I have had 8 (!) people ask me about arthritis in the last month, so of course I had to make it a Q&A Wednesday topic.
Before I dive into some foods and supplements that can be useful, let me write a little about what arthritis is, and what it does to our body.
Arthritis is actually a term that encompasses hundreds of different diseases that all lead to the same symptoms: painful joints that can be swollen or stiff. Right now in the medical community, there are four commonly accepted reasons for arthritis:
Degenerative arthritis is a wearing down of our joints. In a joint like the elbow, bones meet - your lower arm (ulna and radius) and your upper arm (humerus) bones. In order for them to not rub against each other, the ends of the bones are covered in a protective cover called cartilage. Between the bones is a little gap filled with fluid (synovial fluid). Both the cartilage and the fluid can start to wear down with age, causing the bones to rub against each other, which then causes pain when we move. I don't like to think of this problems as an age related problem, because there are around 300,000 children also suffering from this problem. It is more a problem of not nourishing the cartilage and fluid enough for it to say strong. We will dive into how to do this below, so keep reading.
Metabolic arthritis is arthritis caused by too much uric acid in your blood. Uric acid is a made when compounds called purines are broken down in your body. Foods that are high in purines are meat, especially liver and kidney, as well as most seafoods, and all alcohol. Usually, uric acid would just get filtered in the kidneys and eliminated through your urine. In case your kidneys can't handle the amount of uric acid, they will flush some back into your blood. The uric acid will then crystallize in joints, causing sharp, needle like pain. This then often turns to bouts of gout. Eliminating uric acid forming foods can often reverse this type of arthritis.
Inflammatory arthritis is characterized by the immune system mistakenly attacking the joints. This is for example rheumatoid arthritis. I don't believe that the immune system just makes a mistake and attacks our own body. There is a deeper underlying reason for this inflammation, often caused by viruses or bacteria that start to break down our body. Sadly, diagnosis often stop with "inflammation", and don't look any further. If you have been diagnosed with inflammatory arthritis, I highly encourage you to see a functional medicine doctor, who can look at pathogens in your body, and help you heal from them.
The last category of arthritis is infectious arthritis, which is brought on by invaders like viruses, bacteria or fungi. They can start to break down joints, which causes pain. As you can see, technically inflammatory and infectious arthritis fall into the same category, and can be treated the same way.
All tips I will give you here can be used for all kinds of arthritis to ease pain and discomfort, and help joints move more easily.
1. Lubricate joints
The fluid in the joints is primarily water, so it should come as no surprise that I am going to ask you to drink more water. Water is a reoccurring theme with all my clients. Most people don't like to drink water, they don't get thirsty, and they would rather not run to the bathroom every hour. I get all of that. And yet, water is still the most important nutrient we need to consume. It is part of every single process that happens in our body, from the blinking of our eye lids to the beating of our heart. And as you can see, water is important for joint health. Most often when you wake up with stiffness in your joints in the morning, it is actually just dehydration. I like to say drink 3-4 liters / 100-130oz per day. This will help with your joints moving more freely, and nice side effects are less constipation, clearer skin, and more energy.
If you absolutely can't stand drinking water, try herbal teas or flavoring your water with lemon, lime, herbs or fruit. Here are some flavored water ideas. And you can also try sipping on broths and adding more soups to your daily meal plans.
2. Nourish the cartilage
The cartilage has no blood flow through it, so repairing worn down cartilage takes much longer than other tissues in the body. This means you need to be patient and consistent with nourishing it. Healthy fats are your savior here: nuts, seeds, avocado, coconut, and fatty fish (if you eat fish) are all great sources of healthy fats. Our diet of highly processed junk food and fried foods has thrown our balance of fats off. Healthy fats help lubricate cartilage, hair, skin, arteries, and muscles. They are the biggest component of your brain, and therefore it is essential we eat them. I have talked about Udo's oil before, which is a wonderful plant based supplement to help with getting the right kinds of fat into your body. Other than that, adding more nuts, seeds, avocado, and fish shouldn't be too difficult, you can make it delicious. Also flaxseed oil, olive oil, and coconut oil are good sources of healthy fats. And don't worry, this kind of fat does not make you fat. I talk a lot about healthy fats in the 4 week health kickstarter program, and this is always number one concern for all my clients. But let me repeat it again: this healthy fat will not make you fat.
3. Colorful produce
Vegetables and fruit are our best friends when it comes to vitamins, minerals, and other secondary compounds. Only one in ten Americans gets enough fruit and vegetables daily. This leaves a huge room for improvement. While the national guidelines have been five servings of fruit and vegetables for years, our bodies need much more than that to provide us with all the nutrients we need. Fill half of your plate with fruits and vegetables at every meal. This will help with vitamins, that your joints need to restore themselves. It will give you many anti-inflammatory compounds that help to bring down inflammation, swelling, and pain. And fresh produce is rich in anti-oxidants, which basically catch free radicals that can come and destroy joints and other tissues. On top of that, fresh produce has a high water content, adding even more water to your daily intake. It's a win-win-win with produce, so eat as much as possible.
4. Cruicerferous veggies
Studies have shown that cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, arugula, bok choy, and Brussels sprouts block an enzyme in your joints, which is responsible for pain. So start to love those Brussels sprouts :-)
5. Foods that make things worse
There are several foods that really amplify arthritic pain. You may not want to hear this, as they are all enjoyable foods, but for the sake of your longterm health, you may want to explore omitting them from your diet for a while. See how you feel, and perhaps reintroduce them occasionally.
Red meat: your body has to work hard at breaking down red meat, and it can cause a lot of inflammation. When your joints are already inflamed, adding more fuel to the fire makes things worse.
Caffeine: I know this is always a huge one. Coming between a person and their cup of coffee is the worst offense. Caffeine is sadly a diuretic, which means it pulls water, and with that vital minerals out of your body, and makes you pee them out. These minerals are vital to your bone and joint health, so you can't afford to lose them right now. See if you can easy yourself off caffeine and switch to herbal tea.
Dairy: this is a huge topic, one very near and dear to my heart. While dairy is still cited as the most important calcium source, more and more studies show that the calcium from dairy is not calcium our body can use to build strong bones. It is the wrong kind of calcium, and it wanders through the body trying to find a place to be useful. It often settles in our joints, and starts to crystallize there. Most people can completely reverser arthritis simply by cutting out dairy. And I know it's not simple, because cheese makes everything taste better, we need the milk in our coffee, and who would survive without yogurt for breakfast? This is a huge change in mindset and lifestyle, but one worth exploring. It worked for me!
Alcohol sadly places a big toxic burden on our system. This means the liver and kidneys are so busy with eliminating the alcohol, they don't have time to deal with toxins, pathogens, calcium deposits, and uric acid build up. On top of that, alcohol causes more inflammation in our body, exactly what we don't want when it comes to arthritis.
6. Helpful supplements
In this category you may find herbs and supplements you've never heard about. I am giving you a long list, so you can choose what you can find. If you want to try all of them, go ahead. You can also just pick one, and give that a try for now to see how you feel with it.
Aloe vera: you may have used aloe vera gel on sunburns, but it also helps internally to ease pain. You can either find aloe vera juice or water in health food stores. Or you may want to plant your own aloe vera plant (super easy to maintain). Then take a leaf, cut it open to scoop out the gel, and mix this with water, juice or in a smoothie.
Burdock root: helps to purify the blood when you have gout. Add 2 tsp dried burdock root to 1 cup hot water, and steep for 10 minutes to make an herbal tea.
Barleygrass: helps to remove toxins, brings in a huge vitamin bomb to fight radicals, and helps to soothe joints. Mix 1 tsp of barleygrass powder with water, juice or in a smoothie (perfect in a green smoothie!).
Chaga mushroom: helps to strengthen the immune system when you are dealing with bacteria, viruses or fungi that could be attacking your joints. It helps to lower the inflammation in your joints. Mix chaga powder into smoothies or make an herbal tea with 1 tsp dried chaga in 1 cup hot water.
Celery juice: helps to dislodge calcium deposits in the joints, which can cause pain when moving. For this you need a juicer, and a bunch of (preferably organic) celery to juice every morning.
Glucosamine and chondroitin: these compounds are often found in joint support supplements for a good reason. Both are made naturally by your body. Glucosamine is a building block of cartilage. Chondroitin helps to flush water and nutrients into the cartilage, so that it can stay strong and healthy. Supplementing both can be helpful when your body just can't make enough to support your broken cartilage.
Nettle leaf: nettle leaf is great for women at all ages, as it helps to balance hormones. More than that, it is super anti-pathogenic, fighting intruders like bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Make it into an herbal tea by steeping 1 tsp nettle leaves in 1 cup hot water for 10 minutes. You can also let this steep overnight for the optimal amounts of nutrients in the tea.
Turmeric: the super herb against inflammation of all kind, and it works really well for arthritis pain. Combine it with ginger, and you've got a super fighter on your hands. Use it in soups, curries, stir fries or my favorite turmeric latte.
7. Beyond the food:
Of course there are many other things you can do for arthritis, but I will mention two of the most important ones to me.
First and foremost, you need to move. When you are in pain, you don't need to go run a marathon. Go for a walk, ease into a gentle yoga flow or take a strengthening Pilates class. Only when a joint gets moved, will it produce more synovial fluid. On top of that, you want to strengthen your muscles around the painful joint. These can help take some of the load when moving, so your joint doesn't have to do so much work. Find a way of movement that feels good to you, even if it is the last thing you would like to do when you are in pain.
Secondly, going out into the sunlight is free and the best medicine. Letting sun rays hit your skin produces Vitamin D, a vitamin important for bone and joint health. Supplementing it can never be as good as letting your body produce it itself, so get outside and let the sun hit your skin for 15 minutes a day.
I hope this helps with easing pain and managing arthritis longterm. When I was 20 years old, I was diagnosed with "potential rheumatoid arthritis" according to the doctors. They didn't know what was wrong with me, but I was in pain all the time. Because I didn't want to be on medicine for the rest of my life, I adjusted my way of eating, I saw food as my medicine, and have been able to completely restore my range of motion since then. I do get little bouts of pain when I drink alcohol and dairy, so I am just super aware of what I eat. Yes, this may seem like a steep price to pay - because hello, a glass of wine with a cheese plate is the best! - but it means I get to be pain free. I know that once you look at your own body, you will find a way to eat and nourish it that will help you deal with this pain longterm. And if you need any help, please feel free to reach out to me!