The Arthritis NewsletterWinter 2013
Can Changing My Diet Relieve Arthritis Pain?By Gerry Sheanh
Stop the presses! According to the internet, any or all of the following will sort of, maybe, cure, or at least partially improve, arthritis pain and suffering. Or not.
- Take golden raisins and soak them in gin until they are plump. Take six to eight before bed and your arthritis pain will be reduced.
- Drink black cherry juice every day for at least a month. If your arthritis pain isn’t gone, drink more juice.
- Mix liquid pectin with grape juice and drink it three times a day. No reason given.
- Mix apple cider vinegar with honey and take it everyday. Arthritis will go away.
- Eat unsweetened shredded coconut. No explanation given other than, “It cured me.”
- Steep a tablespoon of celery seed in a pint of boiling water, allow to cool, then take a teaspoon as tonic everyday to get rid of arthritis pain.
- Allow yourself to be stung by a honeybee and your pain will go away.
The odd thing about these home remedies is that so many people try them, and some even report feeling better. While this may be attributable to the placebo effect (if I believe it is working, then it must be) there may be some other explanation that appeals to those who want to do something they can understand. If I understand that ingesting six gin-soaked raisins helps my arthritis, but I don’t understand how biologic agents like Remicade or Enbrel work, I’m likely to stick with what I know. Even if it is wrong.
In any event, it’s a sure bet that when you tell people that you have arthritis, they will frequently tell you of some miracle edible substance that cured arthritis in their old aunt, their active grandpa or their Great Dane. People like to help that way, while at the same time confidently dismissing the use of sophisticated pharmaceuticals aimed at reducing the pain, inflammation and swelling that are the near-constant companions of those who live with arthritis. The simple fact of the matter is that there is no one food that will magically cure arthritis, but there are still dietary steps you can take to help reduce inflammation.
And here the assignment sounded simple enough: Find out if there are any foods or supplements that reduce or eliminate pain and stiffness resulting from inflammatory arthritis. I began with Doctor Google, who returned 11.7 million hits for “food anti-inflammatory” in .43 of a second. This turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing was that there was so much information out there, and the curse was that there was so much information out there.
Rather than illuminate the path to truth about diet and arthritis, the varied search results were literally all over the map. They ranged from scholarly pieces that were mostly couched in cautionary terms, to pop culture sites designed for people with really short attention spans. It quickly became clear that I needed to find common themes and similar advice while discarding vague, misleading or wrong information. Here is what I found:
Home Truth #1:
There is no dietary cure for arthritis. This is not surprising since there is, as yet, no other known cure for arthritis either. This inconvenient truth has not prevented countless internet articles from claiming to cure arthritis in anywhere from six steps to six weeks. While many of these articles contain some useful information, they are mostly brief, vague and misleading. Further, most of these do-it-yourself regimes appear to ignore the intervention of rheumatologists, dieticians and a careful, sensible and targetted course of prescription medications.
Home Truth #2:
There are foods that help reduce or eliminate the inflammation that is at the core of every episode of arthritis-induced pain. Foods that are high in Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to decrease the chemicals that spread inflammation while inhibiting the enzymes that trigger it. Sources of Omega-3 fats include oily fish such as salmon, sardines, halibut and cod as well as walnuts, soybeans, flax seed, canola oil and pumpkin seeds. The effectiveness of any or all of these foods will naturally vary from person to person, but there is a general consensus that Omega-3 fatty acids are a cornerstone to good health in general and reduced inflammation in particular.
Cautionary note: Most sources draw an important distinction between fish oils and fish liver oils, and caution that they are quite different in their dietary components. Fish Liver oils contain high concentrations of Vitamin A, which the human body cannot tolerate in high doses, so are not a substitute for fish oils.
Other sites reported positive benefits of a diet with adequate levels of Omega-3s, benefits that include lessening or aiding recovery from depression, improved cardiovascular function, clearer skin, strong nails and hair, greater physical and mental energy and better control of the symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes. While all of this is very reassuring, it is important to note that the treatment of arthritis requires more than a single approach. You can change your diet all you want, but without regular exercise, without achieving a body weight proportionate to your height and body type, without proper rest and without working together with your rheumatologist and/or your family doctor, improving your mobility and reducing inflammation will be difficult if not impossible.
Home Truth #3:
There are so-called “bad foods” that are best avoided by those with arthritis. Foods that increase inflammation by causing blood sugar to spike or by producing free-radicals are best avoided. Polyunsaturates such as sunflower, safflower, corn and soybean oils should be avoided or at least minimized. As an example, corn oil is widely used in the fast food industry, which is another reason to limit your intake from those restaurants. Olive and canola oils are less harmful because they are mono-unsaturated oils, and may lower your cholesterol levels as well as normalizing blood clotting, along with benefitting insulin levels and blood sugar control.
Other foods to minimize or remove completely from your diet may include:
- Fried and processed foods that are heavy in polyunsaturated fats and salt.
- Sugars and refined carbs which contain all of the bulk and almost none of the nutrients.
- Too much dairy. Some people react negatively to lactose and fat content of cheeses and milk products.
- Too much salt and preservatives.
- Corn oil and other polyunsaturated oils that contain omega-6 acids, which may trigger inflammation
Home Truth #4:
There is no substantial evidence that arthritis can be helped by avoiding certain foods, with the exception of gout. (Shellfish are apparently bad for gout) A common food to avoid has been plants of the deadly nightshade family: potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant. Other cautions about lemons and other citrus fruits are common, yet there is no evidence that these foods are any better or any worse than any others. Avoiding them as a matter of course may actually deprive the body of important nutrients.
None of this is to say, however, that individual arthritis patients can’t sense a difference when these foods are consumed. As with everything, trial and error are the keys for indivduals to figure out what their bodies can and can’t tolerate. It just may be that someone might notice a difference in the pattern of their arthritis pain after eliminating potatoes from their diet and, if this is so, then it worked for that person. We just can’t make a generalized statement that everyone’s arthritis will improve by eliminating potatoes.
Home Truth #5:
A healthy, balanced diet also helps overall health by keeping body weight at a level that allows for movement and exercise, by providing appropriate levels of nutrients that maintain health, by contributing to good cardiovascular health, and by reducing the strain and pressure on joints inflamed and painful due to arthritis. Without delving too deeply into the maze of conflicting weight loss diets, many writers about diet and arthritis recommend the so-called Mediterranean Diet, a listing of food items based on the diets common in the southern Mediterranean. Here is a brief description:
- Wide use of virgin olive oil
- High intake of vegetables and fruits
- Use of non refined carbohydrates
- Consumption of oily fish, 3 or 4 times a week (e.g. sardines, mackerel, tuna, halibut, herring and salmon)
- Moderate consumption of milk, cheese and yogurt.
- 3 or 4 eggs per week
- Moderate consumption of meat and saturated fats
- One or two small glasses of wine a day, preferably red and at the main meals. White wine and beer are alternatives.
- Nuts as snacks
As for what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat and what not to eat, you are the one who knows yourself best and can adjust your diet. The knowledge that you may be able to prevent new symptoms from occurring, as well as minimize pain and inflammation due to arthritis through dietary means, should empower you to take more control over the disease. Or you can just chow down on gin-soaked raisins, just because you can.