According to the Arthritis Foundation, almost a quarter of Americans suffer from some form of arthritis. What’s more, arthritis is the leading cause of disability among adults in the United States. While typical treatment for the joint pain, stiffness, and swelling of arthritis involves anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, these medications can have serious side effects—and they don’t address the root cause of arthritis symptoms. However, there’s increasing evidence to suggest that one of our most potent allies in the fight against arthritis pain may lie in the foods we eat. So come with us as we explore the anti-inflammatory diet for arthritis and uncover which foods may help you take control of your pain.
The Link Between Inflammation and Arthritis
Any time the body is injured, whether through physical trauma or disease, the affected cells release chemicals that cause blood vessels to release fluid into the surrounding tissue. This, in turn, causes localized swelling and helps isolate the offending agent from the rest of the body. The chemicals released by the cells also attract white blood cells, which consume both the cause of the injury and the dead and dying cells.
This is called the inflammatory response.
Without this important process, the immune system would be unable to attack and eliminate toxins, pathogens, and damaged tissue, and the body would be unable to heal.
In other words, inflammation is a necessary part of a healthy immune response.
However, although most inflammation is acute and lasts only a short while, under certain circumstances, the inflammatory process can become chronic. When this happens, white blood cells begin attacking healthy tissues and organs, and chronic diseases, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and arthritis, may result.
A number of factors can predispose an individual to chronic inflammation and the risk of inflammatory diseases, including genetic predisposition, obesity, and exposure to environmental toxins.
What do all these things have in common?
The very act of being alive means oxidative stress is going to happen. This is because our cells use oxygen to create energy. But every time energy is created, free radicals are also made.
These harmful molecules with unpaired electrons roam around the body, looking for other electrons to pair up with. As they move about the body, stealing electrons from the nearest stable atom, they create yet more free radicals.
Free radicals can be neutralized by antioxidants, but if there are more free radicals roaming around than there are antioxidants to neutralize them, the constant oxidative stress damages tissues and organs and causes disease.
Adding to this problem is the standard Western diet, which is replete in processed and fried foods and refined carbohydrates—which cause inflammation by promoting free radical formation—and lacking in antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables.
The average Western diet is also associated with a greater risk of obesity, which is linked to high levels of C-reactive protein (CRP)—a marker of inflammation.
If you’re currently suffering from arthritis, you may never have given a second thought to the foods you eat, but the truth is that the science is clear—what we put in our mouths matters. In fact, multiple studies have documented significantly lower levels of antioxidants in people suffering from diseases linked to prolonged oxidative stress, including osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
But the good news is that the research has also found that one of the best ways to fight inflammation and prevent and treat arthritis symptoms may be as simple as eating more anti-inflammatory foods.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Arthritis
While processed and fried foods, refined carbohydrates, red meat, and dairy products are considered inflammatory foods, healthy fats, including the omega-3 fatty acids found in flaxseeds and oily fish like mackerel and sardines, and the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats found in avocados and olive oil, as well as leafy green veggies like kale and spinach and antioxidant-rich fruits like blueberries and pomegranates actually possess potent anti-inflammatory properties.
And the science suggests that you can eat your way to less arthritis pain by including more of these inflammation-fighting foods in your diet.
The Mediterranean Diet for Inflammation
One of the most studied anti-inflammatory diets is the Mediterranean diet. This plant-based traditional diet of Mediterranean countries like Italy and Greece is considered a healthy and sustainable diet by the World Health Organization because it focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nut, and seeds, along with moderate consumption of beans, eggs, fish, poultry, and dairy products and limited consumption of red meat.
Another plus of plant-based diets like the Mediterranean diet is that they also make it easier to maintain a healthy weight, which, by itself, helps keep inflammation in check.
While the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet are well known, and countless studies have documented the benefits of eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, studies suggest that drinking green tea and using spices like turmeric and cinnamon can also contribute to a healthy diet and a life free of arthritis pain.
Likewise, by ensuring you’re getting a steady supply of amino acids, you may provide the perfect base upon which to build your arthritis diet.
Why are amino acids so important?
Known as the building blocks of life, amino acids are essential for the construction of proteins. Many of us know protein as the fuel our bodies need to build muscle, but protein is required for almost every biological process, from energy production to hormone and neurotransmitter creation to immune system maintenance.
In addition, seven amino acids are known to play an especially significant role in joint health. These are:
Methionine is a sulfur-containing essential amino acid that encourages cells to build cartilage tissue and helps strengthen joints by forming sulfurous chains that link together. Methionine has also been shown in studies to help ease symptoms of arthritis via its analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. You can find methionine in foods like Brazil nuts, sesame seeds, onions, eggs, and fish.
Cysteine is created in the body from methionine. Cysteine acts as an antioxidant, supports the immune system, and stimulates the production of collagen. It’s also been found to help improve joint flexibility in people with rheumatoid arthritis. Cysteine can be found in foods like dairy products, onions, lentils, oats, and sunflower seeds as well as the supplement N-acetylcysteine (NAC).
Taurine is the most abundant free amino acid in the body. Like methionine, it’s also a sulfur-containing amino acid, and it acts as both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Evidence suggests it may also play a role in preventing and treating inflammatory diseases, including arthritis. Because taurine is found almost exclusively in animal-based foods, vegetarians and vegans likely need supplementation.
Arginine is an anti-inflammatory amino acid, and it acts to boost the immune system and support the production of nitric oxide (NO), which relaxes blood vessels and improves nutrient delivery to the joints. Good sources of arginine include soybeans, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, and pumpkin seeds.
Citrulline is an amino acid that converts to arginine in the kidneys. However, it takes the body longer to break down citrulline than it does arginine. Citrulline can be found in foods like beans, garlic, watermelon, dark chocolate, and nuts.
Histidine is another anti-inflammatory amino acid. Studies have found that individuals with rheumatoid arthritis have lower baseline serum levels of this important amino acid, and research suggests that histidine supplementation may be useful in the management of arthritis symptoms. Good sources of histidine include poultry, fish, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
Glycine is the most abundant amino acid in collagen. In addition, glycine helps the body create glutathione—the so-called master antioxidant—and assists in immune system regulation, which can be helpful in managing autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis. Glycine is found in foods like egg whites, poultry, sesame seeds, and gelatin.
Believe it or not, the bacteria in your gut also play a role in arthritis symptoms. In fact, an imbalance in gut bacteria is associated with a number of health conditions, including fibromyalgia, eczema, psoriasis, cancer, and mood disorders. And probiotics have also been found to lower levels of the inflammatory marker CRP.
If you or someone you love is suffering with the pain, stiffness, and swelling of arthritis and you have further questions about the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet, don’t hesitate to speak with a qualified health care practitioner. With the right guidance and sensible dietary changes, you can address the root cause of your inflammation—and decrease your pain.