What is Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease that affects the joints, and other parts of the body. This disease causes swelling in the tissue that lines the joints, which causes inflammation and pain, and gradual destruction of the surface of joints. The most common joints to be affected are those in the feet and hands; however many others can be affected too. Often, multiple joints in the body become swollen and inflamed at the same time.
Like all autoimmune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis develops due to a fault in the immune system. Normally, the immune system attacks only foreign cells and proteins, such as those of bacteria, viruses, and parasites. In some cases, however, the immune system becomes sensitized to one or more proteins in a person’s own body. Cells of the immune system begin to attack the protein they are sensitized to, causing destruction of the body’s own cells. This state is called autoimmunity.
In rheumatoid arthritis, the body proteins that the immune system is sensitized to are located mostly in the joints. This is a chronic, incurable disease that can go into remission, meaning that someone with rheumatoid arthritis might enter into a period in which he or she has no symptoms for several months or even years. When someone is in remission, however, the symptoms of the disease can return at any time.
The Connection between Diet and RA Inflammation
Some foods are known to increase inflammation in the body, and contribute to symptoms of inflammation and pain in the joints of people with rheumatoid arthritis.
These pro-inflammatory foods include saturated fats, certain types of unsaturated fats, and sugars. These foods contribute to inflammation by stimulating the production of chemicals called prostaglandins. These chemicals contribute to the body’s inflammatory response, and worsen symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Is there a Diet that can help reduce symtpoms?
Following a certain type of diet can help improve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, reducing joint inflammation and pain. A diet that helps rheumatoid arthritis symptoms might include the following strategies:
- Reduction in saturated fat intake. For example, replace one or more meat meals per week with meals that include protein from plant sources. Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds are all excellent sources of protein.
- Reduction in intake of unsaturated fats from corn and sunflower sources (such as sunflower oil, and margarine containing sunflower oil).
- These fats can be replaced with monounsaturated fats such as olive oil and olive-oil based margarine
- Increase intake of oily fish such as mackerel, tuna, salmon, swordfish, snapper, and sardines. All of these are particularly rich in omega-3 fats.
- Increase intake of iron in dark green leafy vegetables, legumes and pulses, oily fish, and eggs, to help combat anemia and fatigue.
- Increase intake of vegetables and fruit if necessary, aiming for four portions of vegetables, and two of fruit, including canned, frozen, and dried in addition to fresh.
In addition, some people find that losing weight can help improve rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. However, losing weight, like following a certain type of diet, doesn’t work for everyone. Overall, improving the diet, and getting regular gentle exercise when possible, is often more effective than weight loss for its own sake.
British Dietetic Association: Diet and Arthritis: Rheumatoid Arthritis (PDF)
Cheryl Koch, CNSD, for the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center: Nutrition & Rheumatoid Arthritis
Denise Lynn Mann for Arthritis Foundation Arthritis Today: Rheumatoid Arthritis Diet: RA and Food Allergies
Maureen Williams, ND, for the Bastyr Center for Natural Health: Diet and Rheumatoid Arthritis