Rheumatoid Arthritis Diet: Can Diet Help With Symptoms?

If you’re wondering whether there’s a rheumatoid arthritis diet that may help reduce your symptoms, that’s a great question. When you’re living with rheumatoid arthritis, your rheumatologist’s main goal will be to get your symptoms under control so they don’t interfere with your everyday life. While medication plays a big role here, people are often curious to know whether some kind of rheumatoid arthritis diet can help control the illness too.

As a refresher: Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease. When you have an autoimmune disease, your immune system, which normally defends against disease, mistakenly attacks healthy cells within your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, this misfiring of the immune system causes inflammation that often shows up in the form of painful, swollen joints. It can also cause fatigue and can damage other parts of the body too.

So can the foods you eat reduce your rheumatoid arthritis symptoms? This is where things get a bit tricky. For starters, the research here is pretty limited, and there definitely isn’t any one specific diet that’s proven to help manage rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. But some experts do believe the way you eat might affect this illness. Here’s a closer look at what experts have to say on the subject.

Is there really a connection between diet and inflammation?

“There is accumulating evidence that diet certainly impacts whether our body has an inflammatory environment versus an anti-inflammatory environment,” Melinda Ring, M.D., executive director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at Northwestern University and clinical associate professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells SELF.

To be clear, inflammation isn’t inherently a bad thing. It’s actually a completely normal physical process your immune system mounts in response to an injury or infection, the Mayo Clinic explains. When dealing with that type of threat to your health, your body releases chemicals that provoke white blood cells to start counteracting whatever harm you’ve experienced. The issue is when inflammation becomes chronic, as it does with rheumatoid arthritis, rather than being an acute response to something like an injury or infection. 

When it comes to how eating habits may affect rheumatoid arthritis inflammation, one explanation is that our gut microbiome is closely linked with the body’s immune response. Some research suggests that people who have an imbalance in their gut bacteria may have more inflammation in their systems and that this may be a factor in the development and progression of rheumatoid arthritis. With that in mind, some experts believe eating foods that may calm inflammation in the body can help reduce rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, while eating foods that may increase inflammation in the body might do the opposite.

This isn’t as clear-cut as it might sound. Part of the issue here is, again, there’s not much research that shows a solid link between diet and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms, and the American College of Rheumatology’s 2015 rheumatoid arthritis guidelines don’t include any diet-based recommendations. But there’s also a ton of confusing information floating around about what, exactly, an anti-inflammatory diet even is.

There isn’t a scientific consensus on what constitutes this type of diet, how it works, or what specific foods it includes or excludes. With that said, the Mayo Clinic has a helpful summary of what we do know: Some foods appear able to change the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) in your bloodstream. Your liver makes this protein and sends it into your bloodstream as a response to inflammation, so high levels of it can signal that you have a lot of inflammation in your body, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Using various mechanisms, some foods may lower the levels of CRP in your bloodstream—along with lowering inflammation and, potentially, rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. Other foods may raise the CRP in your bloodstream instead.

What foods might decrease inflammation and rheumatoid arthritis symptoms?

According to the Mayo Clinic, the general consensus is that anti-inflammatory foods include things like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, extra-virgin olive oil, and fish. These foods appear able to calm inflammation in a few different ways. For instance, the fiber in whole grains can help to support the gut microbiome, Dr. Ring says. Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, which the Mayo Clinic notes can help counteract or even prevent cell damage that leads to inflammation. (Plus, eating fruits and vegetables across a variety of colors gives you the added benefit of more of that healthy fiber.) The Mayo Clinic also lists seeds and nuts like walnuts and flaxseed as anti-inflammatory, thanks to their Omega-3 fatty acids, which can help control your body’s inflammatory process and are also present in fatty fish like salmon and tuna.

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