Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a debilitating, highly painful chronic inflammatory condition that can affect any joint. Its effects can extend beyond the joints into every area of a person's life, causing personal, social, and economic distress. Understandably, searching for an answer and a reduction of the pain is a common mission for people suffering with rheumatoid arthritis. Some studies estimate that 90% of people with arthritis try remedies such as special teas and diets to find relief.

Healthy diets are important to correct possible nutrient deficiencies and effects of arthritis drugs

Studies have found that people with rheumatoid arthritis tend to be deficient in important nutrients such as calcium, vitamin D, folic acid, vitamin E, zinc, and selenium. These deficiencies could be partly a result of RA medications (methotrexate, for example, increases the need for folic acid) and could be aggravated by unconventional arthritis diets attempted without the guidance of a nutritional expert. A healthy diet can help keep the body as healthy as possible in the face of this difficult disease. For this reason, it's a good idea for people with RA to seek nutritional counseling to make sure they are eating a balanced, nutritious diet that takes into account foods they feel they can tolerate as well as any medication-nutrient interactions. If the analysis of the diet calls for it, supplemental vitamins and minerals may be needed.

Fish oils may help rheumatoid arthritis to a small degree

Rheumatoid arthritis involves changes in the immune system. Thus, several studies investigating diet and arthritis have focused on how the diet affects the immune system, especially its relationship to inflammation. The type of fat we eat, as one example, can influence aspects of the immune system that cause inflammation. For instance, a type of fat called omega-3 fats, found in high concentrations in certain fish oils, can result in reduced production of substances in the body that cause inflammation. One study showed that diets rich in these fish oils had a positive, though modest, effect in reducing inflammation and reducing the need for medication.

Not all fish contain high amounts of omega-3 fats, however. Fish rich in omega-3 fats tend to be cold-water, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, and herring. Lower-fat fish like sole have about one-tenth the amount found in sockeye salmon, for instance.

Uncooked, lactobacilli-rich, vegan diet has been shown to help sufferers feel better

Two studies looked at the effect of a particular uncooked, vegan, lactobacilli-rich diet for people with rheumatoid arthritis. Lactobacilli are naturally occurring microorganisms that live within the gastrointestinal tract and perform beneficial functions for gastrointestinal health. Lactobacilli also help produce vitamins (especially B vitamins and vitamin K), help fight disease, and support stronger immune function. Levels of lactobacilli can be altered by poor diet, illness, diarrhea, antibiotics, medications, alcohol, and harmful microorganisms.

The studies found that people with rheumatoid arthritis felt better on this diet, even though there were no significant improvements in duration of morning stiffness or pain. There were significant improvements, however, in stiffness and pain when patients took in large amounts of living lactobacilli daily by including chlorophyll-rich drinks and increasing fibre in the diet. You can add lactobacilli to your diet through chlorophyll-rich drinks. These drinks contain chlorophyll-rich concentrates, such as barley grass, blue-green algae, spirulina, chlorella, and wheat grass. You can also add lactobacilli through yogurt and pill and powder forms of lactobacillus acidophilus. Typically, high quality commercial preparations will produce greater amounts of lactobacillus in the gut than just plain yogurt.

The pain and fatigue associated with rheumatoid arthritis can make simple activities such as making and eating meals a monumental effort. The search for a diet or food that will bring relief has to be approached carefully, since some sufferers may end up with diets deficient in important nutrients. It is wise to discuss any plans to change your diet with a nutritional expert.

Ingrid Verduyn, RDN 
in association with the MediResource Clinical Team