Written by Patrick B. Massey, MD, PhD. Dr. Massey shares information on the benefits of a diet high in anti inflammatory foods for reducing the pain symptoms of  rheumatoid arthritis as well as decreasing the risk of developing an inflammatory autoimmune disease. 

Mediterranean dietThe famous Greek physician Hippocrates is believed to have said “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

This suggests that both the treatment of and probably the prevention of illnesses can be found in the quality and quantity of food we eat. Recent medical research has suggested a strong link between the autoimmune illness rheumatoid arthritis and our food choices.

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune illness where the immune system begins to attack different parts of the body. RA most commonly destroys the joints, especially on the hand and fingers.

This illness can also be life-threatening as the immune system attacks the lungs and heart. The signs and symptoms of RA most frequently appear in middle age. RA is about three times more prevalent in women than men women. It is currently estimated that RA has been diagnosed in about 3 million Americans and accounts for almost 40,000 deaths annually.

Therapy for RA consists of strengthening and range of motion exercises for the hands and fingers, as well as very potent medications to suppress the immune system.

The downside to RA treatment is that it does not change the underlying illness and with a suppressed immune system, a person is more prone to serious viral and bacterial infections.

Recent medical studies have strongly suggested that there is a link between diet and both the risk of developing, as well as progression of symptoms of RA. One recent study, published in the medical journal Clinical Nutrition followed over 400 participants with RA over a six-year period. Half of the participants maintained the Mediterranean diet which is high in monounsaturated fats (olive oil). The other half acted as a control and ate their normal diet that was rich in saturated fats (butter).

In the monounsaturated fat group, there was significant reduction in joint pain accompanied by an increase in joint function. An independent blood marker called the erythrocyte sedimentation rate was also significantly lower in this group. This particular study strongly demonstrated the effect of diet on the activity of RA.

In a second medical study published in Arthritis Care and Research this year, participants were asked whether or not some foods seem to be inflammatory or anti-inflammatory for their RA. Almost 25 percent of the participants stated that specific foods have a noticeable impact on the severity of their symptoms.

Consumption of blueberries and spinach were most commonly reported to reduce RA symptoms. Sugar as dessert or soda was most commonly reported with an increase in the severity of RA symptoms.

The association between diet and severity of RA symptoms is intriguing, but the exact mechanism is unknown. One possibility is that 70 percent of all the white blood cells in the body live in the bowels. If these cells are bombarded by inflammatory foods, that could lead to an increased risk of an inflammatory autoimmune disease.

Consumption of anti-inflammatory foods could have both a long-term and short-term effect on the symptoms of RA.

  • Patrick B. Massey, MD, PH.D., is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village. His website is www.alt-med.org.

Posted March 20, 2017.