Is There A Diet Cure For Rheumatoid Arthritis?
I've always envied people who have the luxury of sweating the small stuff, because rheumatoid arthritis doesn't come with small stuff to sweat, only really complicated, personal life choices for which there are no right answers, only answers that are right for you. When you live with rheumatoid arthritis the hard choices never stop coming at you. Choices like whether or not to try a new medication and risk side effects or to stay with what you are doing and risk joint damage.
Diet: the "miracle" cure for rheumatoid arthritis?
One good example of this is the quandary of diet and arthritis. Once you have a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis it won't be long until you hear from a well intentioned friend or family member who will advise you on how to eat. You may hear about the dangers of gluten, or the wonders of bone broth, usually by a true believer with some very persuasive testimonials to back up his or her ideas. Often the recommendations will come with dire warnings about eating certain foods and not too uncommonly, the diet plan will come with a book, or a brand of supplements, and an “expert” who will impress you with his well thought out ideas and well-stated argument against the apparent bias and greed of the pharmaceutical industry. Call me a skeptic, but my first thought is; “if this really cured arthritis where are all the people dancing in the streets?” Because, believe me, that is what I would be doing if a diet cured my JRA. The truth is that if there actually was a diet cure for rheumatoid arthritis we would know about it. And not one of us wouldn't follow the diet, because rheumatoid arthritis IS that bad. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but a diet cure for RA is a fallacy.
How diet can impact RA symptoms
Now that I've told you the bad news, here is the good news: although diet doesn't cure RA, it can influence it. And like most things RA, the issue is complicated. Research has found that dietary habits can play a role in the development of RA.1 There have been studies documenting the benefit of a vegan diet, fasting, and elimination diets, however these studies have all been small ones and not repeated.2,3,4 The biggest excitement in the rheumatology world right now is the investigation of the microbiome, the makeup of bacteria in our gut. There has been some strong evidence showing that the relationship between certain types of bacteria, specifically one called Prevotella, and rheumatoid arthritis. And what influences the microbiome? Diet.5 Along with research on specific diets for RA comes concern about maintaining body weight and proper nutritional levels, as both of these things are extremely important for maintaining health when you are living with a chronic, painful disease. So, what is one to do with all this information?
My experience trying dietary changes for RA
I can't answer that question for you, but I can tell you what my experience has been. For better or worse, I've tried almost everything I've heard about that seems somewhat reasonable so I have lots of personal experience on this topic. I've personally tried the paleo diet, a vegan diet, the elimination diet, fasting, a gluten free diet, and a raw food diet, and the only thing that consistently relieves my symptoms is the one that is not sustainable: fasting. Whenever I fast, my symptoms get quiet. However, I also end up losing too much weight which makes me less healthy in an overall sense. I also noticed that when I adhered to a specific diet plan there was a worrisome trend; I started to have negative feelings about certain foods. The stricter the diet and more rigid my diet plan was, the more fear and worry I had. I started to look at tomatoes with trepidation because they are a nightshade vegetable which supposedly is harmful to people with RA, and if I ate cottage cheese I worried that the saturated fat would suddenly balloon up my knees. None of that happened, but the more I worried, the more I realized that this wasn't working for me. I realized that labeling any real food as “bad” is not a healthy practice in itself, and I decided that for me, flexibility in all things is key, not more rigidity.
Everyone's diet experience differs
I have two friends who live with JRA who adhere to a gluten free lifestyle because it improves their symptoms. I know people who have food allergies that increase RA symptoms, and people who say that a specific diet helps them immensely. These diets aren't a cure, but do help symptoms. But for the majority of us, there isn't a clear cut connection with particular foods and the trajectory of our disease. What there is plenty of evidence for, however, is that there are foods that promote inflammation in the body and foods that inhibit it.
When I realized that I personally don't respond to specific diets I decided to make the obvious choice: eat for health and focus on anti-inflammatory, power foods. Now I limit processed foods, sugar, GMO's, trans-fats, saturated fats, and red meat which are good choices to improve overall health. I make a point of eating foods rich in anti-oxidants daily, and focus on foods and spices that are known to be anti-inflammatory. I also don't beat myself up if I can't be perfect, but I try to plan ahead whenever I can so that I can eat as cleanly as possible. I'm really glad that I took the time and effort to figure out whether my diet influenced my JRA even though the answer wasn't one that I had hoped for. I think any effort one makes on behalf of their health and their life is not wasted effort.
Knowledge is power around diet & RA
Even though I've lived with this disease for 46 years I still have people give me advice about how to eat on a regular basis. Although this hasn't changed, I have. The saying, “knowledge is power,” is very apt because as I've done my own research and tried so many potential dietary fixes; I now know enough to respond with confidence when someone tells me what they think I should do. I either tell them that what they are suggesting doesn't work for me and why, or I simply say, “Thanks, I'll look into that.” I've found that as I consciously work with my diet and understand how my body responds I am less emotionally swayed by others opinions. This helps me immensely in my daily effort to stay positive about my disease and my life.
We may not have found a diet cure for RA, but since diet influences overall health, it will always be a big part of how I live well with my disease. I know that by being smart about how I eat, I am helping my body to help itself and this is all, in the end, I really can do.
Recommendations around nutrition for inflammation
The Arthritis Foundation has information about foods that are known to alleviate inflammation and a quick google search will turn up many good ideas as well.6,7
Here are a few of their recommendations:
- Fatty Fish
- Berries, especially cherries, blueberries
- Olive Oil
- Saturated Fats
- Processed foods
- Red Meat
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