The Diet Catch-22

As a person who has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis for 15 years, I’ve been asked many times by caring friends or relatives, “Does anything help?” That’s always a tricky question to answer. Yes, there are many things that help, but most of them don’t help all the time, they don’t help enough, and they usually don’t help every person with this disease.

My sister also has rheumatoid arthritis, and I’ve been astounded over the years to see how differently we respond to the same medications and alternative therapies in spite of our shared genetics. As I’ve read more and more of our online community members’ experiences, my amazement at how differently people with the same disease can respond to any one factor has only grown. Individual responses to dietary changes, supplement use, medications, topical ointments, and alternative treatments vary as widely as the presentation of RA itself, with some people able to achieve remission through diet alone, and others experiencing severe disease activity in spite of trying everything in the book.

Knowing there are no surefire fixes for RA, I hesitate before implementing major lifestyle changes that may end up having no benefit for me. In the first few years after my diagnosis I tried a couple of different diets. These require a lot of energy, awareness, and self-control to put in place, which can be hard to summon up in the face of daily pain and fatigue. I once had a yoga instructor suggest a dietary change, and when I commented on how hard it was to overhaul my diet, she responded, “Well it’s hard to be in pain all the time, too.” She wasn’t wrong about that, but it’s so simple for someone who isn’t experiencing chronic pain to say what they would do if they were. It is hard to be in pain all the time, and it’s hard to make huge lifestyle changes when just getting through the established routine of a day is a challenge. Therefore when eliminating nightshades and citrus didn’t help, and when going vegan didn’t make a huge difference in my symptoms, I gave up trying to control RA through diet.

However, now that nearly a decade has passed since throwing in the dietary towel, I’m again pondering the impact nutrition choices might have on my disease activity. Each time I hear from a community member who says that s/he has experienced vast improvement in response to giving up gluten, I consider that maybe it’s time I gave a diet change another go. Having small children has made it even more difficult to move forward with a gluten-free diet, as carbs are the one food group that I never have to cajole my children into eating. It takes so much effort to get veggies in their bellies that I can’t imagine adding entrée battles to the mix. I know that we don’t have to eat the same food, but sometimes I have so much pain and/or fatigue that I’m unable to cook at all (pizza night!), much less make two separate meals. In addition, it doesn’t help motivate me to think of the individuals with RA who say they’ve tried going gluten free but didn’t experience improvement. Some people would call this making excuses. Perhaps these are excuses, but I see it as getting by as best I can.

Herein lies the diet catch-22: because I have RA I can’t find the energy to overhaul my diet, even though doing so may in fact be key in improving my RA and giving me more energy.

While I continue to ponder attempting a gluten-free diet, I am focusing on changes that I know will help my RA symptoms. My personal history leaves no doubt that when I’m stressed my pain and inflammation increase, so I’m working on decreasing the stress in my life. I also know that I feel best when I practice yoga regularly, so I’m striving to do at least a few minutes of yoga every day. I’m hoping these efforts will result in giving me more energy, which might enable me to step out of the diet catch-22. With a little more energy, perhaps I could make a gluten-free dinner as well as something the kids will eat. Then maybe, just maybe, I might find that I’m one of those people who feels so much better after going gluten-free.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The RheumatoidArthritis.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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