Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) causes pain, swelling, and stiffness in your joints. Some people find relief by making changes to their diet.
“There is no one food that helps everyone with RA,” says Scott Zashin, MD, a rheumatologist at Presbyterian Hospitals in Dallas and an author of Natural Arthritis Treatment. But some people find that eating foods that reduce inflammation can help ease their joint pain. You'll need to experiment to see what, if any foods, work for you, he says.
A variety of studies have shown that the following foods may prove helpful:
Coriander. This green, curly-leaved herb goes by different names — coriander, cilantro, Chinese parsley — and it’s a staple in multiple cuisines, from Mexican to Thai. Some people say it also makes their RA better. Coriander was among the many nutraceuticals (food extracts) that can have a beneficial effect on chronic inflammatory diseases such as RA, according to a study published in Toxicology and Industrial Health in September 2014.
Turmeric. Turmeric is a deep mustard-yellow spice from Asia that’s actually in the ginger root family and is used in many Indian curry dishes for color and taste. Turmeric contains curcumin, which has been shown to reduce inflammation at the cellular level. Mustard is a good source of turmeric and probably the easiest way to get it, Dr. Zashin says. He recommends having some mustard or curry at least two to three times a week. A research review published in the Journal of Medicinal Food in August 2016 found a small number of studies that support the benefit of turmeric in the treatment of arthritis. However, the researchers say that larger and more rigorous studies are needed.
Ginger. Ginger has long been recognized for its ability to calm the stomach. Like turmeric, ginger also contains chemicals that work as an anti-inflammatory for RA. Research done on rats found that, in addition to the anti-inflammatory properties in ginger's main plant compounds, its pungent compounds (gingerols) and its aromatic essential oils play a role as well. The study was published in Pharma-Nutrition in July 2016. Caution: Ginger can cause blood to thin; so if you’re taking a blood-thinning medicine like warfarin, talk to your doctor before adding ginger to your RA treatment plan.
Pineapple. “It’s not the pineapple that’s so exciting but the stem,” Zashin says. That’s because the stem contains bromelain, a digestive enzyme that has been shown to reduce inflammation in people with osteoarthritis and RA. Because the stem isn’t edible, however, to get bromelain you have to take supplements in capsule or pill form. A study of a complex of three plant extracts — bromelain, turmeric, and Devil's claw, published in the winter 2014 issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, found that they could be a valuable alternative to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for people with chronic and degenerative joint pain. Zashin says that further studies are needed, and he cautions to “always talk to your doctor before using any supplement because dietary supplements can interact with prescription medications.”
Blackstrap molasses. Many people with RA swear by blackstrap molasses and have for years, but the scientific research is limited, Zashin says. One reason some suspect molasses may help relieve joint pain is that it’s rich in vitamins and nutrients, including magnesium. Magnesium helps preserve nerve and muscle function as well as joint cartilage, the Arthritis Foundation says. What's more, low levels of magnesium, as well as calcium, are more common in people with RA and could be a risk factor for heart disease, a known complication in people with the disease, according to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research. Other good sources of magnesium are nuts, beans, whole grains, bananas, green vegetables, and dairy products.
Green tea. A cup of green tea a day may keep the joint pain away. Zashin notes that green tea has antioxidant properties, which are helpful in combating disease. However, green tea also contains small amounts of vitamin K, which can counteract certain blood thinners. That makes it important to talk to your doctor before adding it to your RA treatment regimen if you take blood thinners. Researchers at Washington State University in Spokane found that EGCG, a moleculewith anti-inflammatory properties that's found in green tea, could be an effective treatment for RA by targeting a pro-inflammatory protein. Their findings were published in Arthritis and Rheumatology in February 2016.
Sour cherries and pomegranates. Both fruits contain the flavonoid anthocyanin. A study published online in Advanced Biomedical Research in March 2014 found that pomegranate juice has many beneficial properties, including inhibiting inflammation, which makes it helpful for people with RA, perhaps even more so than green tea. Zashin is a proponent of tart or sour cherries. Like pomegranates, cherries are rich in antioxidants, which can protect your cells from the damaging effects of free radicals, he says. Sour cherries also may lower levels of nitric oxide, a compound linked to RA, Zashin says.
Fish oil. Found in wild salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, and trout, fish oil contains omega-3 fatty acids, which work to decrease inflammation and reduce symptoms of RA. Consider eating fatty fish like salmon twice a week or supplementing with fish oil capsules. People with RA who took fish oil in addition to DMARDs had less pain and were in remission longer than those who didn’t, according to research published in June 2015 in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases.
Parsley. The ubiquitous garnish on restaurant entrees, parsley has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. Parsley contains the flavonoid luteolin. A study published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences in June 2016 found that luteolin and other flavonoids help block inflammatory proteins. Further studies of parsley and its effect on people are still needed, but the easy-to-grow herb is another anti-inflammatory food that just might help reduce joint pain and stiffness while it brightens up your salads.
Putting Together an Anti-Inflammatory Diet for RA
Paying more attention to the foods you eat — especially those that reduce inflammation and have lots of antioxidants — may ease your RA symptoms. Though research is limited and needs to be confirmed with larger, higher-quality studies, most people can add these foods to their diet without any side effects. Still, if you’re taking medications and want to add supplements or change your diet, talk to your doctor first to rule out any negative interactions with other medications and your overall RA treatment plan, Zashin says.