For those suffering with the pain, swelling and stiffness of joints caused by rheumatoid arthritis, making dietary changes might provide some relief. Even though no single food helps everyone with the condition, eating certain foods may reduce the inflammation, easing joint pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic autoimmune disease experienced by about 1.5 million Americans, with women three times more likely to be affected than men. Women often get diagnosed with the disease between ages 30 and 60, while men tend to be older. RA is when the body’s immune system attacks the joints of the hands, feet, wrists, elbows, knees and ankles, causing inflammation that results in swelling and pain. Over time, it can damage cartilage, causing joints to become unstable, loose, painful and deformed.
The high levels of inflammation associated with RA not only affect the joints but can contribute to blood vessel damage that leads to heart disease. A Mayo Clinic study found that people with RA have twice the risk of heart disease than the general population. In fact, people with RA have a 60 percent increased risk of a heart attack within one to four years after diagnosis. The combined risk of joint and cardiac problems related to RA makes it extremely important to follow a diet to reduce inflammation and the health issues associated with it.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet can be one of the best ways to treat RA, along with the extra bonus of reducing cardiac complications. This way of eating is very similar to the Mediterranean-style diet, well-known for its health-promoting properties. Foods commonly part of the Mediterranean diet are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which boost the body’s supply of powerful anti-inflammatory fighting capabilities.
Following a Mediterranean-style diet can also help reduce inflammation to ease arthritis symptoms, lessen the risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure and aid weight control or reduction, helping to curb joint pain.
Foods to eat often
- Fish – Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fish is one of the best ways to fight inflammation and heart disease. Twice a week, consume 3 to 4 ounces of the following fishes: salmon, tuna, anchovies, herring, mackerel and trout. Don’t care for fish? Ask your physician about taking a fish oil supplement. Eating fish helps reduce C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6, both of which are inflammatory proteins in the body.
- Fruits and vegetables – Colorful produce means more anti-inflammatory antioxidants. Choose dark greens such as spinach, kale and broccoli, reds including cherries, raspberries and strawberries, blues/purples such as blueberries and blackberries and orange/yellow like oranges and grapefruits. These provide the antioxidant anthocyanin and vitamins C and K, all of which prevent inflammation to maintain healthier joints. Fruits and vegetables are naturally low in fat and high in fiber, reducing LDL (bad) cholesterol and increasing HDL (good) cholesterol. Aim for five or more servings daily.
- Olive oil – This heart-healthy monounsaturated fat is a must for all kitchens. It contains the compound oleocanthal, which inhibits activity of cyclooxygenase (COX) enzymes, helping to slow the inflammatory process and sensitivity to pain. Its monounsaturated fatty acid content can help lower cholesterol and may normalize blood clotting. Olive oil can be used in numerous ways, such as for sautéing vegetables, mixed into salad dressings and sauces, drizzled over cooked pasta or vegetables or used in place of butter for dipping bread. Two to 3 tablespoons daily is recommended.
- Beans – Also known as legumes, this inexpensive source of protein, fiber, zinc and iron should be a mainstay in every home. All beans can be part of a healthy diet, which include red, pinto, black, chickpea, kidney and lentils. Beans are particularly rich in soluble fiber, helping to reduce the bad LDL cholesterol and contain no cholesterol, saturated fats or transfats, so they’re very heart-healthy. Beans also contain phytonutrients that function as anti-inflammatory compounds helping to lower CRP, an inflammatory protein. Serve two or more cups a week.
- Nuts and seeds – Nuts and seeds can be valuable gems to fight inflammation and heart disease. A 2011 study found people who consumed nuts had a 51 percent lower risk of inflammatory diseases such as RA. Both nuts and seeds contain monounsaturated fat and are loaded with vitamin B-6, both of which help reduce inflammation and are good for your heart. Due to their high fat and calorie content, a handful each day is all you need to get the health benefits nuts and seeds have to offer. The best sources for fighting inflammation include walnuts, pistachios, almonds, cashews, pine nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds.
- Green tea – Live like the British do and have that afternoon cup of tea, or more frequently throughout the day. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that green tea curtailed the inflammatory substance cytokine IL-17 while increasing the anti-inflammatory substance cytokine IL-10, leading to reducing the severity of arthritis. In addition, the antioxidants in green tea can block the production of molecules causing joint damage associated with RA. Green tea drinkers may also decrease their risk of heart disease. A study of Japanese adults found that drinking five or more cups of green tea a day lowered the death rate from heart attack or stroke by 26 percent, compared to those who drank less than one cup a day.
Living with rheumatoid arthritis can be difficult enough due to the pain and inflammation. But eating a healthy, Mediterranean-style, well-balanced diet can be one way to possibly help reduce RA symptoms and heart disease.
Like with any chronic disease, always consult with your physician on diet and medications.
Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital. He is a medical contributor for the Fox News Channel’s Medical A-Team. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter, Instagram, Pintrest, SamadiMD.com, davidsamadiwiki, davidsamadibio and Facebook