RA is one of two forms of arthritis. The other is osteoarthritis, and the general diseases itself is the most common cause of disability in the U.S., affecting millions of adults. Osteoarthritis is where someone experiences erosion around joint cartilage. Rheumatoid arthritis, rather, is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself, such as polymyalgia and fibromyalgia.
Either arthritic forms are painful, and both have a common denominator: joint inflammation. Once bodily joints are inflamed, it causes considerable pain. Fortunately, there are some ways to deal with that pain and other symptoms the natural way, specifically through the foods that you eat. Many people with arthritis don’t realize how much their food choices can worsen the pain, or conversely, improve the way they feel.
Inflammation is part of the body's immune response. Without it, you can't heal. But when it's out of control—as in rheumatoid arthritis—it can damage the body. Plus, it's thought to play a role in obesity, heart disease, and cancer. Foods high in sugar and saturated fat can spur inflammation. They cause overactivity in the immune system, which can lead to joint pain, fatigue and damage to the blood vessels.
Because arthritis is a disease of inflammation, the most logical and effective treatment is anything that fights inflammation. Ibuprofen and other anti-inflammatory medication is perhaps the most common method to curb painful joint pain. But losing weight and eating certain types of anti-inflammatory foods can also do the job, sometimes much more effectively than prescription and OTC drugs.
While being overweight can put extra stress on the joints, which escalates the risk of wear and tear, body fat is even worse. Body fat is not an inert substance. It is metabolically active, capable of producing hormones and chemicals that actually increase levels of inflammation. By losing weight and avoiding excess calories that can cause weight gain, you’ll automatically reduce inflammation in your body. There are a few specific food groups that you should try, which have been proven to reduce inflammation. You could call it the “anti-inflammatory diet”:
Nearly all fruits can help fight inflammation, because they're low in fat and calories, and high in antioxidants. But berries in particular have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties, probably because of anthocyanins, the powerful chemicals that gives them their rich color. Strawberries, for example, regulate and lower levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood. Raspberries have been shown to help prevent animals from developing arthritis, and blueberries can help protect against intestinal inflammation and ulcerative colitis.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
In addition to healthy monounsaturated fats, extra-virgin olive oil contains a natural compound called oleocanthal, which may help prevent arthritis-related inflammation. These compounds block the same inflammatory pathways as ibuprofen and aspirin, medications commonly used to fight arthritis pain.
Onions and Garlic
These strong-odored veggies are known for their immunity-boosting properties. Onions contain anti-inflammatory chemicals, including the phytonutrient quercetin and the compound allicin, which breaks down to produce free radical-fighting sulfenic acid. Garlic has similar anti-inflammatory chemicals, and has been shown to work similarly to pain medications like ibuprofen, shutting off the pathways that lead to inflammation.
Certain spices have anti-inflammatory effects, specifically turmeric and ginger. Studies indicate that turmeric may help arthritis by suppressing inflammatory body chemicals, while ginger has been shown to lessen the pain of knee osteoarthritis when taken in highly purified form.
This vegetable's brilliant red color gives you a hint as to its equally brilliant antioxidant properties. Beets have been shown to reduce inflammation, as well as protect against heart disease and cancer, thanks to their megadoses of vitamin C, fiber and plant pigments called betalains.
Tomatoes and Peppers
Tomatoes may also help reduce inflammation in some people because they are rich in lycopene, which has been shown to reduce inflammation in the lungs and throughout the body. Cooked tomatoes contain even more lycopene than raw ones, so tomato sauce works as well. Bell peppers have high quantities of antioxidant vitamins and lower levels of starch, and are available in a variety of colors, while hot peppers -- like cayenne and chili -- are rich in capsaicin, a chemical that's used in topical creams that reduce pain and inflammation.
Soy and Nuts
Several studies have suggested that isoflavones, estrogen-like compounds found in soy products, may help lower CRP and inflammation levels in women, as well as help reduce the negative effects of inflammation on bone and heart health. But beware of heavily-processed soy whenever possible, which may NOT include the same benefits and is usually paired with additives and preservatives. Instead, look for tofu, soy milk and edamame. Nuts, similarly, are also a good source of inflammation-fighting healthy fats, particularly almonds, which are rich in fiber, calcium and vitamin E. Walnuts are also great, which have high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat. All nuts, though, are packed with antioxidants, which can help your body fight off and repair the damage caused by inflammation.
Dark Green Leafy Vegetables
Studies have suggested that vitamin E may play a key role in protecting the body from pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines, and one of the best sources of this vitamin is dark green veggies, such as collard greens, broccoli, kale and spinach. Dark greens and cruciferous vegetables also tend to have higher concentrations of vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium and disease-fighting phytochemicals.
Here’s a bonus- Whole Grains
Consuming most of your grains as whole grains, as opposed to refined, white bread, cereal, rice, and pasta can help keep harmful inflammation at bay. That's because whole grains have more fiber, which has been shown to reduce levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the blood, and they usually have less added sugar. But not all products labeled "whole grain" are much healthier than their refined counterparts. To be sure you're getting the benefits, look for foods with a whole grain as the first ingredient, and no added sugars.
Foods to Avoid
While these foods are terrific for your arthritic condition and the reduction of inflammation, there are also specific food groups that increase inflammation. These include:
- Saturated Fats include fats in and from animal products, such as poultry skin, fatty dairy foods and fatty pork or beef. Saturated fats are also found in palm oil, which you may find in packaged baked goods, non-dairy creamers, cookies and crackers.
- Trans Fats were created by scientists to give baked goods a longer shelf life. Trans fats are thought to be at least as damaging as saturated fats in terms of inflammation and other health problems, or worse. Food companies are now required to list the amount of trans fats right after listing the saturated fats on the nutrition label.
- Simple and Refined Carbs: Refined carbohydrates -- like breads, crackers, white flour, white rice -- as well as sugary foods, set up a state of inflammation in the body, causing increases in pro-inflammatory compounds.
For relief from your rheumatoid arthritis condition, start by eating foods that have been proven to reduce inflammation. The above mentioned cuisine are the “A-list” of anti-inflammatory foods. You may find out that sticking to these foods may eliminate the need for any sort of prescription or OTC pain reliever for your achy joints and rheumatoid arthritis condition.
David Novak is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, appearing in newspapers and magazines around the country. David is a nutrition, exercise and well-being enthusiast, and enjoys competitive tennis and running. His byline appears in many health and wellness publications, including weekly features for Healthline.com. For more of his stories and other health articles pertaining to all areas of health, diet, fitness and wellness, visit http://www.healthline.com/