By Bonnie Jenkins, Advanced Natural Medicine
Given enough time, every part of you will eventually wear out. But if you’ve been diagnosed with arthritis, this normal deterioration is accelerated, leaving you with pain, aches, stiffness and swelling in or around joints.
One out of every five Americans has been diagnosed with either osteoarthritis (OA) or rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In the quest for relief, a growing number of these folks are seeking help from dietary changes and supplements. In fact, 80 percent of people with RA say they rely on diet or supplements to help reduce arthritis pain. But can changing your lifestyle or taking a few supplements really help ease the pain and swelling of arthritis? You bet!
The Inflammation Factor
A common theme of many chronic diseases, including arthritis, is uncontrolled inflammation. In a healthy immune system, the inflammatory process repairs damage and protects the body against infection. But when you have arthritis, an overactive immune response leads to the breakdown of tissue which, in turn, causes pain.
Chronic pain and stiffness can really put a crimp in your style. And, while arthritis develops gradually, it can take all the fun out of otherwise enjoyable activities. Eventually, joint motion is lost and tenderness or a grating sensation may develop, making everyday actions difficult. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to slow the development of this potentially disabling disease.
Most of us have heard of glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis relief. While these two compounds work directly on the joints, other vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients can help protect against inflammation. In fact, Mother Nature provides us with a multitude of familiar herbs that can prevent swelling including boswellia, cat’s claw, cayenne, devils claw and ginger. But here’s one you may not have heard of: New Zealand green-lipped mussel.
In a preliminary trial, people taking either a lipid extract (210 mg. per day) or a freeze-dried powder (1,150 mg. per day) of green-lipped mussel experienced reduced joint tenderness and morning stiffness, as well as an improvement in overall function. In a double-blind trial, 45 percent of people with OA who took a green-lipped mussel extract (350 mg. three times per day for three months) reported improvements in pain and stiffness. Another double-blind trial reported excellent results from green-lipped mussel extract (2,100 mg. per day for six months) for pain associated with arthritis of the knee.
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish and fish oil supplements are also beginning to gain a lot of attention among arthritis sufferers for their potent anti-inflammatory action. According to the results of at least 13 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, daily supplementation with omega-3 fatty acids significantly reduces the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. For best results, take 3,000 mg. of a purified marine fish oil supplement each day.
The Anti-Arthritis Diet
If you google “arthritis diet” on the Internet, you’ll get more than three million results. Some claim to boost your immune system. Others are based on eliminating an entire food group (not a very healthy option). Still others are downright ridiculous. But there are a couple of so-called “anti-arthritis” diets that seem to have some credibility.
In the 1950s through the 1970s, Dr. Max Warmbrand conducted a clinical trial on his patients with rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Each patient was placed on a whole foods diet free of refined and processed foods, meat, dairy, sugar and eggs. Warmbrand reported that those who stuck with the diet for at least six months experienced significant improvement. Although the Warmbrand diet has never been properly studied, it’s an overall healthful diet that could benefit people who haven’t found success with other treatments.
Another diet that makes some sense eliminates foods containing solanine, a substance found in nightshade plants like tomatoes, white potatoes, peppers and eggplant. In theory, if not destroyed in the intestine, solanine may be toxic. One horticulturist hypothesized that some people might not be able to destroy solanine in the gut, leading to solanine absorption and resulting in OA.
Like the Warmbrand diet, this diet has never been adequately tested. But eliminating solanine from the diet hasbeen reported to bring relief to some arthritis sufferers in preliminary research. For example, in a survey of arthritis patients avoiding nightshade plants, 28 percent claimed to have a “marked positive response” and another 44 percent reported a “positive response.” The biggest problem with this diet is that totally eliminating tomatoes and peppers requires complex dietary changes for most people. It also cuts out foods literally bursting with nutrients.
Luckily, science is giving a nod to more conventional diets that may be easier to stick with. Some studies suggest that vegetarian diets may help since a higher intake of meat is associated with an increased risk of inflammatory arthritis. Inflammation and pain are also diminished in people who eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables – at least nine servings a day. Other studies indicate that the Mediterranean Diet, which contains more omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish than the typical Western diet, can protect against the development or severity of arthritis. While each of these diets have something to recommend them, most arthritis sufferers need to do a six month trial with each diet to discover what works for them.
One Last Thing ...
There’s evidence suggesting that low levels of vitamin D can be linked to both OA and RA. According to Dr. Louise Gagne, an epidemiologist at the University of Saskatchewan, the average vitamin D intake of OA sufferers is only 20 percent of the Recommended Dietary Allowance. When you consider the recent call to increase the recommendation for vitamin D from 400 IU to at least 1,000 IU per day, you can see just how deficient these people really are.
If you aren’t getting enough time in the sun and don’t eat a lot of foods containing this critical nutrient, it’s time to reach for supplements. While taking 1,000 IU of supplemental vitamin D hasn’t been proven to keep arthritis at bay, studies have conclusively shown its impact on bone health and cancer prevention. With all that going for it, taking a daily dose of vitamin D sure couldn’t hurt!
Research Brief …
A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from a reader suffering from gout. Gout (also called metabolic arthritis) is a disease caused by a congenital disorder of uric acid metabolism. Here’s how it works: Monosodium urate or uric acid crystals are deposited on the articular cartilage of joints, tendons and surrounding tissues due to elevated concentrations of uric acid in the blood stream which provokes an inflammatory reaction in these tissues. These deposits often get bigger and bigger until they finally burst through the skin to form sinuses discharging a chalky white material.
Classic symptoms include a sudden bout of excruciating, burning pain that comes on without warning. It’s so severe that even the slightest touch – a blanket or even the lightest sheet draping over the affected area – can cause extreme pain. If that weren’t enough, people with gout may also have a low-grade fever along with swelling, redness and stiffness in the joint.
Can anything help? Because the body turns purines into uric acid, adopting a low-purine diet can help lower the plasma level of uric acid. Avoid alcohol and high-purine foods like meat, fish, shrimp, bakers and brewers yeast, dry beans, lentils and peas.
So what’s left to eat? Mushrooms, spinach, asparagus, and cauliflower can reduce plasma urate levels. And purine-neutralizing foods, such as fresh fruits and most fresh vegetables can also help lower plasma urate levels.
One possible remedy is berry extracts, especially bilberry, blueberry or cherry extracts. The anthocyanins that give the berries their blue and purple hues are powerful anti-inflammatories. Cherries seem particularly beneficial. According to a study of 12 people with gout, eating one-half pound of cherries or drinking an equivalent amount of cherry juice prevented attacks of gout. And it didn’t matter what type of cherries were used – black, sweet yellow and red sour cherries were all effective. Since that study, there have been many reports that cherry juice is an effective treatment for the pain and inflammation of gout. Just check the label to make sure you’re getting 100 percent cherry juice since other juices (i.e. apple juice) don’t have the same affect.
Blau LW. Cherry diet control for gout and arthritis. Tex Rep Biol Med 1950;8:309–11.
Childers NF, Margoles MS. An apparent relation of nightshades (Solanaceae) to arthritis. J Neurol Orthop Med Surg 1993;14:227–31.
Gibson SL, Gibson RG. The treatment of arthritis with a lipid extract of Perna canaliculus: a randomized trial. Comp Ther Med 1998;6:122–6.
Warmbrand M. How Thousands of My Arthritis Patients Regained Their Health. New York: Arco Publishing, 1974.