermented foods. These bacteria also are found in high quality probiotic supplements, which can be taken regularly to try and manage rheumatoid arthritis. While yogurt and kefir as probiotics may be helpful, cow’s milk and cheese products are acidifying and can increase inflammation in the body. Protein foods, such as meat, fish, and beans, and carbohydrates, such as flour, grains, and, sugar also are acid-forming.
Similarly, foods containing gluten may increase inflammation for some people. Gluten-containing foods include barley, oats, rye, and wheat. When we have food allergies, this can worsen rheumatoid symptoms, making it important to test for allergies or eliminate potential allergens for several weeks and slowly introduce them back in the diet to see if there is an allergic reaction. Foods should be tested only one at a time. Common food allergens include milk, wheat, soy, shellfish, eggs, peanuts, fish, and tree nuts.
Certain oils are known to increase inflammation, including canola, safflower, corn, and soybean oil. Other oils have anti-inflammatory properties, especially extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil. Saturated fats also can increase inflammation and should be consumed in moderation. Eating foods high in antioxidants, such as fruits and vegetables, may help to reduce inflammation. Fruits and vegetables are alkalizing and as a result normalize acids and reduce inflammation. It is best to consume a higher ratio of vegetables since many fruits are high in sugar. George Mateljan, in his book, The World’s Healthiest Foods: Essential Guide to the Healthiest Way of Eating, reports research showing an improvement in rheumatoid symptoms with a vegetarian or vegan diet. Regular consumption of vegetables in the nightshade family, including chili pepper, eggplant, gogi berry, peppers, potato, tomato, are correlated with rheumatoid arthritis for some people. Eliminating these foods for as little as two weeks may decrease arthritis symptoms.
According to Mateljan, people consuming a good amount of fish high in omega-3 fatty acids in their diet have fairly low rates of rheumatoid arthritis. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and are found in fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel. Consuming fish high in omega-3 fatty acids also has been found in some instances to reduce the need for medication. Some recent research is questioning the value fish oil supplements in terms of reducing inflammation. High levels of fish oil may interact with certain drugs, such as high blood pressure medication. Flaxseeds also are a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and are best ground fresh when served.
Along with nutritional support, there are lifestyle changes that can support rheumatoid health. David Rakel in his book, Integrative Medicine, reports research findings on lifestyle changes, including the benefits of mediation for chronic pain, and physical and occupational therapy to improve range of motion and strengthen muscles. Massage, heat, and cold applications have been reported to decrease inflammation, increase circulation, and relax muscles. A high intake of coffee, more than four cups a day, has been linked to an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis. There also is some research suggesting an association between smoking and an increased risk for rheumatoid arthritis. Other researchers have found a strong link between periodontal disease and rheumatoid arthritis, and some improvement in symptoms as the periodontal problems are treated.
Slowly introducing these nutritional and lifestyle changes can go a long way in help to alleviate the discomfort associated with rheumatoid arthritis. It takes considerable effort and motivation to make and maintain changes. But, it will be well worth it on so many levels beyond symptom relief. An anti-inflammatory diet can help stave off other diseases and lead to a general sense of well-being in life.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – Hippocrates
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