Q: Can a plant-based diet help my arthritis?
A: The most common types of arthritis are rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (OA).
RA is a long-term autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks itself. If you have RA, your body interprets the soft lining around your joints as a threat, similar to a virus or bacteria, and attacks it. This attack causes fluid to accumulate within your joints. In addition to swelling, this fluid buildup causes pain, stiffness, and inflammation around your joints.
OA, the most common form of arthritis, is a degenerative joint disorder resulting from wear and tear to the joints. People with OA experience a breakdown of the cartilage that cushions their joints. The wearing down of cartilage causes the bones to rub against each other, nerve fibers become sensitized, and the result is pain. While OA doesn’t involve an autoimmune process like RA does, mild inflammation also occurs.
The good news is that a plant-based diet can help arthritis in three ways:
- Plant-based diets reduce inflammation. There are several studies on the effect of plant-based diets on RA. Studies compared those eating plant-based diets to those eating high fat diets that included animal products. These studies showed that participants on a whole food plant-based diet had less pain, decreased morning stiffness, increased grip strength, and decreased joint swelling. Studies have also found that diets high in fat and processed meat are associated with increases in inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein (CRP). Conversely, plant-based diets and high-fiber diets have been associated with lower CRP levels. Interestingly, one study focused particularly on the impact of broccoli consumption on knee pain. There, the joints of those consuming broccoli regularly were aspirated; researchers found high levels of sulforaphane within the joints of those individuals. Notably, sulforaphane blocks the enzymes that cause joint destruction by stopping a key molecule known to cause inflammation.
- Plant-based diets are associated with a lower body mass index (BMI). Studies show that excess body weight increases the risk for developing RA and OA and decreases the likelihood of remission if RA is already present. Every pound of body weight imposes four to six pounds of pressure on each knee joint, so a 10 lb weight loss will take 40-60 lbs of pressure off of the knee joints!
- Plant-based diets promote healthy gut bacteria. Disruption of the normal balance in the gut microbiome has been implicated in many disease conditions. Called gut dysbiosis, the condition has been found in patients with rheumatic diseases like RA, and those with RA have been found to have low microbial diversity, common in dysbiosis. Some studies indicate that incorporating more high fiber, plant-based foods in one’s diet can improve the composition of gut bacteria and increase microbial diversity.