Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a long-term disease that leads to inflammation of the joints and surrounding tissues. It can also affect other organs.  It’s an autoimmune disease, which means the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue.  RA can occur at any age, but is more common in middle age. Women get RA more often than men and while the cause is unknown, it may be linked to infection, genes, and hormone changes.

It usually affects joints on both sides of the body equally. Wrists, fingers, knees, feet, and ankles are the most commonly affected.  The disease often begins slowly, usually with only minor joint pain, stiffness, and fatigue.  Over time, joints may lose their range of motion and may become deformed.  RA usually requires lifelong treatment, including medications, physical therapy, exercise, education, and possibly surgery. Early, aggressive treatment for RA can delay joint destruction.

If you suffer from RA, you may have been told that certain foods can help ease or increase your pain, stiffness and fatigue.  So it makes sense to adjust your diet to help manage the disease.

Studies show that saturated fats may increase inflammation in the body. Foods high in saturated fats like bacon, steak, butter, and cream, may increase prostaglandins in the body.  These are chemicals that cause inflammation, pain, swelling, and joint destruction in rheumatoid arthritis.  Meat contains high amounts of arachidonic acid, which is a fatty acid that’s converted to inflammatory prostaglandins in the body. Some people with rheumatoid arthritis find that eliminating meat from their helps relieve symptoms of pain and stiffness.

Another dietary change is your intake of Omega-6 fatty acids.  They are found in vegetable oils like corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, wheat germ oil, and sesame oil.  Consuming excessive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids may promote illnesses such as cancer and cardiovascular disease as well as promote inflammatory and/or autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis.

Omega-3 fatty acids, the polyunsaturated fats found in cold-water fish, nuts, and other foods, may have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body.  Some studies show a positive anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3 fatty acids with rheumatoid arthritis. The same is true for heart disease. This is important because people with rheumatoid arthritis also have a higher risk of heart disease.

Cold-water fish such as salmon, tuna, and trout are rich in omega-3s. Some plant foods are also good sources of omega-3 fatty acids. They include walnuts, tofu, and soybean products, flaxseed and flaxseed oil, and canola oil.  Some patients with rheumatoid arthritis report an improvement in pain and joint tenderness when taking omega-3 fatty acid supplements.  It may take weeks or even months to see a decrease in symptoms but studies do show that some people who have a high intake of omega-3 fatty acids benefit from decreased symptoms and less use of anti-inflammatory drugs.

Many studies suggest that a Mediterranean diet high in fruits, vegetables, and vitamin C may be linked to a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis. In fact, we know that rheumatoid arthritis is less severe countries such as Greece and Italy. Their main diet consists of large amounts of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, and fatty fish high in omega-3s.   Fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes are high in phytonutrients which have disease-fighting properties and immune-boosting antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and the carotenoids. A plant-based diet is also high in bioflavonoids, a plant compound that reportedly has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumor activities.

Studies do show that making dietary changes can help ease the pain and stiffness associated with RA.  Depending on the severity of symptoms, you could eliminate or lower the need for medications prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis with just a few changes in your diet!