Good nutrition can ease the pain of rheumatoid arthritis

Posted July 11, 2011, at 8:42 p.m.

Rheumatoid arthritis is a chronic inflammatory, autoimmune disease that is debilitating, deforming and depressing. It results in joint inflammation that is expressed by swelling, pain, functional impairment and muscle wasting.

My dad had RA. He was often in a great deal of pain. He was a mechanic and there were days that he didn’t have the ability to turn a wrench. As a dietitian, I always wished there were something I could recommend to my dad regarding his diet to help ease his pain.

Since the 1930s, researchers have been looking at the link between arthritis and diet. There are many claims about special foods, supplements and diets that help or cure symptoms of arthritis. Not having much in the way of controlled studies or clinical trials, many scientists feel that we aren’t any closer to knowing whether food components cause or cure arthritis than we were 80 years ago.

Health care professionals are apprehensive about recommending dietary remedies for arthritis since there is little scientific evidence confirming the benefits. There is no lack of people with limited or no medical background willing to step in and advise patients about the unproven benefits of diets for arthritis. Often the advice provided is questionable, expensive and potentially dangerous.

Fortunately, there are some low-lost and nutritionally sound steps that can help.

Patients with RA often are at nutritional risk. One reason for their poor nutritional status is the weight loss, muscle wasting and lack of appetite linked to overproduction of the protein cytokine. For patients with chronic inflammation, the production of cytokines causes increased resting metabolic rate and protein breakdown. Additional consumption of calories and protein is needed in response. This can be difficult, since the pain, swelling and loss of energy associated with RA can make food shopping and food preparation a challenge, especially for those who live alone.

Much of the damage that RA wreaks on the body is the result of free radicals. Free radicals are fast-moving destructive atoms that circulate through the body, damaging cells as they go. Inhaling pollutants, smoking  and exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun create free radicals.

People with RA have been found to have high levels of free radicals. Increased intake of the antioxidants vitamin E, vitamin C, beta-carotene and selenium may decrease free-radical damage to joint linings and diminish swelling and pain.

Researchers have found that fish oils benefit people with RA. Fish oils are part of a class of foods called omega-3 fatty acids. In addition to fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and tuna, other good sources of omega-3s include flaxseed, walnuts, soy and canola oil.

Some medications prescribed to alleviate symptoms of RA increase the need for particular nutrients.

Food is always the preferred source of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, but for people with RA it may be necessary to use supplements to help balance deficiencies and improve nutritional status. Being well nourished is the first line of defense in protecting our bodies against disease and lowering inflammation. Eat a variety of foods but especially eat fruit and berries. Vegetables are always recommended, with orange and green choices getting extra marks. Whole grains are the way to go. Incorporate more nuts and seeds into your diet, especially almonds, walnuts and pistachios. At least twice a week try to have meals containing fish — a tuna sandwich on whole wheat bread counts.  For other beneficial fats use olive oil and other healthful, plant-based oils.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.

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