Knowing the right foods and supplements for arthritis can help you manage your health naturally. Arthritis has long been considered a “wear-and-tear” disease associated with age-related changes that occur within cartilage and bone.
Two types of arthritis include osteoarthritis (OA) and rheumatoid arthritis (RA) (1).
OA mainly results when wear and tear of cartilage cause bones to rub together, leading to friction, damage, and inflammation.
RA is a systemic condition that triggers symptoms throughout the body. It’s an autoimmune disease and happens when the immune system mistakenly attacks healthy joint tissue.
Doctors can prescribe medication to relieve the pain of arthritis, but they often recommend natural approaches, too. Today a growing body of evidence shows that osteoarthritis may have a metabolic basis.
Poor diet results in inflammatory changes and damage in cartilage cells, which in turn lead to cartilage breakdown and the development of osteoarthritis.
The increase in osteoarthritis cases corresponds to similar increases in diabetes and obesity, other conditions that can be fueled by poor nutrition.
Dietary approaches can help prevent—or manage—all three of these conditions.
A number of large studies, including many conducted in Europe as well as the United States, suggest that a diet emphasizing plant foods and fish can support cartilage growth and impede its breakdown.
People who combine an improved diet with certain supplements can reduce osteoarthritis symptoms and possibly stop the progression of the disease.
Foods and supplements for arthritis
Foods for Arthritis
Limit your intake of sugary and processed foods.
Most Americans consume a lot of processed carbohydrates as well as sugar-sweetened foods and soft drinks, all of which damage joints in several ways.
For example, sugar causes an increase in advanced glycation end products (AGEs), protein molecules that bind to collagen (the connective tissue of cartilage and other tissues), and make it stiff and brittle. AGEs also appear to stimulate the production of cartilage-degrading enzymes.
What to do: Avoid processed foods, such as white flour (including cakes, cookies, and crackers), white pasta, and white rice, as well as soft drinks and fast food.
Studies have shown that people who mainly eat foods in their whole, natural forms tend to have lower levels of AGEs and healthier cartilage.
Get more vitamin C.
More than ten years ago, the Framingham Heart Study found that people who took large doses of vitamin C had a threefold reduction in the risk for osteoarthritis progression.
Vitamin C is an alkalinizing agent due to its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It blocks the inflammatory effects of free radicals.
Vitamin C also decreases the formation of AGEs and reduces the chemical changes that cause cartilage breakdown.
What to do: Increase your intake of vitamin C–rich foods, such as sweet red peppers, strawberries, and broccoli.
Avoid acidic foods.
The typical American diet, with its processed foods, red meat, and harmful trans-fatty acids, increases acidity in the body.
A high-acid environment within the joints increases free radicals, corrosive molecules that both accelerate cartilage damage, and inhibit the activity of cartilage-producing cells known as chondrocytes.
A Mediterranean diet, which includes generous amounts of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and fish, is more alkaline. (The body requires a balance of acidity and alkalinity, as measured on the pH scale.)
Predominantly alkaline body chemistry inhibits free radicals and reduces inflammation.
What to do: Eat a Mediterranean-style diet, including six servings daily of vegetables, three servings of fruit, and two tablespoons of olive oil. (The acids in fruits and vegetables included in this diet are easily neutralized in the body.)
Other sources of healthful fats include olives, nuts (such as walnuts), canola oil, and flaxseed oil or ground flaxseed.
Note: It can take twelve weeks or more to flush out acidic toxins and reduce arthritis symptoms after switching to an alkaline diet.
Drink green tea.
Green tea alone won’t relieve osteoarthritis pain, but people who drink green tea and switch to a healthier diet may notice an additional improvement in symptoms.
That’s because green tea is among the most potent sources of antioxidants, including catechins, substances that inhibit the activity of cartilage-degrading enzymes.
What to do: For osteoarthritis, drink one to two cups of green tea daily. (Check with your doctor first if you take any prescription drugs.)
Eat five to six three-ounce servings of omega-3-rich fish (such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel) weekly. Omega-3s in such fish help maintain the health of joint cartilage and curb inflammation.
Supplements For Arthritis
Dietary changes should be a first step to reducing arthritis symptoms. However, the use of certain supplements also can be helpful.
If you would prefer to take a fish oil supplement rather than eat fish, it is possible to receive the benefits from supplements.
Two omega-3s in fish, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), block chemical reactions in our cells that convert dietary fats into chemical messengers (such as prostaglandins), which affect the inflammatory status of our bodies.
This is the same process that’s inhibited by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.
What to do: If you find it difficult to eat the amount of omega-3-rich fish mentioned above, ask your doctor about taking fish oil supplements that supply a total of 1,600 mg of EPA and 800 mg of DHA daily. Look for a pharmaceutical-grade fish oil product.
Curcumin is the active compound in the yellow-hued spice, turmeric, which is a staple of Indian curries. In the body, it acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory agent, blocking the same inflammation-promoting enzyme as the COX-2 inhibitor drug, celecoxib.
Ginger root, either fresh or dried, is known to improve joint pain and reduce inflammation for people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Ginger in supplement form can interact with blood thinners and can aggravate gallbladder disease.
Glucosamine and Chondroitin.
The most widely used supplements for osteoarthritis are glucosamine and chondroitin, taken singly or in combination. Most studies show that they work.
Glucosamine and chondroitin are natural compounds found in healthy cartilage — the connective tissue that cushions joints.
Glucosamine and chondroitin have anti-inflammatory properties. They protect cells called chondrocytes, which help maintain cartilage structure.
In theory, these supplements have the potential to slow cartilage deterioration in the joints, and to reduce pain in the process.
A triple combination that contains methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), as well as glucosamine and chondroitin, is a better option.
MSM is a sulfur-containing compound that provides the raw material for cartilage regrowth. Glucosamine and chondroitin reduce osteoarthritis pain and have anti-inflammatory properties.
What to do: Take daily supplements of glucosamine (1,500 mg), chondroitin (1,200 mg), and MSM (1,500 mg). Instead of—or in addition to—the fish oil and the triple combination, you may want to take SAMe.
Like MSM, S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe) is a sulfur-containing compound. It reduces the body’s production of TNF-alpha, a substance that’s involved in cartilage destruction. It also seems to increase cartilage production.
What to do: Start with 200 mg of SAMe daily and increase to 400 mg daily if necessary after a few weeks.
There are a number of things to keep in mind even about those foods and supplements for arthritis that may be helpful.
For one, they aren’t free of side effects and they aren’t regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That means you’ll have to do your own research to find out which foods and supplements for arthritis are effective and to determine those that could interact with your other medications.
Always discuss any supplements with your doctor before taking them to avoid potentially dangerous drug interactions.