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Can supplements and diet tackle arthritis? Here’s what we know so far

Arthritis is a relatively common disease that affects your joints, causing pain and stiffness that can worsen with age. Each form causes different symptoms and may require different treatments, but while arthritis usually affects older adults, it can develop in people of any age.

There is no true ‘cure’ for arthritis, but this doesn’t mean there aren’t any treatment plans. The goal of such treatments is typically to reduce pain and inflammation, prevent further damage, and enable the joints to work properly. Short-term medication commonly includes pain relievers as well as heat or cold and massage, while long-term management of arthritis includes lifestyle changes like a healthy diet and exercising. But how much does a good diet really do against arthritis?

Image credits: Anna Pelzer.

There are two main forms of arthritis: osteoarthritis (the most common type), which is basically a chronic disease of the joints that affects the coating on the ends of cartilage, and rheumatoid arthritis, which is more of an inflammation that mainly affects all of the joints.

Both of them can be painful and debilitating, and it’s frustrating since we have little control over some of the causes of arthritis (like sex or genetics). However, some of the factors linked with arthritis can be controlled — especially diet and lifestyle. Understandably, many people dealing with arthritis have been trying to gain some control over their condition and are opting for healthier diets and lifestyles, as well as vitamins and supplements.

The British National Health Service (NHS) notes that “it’s very important to eat a healthy, balanced diet if you have arthritis” and the CDC emphasizes the importance of having a healthy weight — which involves a healthy diet.

Undoubtedly, having a healthy weight, doing exercise that strengthens the joints and the muscles around them, and staying clear of foods that can cause inflammation can all help mitigate problems associated with arthritis. Studies have also found that eating a healthy diet can prevent the onset of arthritis. But reducing symptoms once arthritis is already established is a different thing.

The European Alliance of Associations for Rheumatology, an expert group on arthritis, recently published a detailed critique on diet and supplement use in arthritis. They looked at 24 systematic reviews of studies (studies of other studies) and incorporated an additional 150 extra studies, covering more than 80 different dietary components and supplements. This is probably the most comprehensive single research effort on arthritis, and the researchers found that while food and supplements won’t cause a huge difference, “there is moderate evidence for a small benefit for certain dietary components.” Essentially, some foods or vitamins/supplements can produce some improvements in arthritis outcomes such as stiffness, pain, and function.

a woman stretching out for arthritis
Things like stretches and yoga can also help with arthritis. Image credits: Austin Neill.

For instance, for osteoarthritis, some studies showed a small positive effect on pain and function for taking vitamin D, chondroitin, and glucosamine (both compounds found in cartilage) supplements. For rheumatoid arthritis, there was some evidence of a small positive effect on pain for omega-3 (fish) oils. But for the most part, when researchers looked at specific, individual products, they couldn’t find very significant differences.

But that doesn’t mean a healthy diet can’t play a role in fighting arthritis.

Dietary studies are notoriously difficult to carry out. There are so many different things interacting and isolating the individual impacts is extremely challenging. This is why, instead of focusing on one thing, experts recommend that people with arthritis eat a healthy diet that’s rich in fruits, whole grains, and legumes, and low in foods rich in sugar or processed foods, as these can exacerbate inflammation and push weight gain. So instead of focusing on one particular aspect of your diet, having a more holistic approach can pay more dividends, and a healthy diet should include the compounds that were noted to make improvements.

Ultimately, there is still much we don’t know about arthritis, and with the advent of personalized medicine, we may be getting better-individualized treatments for arthritis. But in the meantime, having a healthy diet has no downsides and a bunch of upsides. While we don’t know for sure just how big those upsides are, it’s definitely worth a try.

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