My (Accidental) RA Diet
Last updated: April 2022
There is a lot of speculation and contradictory theories that exist about if, how, or why diet can affect RA and inflammation. Many people seemingly try to push the latest diet craze as a cure for arthritis and RA: keto, gluten-free, dairy-free, paleo, vegetarian, vegan, fasting, etc. There seem to be a million different diets and food recommendations out there, all boasting "cures" for those suffering from various forms of arthritis (and other things) and inflammation.
My skepticism around diet changes
Which one is "right" or true? Are any of them? I've played around with diet and nutrition over the years, even working with a nutritionist and integrative medicine providers, and I never came away with a definitive answer or cure for my disease. There is no cure for RA, as we all know (or should know), but can a change in your diet significantly help?
I admit that for years I was skeptical of diet having any major impact on my RA and disease activity, but once Covid-19 struck and I was forced into a very strict, yet "accidental" diet, I saw major changes and improvements in my RA. For the first time since beginning RA medications in 1997, I was able to get off all of my medications: prednisone, methotrexate, Plaquenil, Humira, and gabapentin. I couldn't believe it; it seemed like a miracle and maybe it was, in the midst of a deadly pandemic and one of the most stressful periods of my life.
My diet changed, but not because of RA
When I say that my diet was accidental, it mostly was, because due to the crippling anxiety and depression I began experiencing once the pandemic struck, I completely lost my appetite. This means, my addictive habit of eating refined carbs (bread, pasta, sugar, baked goods) came to an abrupt end. Also knowing that refined carbs, along with alcohol, caffeine, and packaged/processed food (full of chemicals and junk) make mental health symptoms worse, I made a conscious effort to give up all of these foods and beverages in order to try to improve my mood. In the past, I strictly limited these things for a month or so and saw noticeable improvements in my emotional and mental health. Sadly, at that time, I wasn't able to stick to the strict diet and fell back into my old ways of eating.
Food and mental health
Once Covid-19 began, I found myself struggling against daily severe anxiety and depression (the anxiety was worse; I was convinced all my loved ones were going to get Covid-19 and die from it). I made the choice to eat as healthy as possible: only whole/real foods, no alcohol, no caffeine (goodbye, coffee, sob!), no red meat, lots of organic cage-free eggs, extra-virgin olive oil (no butter), lots of spinach and other greens and veggies, and I discovered a love for pumpkin seeds (where have you been all my life?!). I also would cook with organic chicken breast, baked in the oven with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Other foods I ate were organic hummus, zucchini, mushrooms, peppers, avocados, artichoke hearts, black and greek olives, tomatoes, onions, red and green bell peppers, beans (I still need to cook with more beans), organic blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
Even though I was trying hard to stay away from anything dairy (as scientific and medical studies have shown it to be inflammatory and I've noticed it causing flare-ups myself), occasionally I eat plain Greek yogurt (2-5% fat) with berries or alone. I basically summed up what my diet looked like during the majority of the pandemic, but to be honest, there have been challenges. I get a bit bored and desperate for more variety in my cooking when making all of these sautéed scrambles using olive oil. It's also not easy cooking meals that don't incorporate pasta, bread, rice, or any other refined carbs. Oh, and eating real oranges daily instead of guzzling orange juice is another food habit I've been trying to sustain.
The impact of my diet change
So what happened after changing my diet and saying goodbye to processed "food," and all of the snacking on treats I used to do every day, especially at night? As I already stated, I "miraculously" was able to stop taking ALL of my RA meds, including the antidepressant (Celexa) that I had been on for over 10 years and was never able to get off of before. I was in shock and this truly did seem like a miracle to me. All throughout my 24 years of having RA, I've never been in remission, and during the last five years or so, I haven't even been able to stop taking prednisone for any real length of time. I also lost approximately 60 pounds (which I needed to do, although not due to mental health struggles) and returned to what I weighed when I was in college and had a healthy BMI. This weight loss also felt like a huge miracle to me.
A huge improvement in my wrist
Another interesting RA development was regarding my always-painful, permanently damaged right wrist.
Only about a year after I was diagnosed with RA, the disease relentlessly attacked my wrist, with inflammation destroying the cartilage and eroding some of the bones. As a right-hander, this was particularly debilitating and devastating. After arthroscopic surgery, intensive physical therapy (that didn't do much), wearing a myriad of ugly wrist braces, and then years with a strange respite (probably due to different biologic medications), my wrist suddenly flared up severely in Fall 2019. Why? Who knows! RA decided to begin attacking it again, for some seemingly unknown reason.
The pain and disability were so great that my rheumatologist referred me to a hand and wrist surgeon. More MRI scans were done (I feel like I've had a million on that wrist), I received a painful cortisone injection into my wrist, and I had a consultation with the surgeon who was very adamant that I needed to have surgery again, but this time I needed a partial bone fusion--a surgery I had been trying to avoid for two decades. My heart sank, desperately not wanting to have this surgery, but I didn't know how else I could live and function with this renewed, burning-stabbing pain. Avoidance has always been my best inaction plan, and I dragged my feet going ahead with the surgery. But what would happen next in my life and in the entire world, was something I never thought I'd live through in a million years: the deadly global pandemic of Covid-19.
I no longer needed surgery!
I'm very happy and hugely relieved to report that after I made such a drastic change in my diet, "accidentally" due to the emotional effects of coping (or not coping) with the pandemic, the extreme pain and inflammation that had suddenly sprung up in my right wrist basically totally went away. Well, it returned to its former, usual state, which I've adapted to well and is very manageable.
I couldn't believe it! I was just on the brink of needing surgery on it, a permanent BONE FUSION, and then the flare-up disappeared. Was it because of something I was eating or not eating? I was still stressed to the max, which usually makes RA worse, but I couldn't think of any other explanation. So maybe, just maybe, cutting out certain foods, as well as harmful and toxic food additives/chemicals/GMOs really did make a major impact on my RA and overall health.
Are these positive changes a coincidence?
Doctors will never tell you anything about diet for sure, if at all, but my (healthier) gut says that food and nutrition definitely helped to improve my RA. Since beginning RA medications in 1997, I have NEVER been able to stop taking my RA medications--until now. If that isn't a strong testimony to the power of nutrition, I don't know what is. Granted, I'm still not in remission. I still have aches and pains and little flare-ups sometimes, although it happens more often when I find myself falling off the anti-inflammatory bandwagon. I'm still medication-free, except for Humira, and that's one of the best unintentional gifts I could have ever received from such a horrible, devastating pandemic.
I know things work differently for each person, but I'm curious: Have any of you also experienced changes in your RA due to diet and/or lifestyle changes? I would love to hear about it!
When I feel fatigued, I rest as much as I can:
Join the conversation