The fact that it is an autoimmune disorder means that the body does not recognize its own healthy cells and attacks them as though they are foreign. This causes inflammation in the joints, which translates into stiffness, swelling, pain, and sometimes even misshapenness.
So-called disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs are normally the first line of treatment for this condition, for which there is no known cure at the moment.
If a person living with rheumatoid arthritis does not react well to these drugs, so-called biological response modifiers, or "biologicals," are the second-line treatment option.
So, researchers from the Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) in Bhubaneswar, India, set out to explore dietary alternatives to medication.
Dr. Bhawna Gupta, together with Shweta Khanna and Kumar Sagar Jaiswal at KIIT's Disease Biology Lab in the School of Biotechnology, reviewed "research from several laboratory experiments under different conditions."
They narrowed down their findings to 33 foods proven to ease rheumtoid arthritis symptoms and slow down the progression of the disease.
The study is only the second one to make an overall dietary assessment for this disease, and these researchers strictly picked out the foods that were clearly proven to have long-lasting benefits.
"Supporting disease management through food and diet does not pose any harmful side effects and is relatively cheap and easy," Dr. Gupta explains.
Whole grains, legumes, fruits, and spices
The authors list the foods, grouping them under eight categories: fruits, cereals, legumes, whole grains, spices, herbs, oils, and "miscellaneous."
Fruits include prunes, grapefruits, grapes, blueberries, bananas, pomegranate, mango, peaches, and apples. Cereals include whole oatmeal, whole-wheat bread, and whole rice, while the whole grains section adds corn, rye, barley, millets, sorghum, and canary seed to the mix.
Spices — including turmeric and ginger — olive oil, fish oil, green tea, and yogurt are also among those listed as beneficial. These can reduce the level of cytokines, or substances secreted by the immune cells that can cause inflammation in people with rheumatoid arthritis, and reduce oxidative stress, thereby improving the body's ability to fight off toxins.
"Regular consumption of specific dietary fibers, vegetables, fruits, and spices, as well as the elimination of components that cause inflammation and damage," says Dr. Gupta, "can help patients to manage the effects of rheumatoid arthritis."
"Incorporating probiotics into the diet can also reduce the progression and symptoms of this disease," she adds.
"Patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis should switch from omnivorous diets, drinking alcohol, and smoking to [adhering to] Mediterranean, vegan, elemental, or elimination diets, as advised by their doctor or dietician."
Dr. Bhawna Gupta
"Our review focused on specific dietary components and phytochemicals from foods that have a proven beneficial effect on rheumatoid arthritis," says Dr. Gupta.
The researchers also suggest that their findings could be used to develop alternative medicines.
"Pharmaceutical companies may use this information to formulate 'nutraceuticals.' Nutraceuticals have an advantage over chemically tailored medicines as they are not associated with any side effects, originate from natural sources, and are cheaper," explains Dr. Gupta.
However, the authors also caution people with rheumatoid arthritis against incorporating these foods into their diet too readily, or on their own.
"Dietary components vary according to geography and weather conditions," says Dr. Gupta, "so patients should be aware of their nutritional requirements, allergies, and any other food-related disease history."
"We strongly suggest [that] the general public consult doctors and dieticians before following any diet program or food compounds discussed in the study," she concludes.