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Can an anti-inflammatory diet treat rheumatoid arthritis?

Experts say that an anti-inflammatory diet can help with diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, but caution that it typically can’t replace medications.

People with chronic illnesses often search for alternative ways to help their condition, and rheumatoid arthritis patients are no different. Some insist that following an anti-inflammatory diet can help with symptoms of the autoimmune disease.

Rheumatoid arthritis causes pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of function in the joints, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. It differs from osteoarthritis — the more common arthritis that people develop as they age. With rheumatoid arthritis, however, the immune system attacks the body’s own tissues.

What are anti-inflammatory diets, exactly?

These diets promise to help combat inflammation in the body and there may be something to them, Alissa Rumsey, New York City-based dietitian and nutrition therapist, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Chronic low-level inflammation has been linked to many diseases including type 2 diabetes, allergies, autoimmune conditions, heart disease, cancer, and stroke,” she says. “Diet, exercise, stress, and smoking all contribute to chronic inflammation.”

But while many anti-inflammatory diets have similar food restrictions, they’re not typically a one-size-fits-all approach to wellness. “Everyone reacts to different foods and chemicals,” registered dietitian Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “One food that might cause inflammation for one person may not be a problem for another person.”

In general, though, “a diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, omega-3 fats, and antioxidants is your best defense against inflammation,” Rumsey says.

How do these diets work?

Overall, anti-inflammatory diets focus on reducing inflammation in the body, through eliminating foods that are thought to be inflammatory, as well as adding in foods that have anti-inflammatory properties. “It is best for people to add foods that are high in antioxidant compounds and can reduce inflammation, while reducing excess refined oils, sugar, and trans fats,” Angelone says.

Specifically, “omega-3 fats decrease the production of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body and stimulate the production of anti-inflammatory compounds called eicosanoids,” Rumsey says. Fruits and vegetables are also anti-inflammatory, especially green leafy vegetables, sweet potatoes, berries and cherries, and tomatoes, she says. Whole grains are a good source of fiber, which is linked with lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers in the body, notes Rumey.

Anti-inflammatory diets have been researched before. A review article published in the journal Frontiers specifically listed foods that scientists believe can help reduce the progression and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, including dried plums, blueberries, pomegranates, whole grains, spices like ginger and turmeric, and specific oils and teas. The researchers say these foods can provide many benefits, including lowering inflammatory cytokines (chemicals released by the immune system that can cause rheumatoid arthritis symptoms), reducing joint stiffness and pain, and lowering oxidative stress — aka your body’s ability to fight harmful chemicals.

There is also a diet followed by some patients with rheumatoid arthritis and other autoimmune conditions known as the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), which is an extension of the paleo diet that also focuses on reducing inflammation. The AIP has an initial elimination phase of food groups including grains, legumes, nightshade vegetables (e.g. tomatoes, eggplants), dairy, eggs, coffee, alcohol, nuts and seeds, refined/processed sugars, oils, and food additives, according to a 2017 study on the diet.

It also stresses eating and preparing fresh, nutrient-dense foods, bone broth, and fermented foods while encouraging followers to get better sleep, reduce stress, and exercise regularly. After the elimination phase, followers are asked to maintain the diet for a bit before gradually reintroducing food groups in stages to help see if any one in particular aggravates their symptoms.

Read on: Can an anti-inflammatory diet treat rheumatoid arthritis?

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