Centuries ago, Hippocrates wrote, “Let food be thy medicine”—advice that’s particularly wise if you suffer from arthritis.
Several studies show that certain foods help relieve tender joints, reduce morning stiffness, and may even help arthritis sufferers reduce the amount of medication they need. Conversely, other foods can actually worsen pain and inflammation.
While there’s no cure for arthritis, eating an anti-inflammatory diet can help quell the symptoms—and may also lower your risk for other chronic conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.
The Inflammation Connection
Osteoarthritis (OA), which affects 27 million Americans, used to be blamed on gradual deterioration of cartilage in overused joints. Recently, investigators at Stanford School of Medicine revolutionized medical thinking about OA by showing that the disease is actually driven, for the most part, by chronic, low-grade inflammation.
“It’s a paradigm change,” said William Robinson, MD, PhD, the study’s senior author, in a report on the Stanford website. “People in the field predominantly view osteoarthritis as a matter of simple wear and tear, like tires gradually wearing out on a car.”
Actually, the joints of people with OA harbor an abnormally high number of inflammatory cells. The study, which was published in Nature, found that early in the disease, initial damage to the joint sparks a molecular chain reaction that escalates into an immune system attack.
Inflammation has long been known to be a key player in rheumatoid arthritis (RA), an autoimmune disease that triggers inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It’s like being shot by friendly fire, since the body mistakenly attacks healthy tissue as if it were an enemy invader.
RA can start at any age, but is more common in the middle-aged. It’s three times more common in women than men, and typically affects joints on both sides of the body, sparking pain, swelling, redness, stiffness (particularly in the morning), and fatigue. Over time, joints may lose their range of motion and become deformed.
The disease can also affect other organs, leading to such symptoms as chest pain, dry eyes and mouth, itchiness and burning of the eyes, and numbness or tingling in the feet, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Foods that Help Fight Arthritis
If you take medication, consult your healthcare provider or pharmacist before making major changes in your diet, since some foods can have harmful interactions with certain drugs.
Research suggests that these anti-inflammatory foods may be particularly beneficial for arthritis sufferers:
- Oily fish, such as herring, salmon, mackerel, and tuna. The omega-3 fatty acids in these fish—or fish oil supplements—are considered to be among the most powerful anti-inflammatory compounds in food. Studies show that fish oil combats joint pain and morning stiffness, according to the University of Maryland. One study also found that people with RA were able to lower their dose of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) if they took fish oil.
- Shellfish. Another source of omega-3 fatty acids is shellfish, such as mussels. Researchers reported improvements in walking pace, grip strength, joint stiffness, and pain in people with OA when they ate mussels. An analysis of 17 randomized studies also found that omega-3 supplements reduced joint pain in RA patients, University of Maryland reports.
- Tart cherries. A 2012 study presented at the American College of Sports Medicine conference in San Francisco reported that tart cherries “have the highest anti-inflammatory content of any food,” according to CBS News. The scientists found that in a study of women with inflammatory OA, drinking tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks significantly reduced markers of inflammation. An earlier study of OA patients found that a daily dose of tart cherries (in the form of extract) reduced OA pain by more than 20 percent for the majority of men and women in the study.
- Olive oil. A small study of people with RA found that supplementing their diet with fish oil and olive oil resulted in greater relief of joint pain, hand grip strength, morning stiffness, and fatigue than taking fish oil alone, compared to a placebo group of patients who were given soy oil.