Based off of a reader’s request, there’s going to be a two part series on using natural, non-invasive remedies for treating arthritis.
The first is going to go over how arthritis works, and broad strategies for making it better. The second part is going to cover the specifics of what supplements you’ll want to take, useful remedies and sample meal plans.
Here’s an e-mail I received recently:
Please tell me, if I needed (and I do) joint assistance for my bad knees (6 total surgeries) and some nagging arthritis…I do by the way intend to keep lifting and running so I need something for an active person’s lifestyle. I look forward to hearing from you soon on this and other advice you could provide for an ‘older’ runner / athlete
So here goes. But first, a disclosure:
I’m not a doctor and nothing I say constitutes medical advice. These are merely my own opinions and your own results may differ. I present this information only as a best approximation of what I know about the issue but that doesn’t make it absolute truth.
This question was difficult for me to answer because arthritis is a very broad condition without a consensus for how to treat it. No wonder you’re having problems finding answers!
The two “common sense” suggestions are to lose weight and reduce the stress you put on your joints by sitting less during the day and avoiding exercise that stresses your tendons. Those are both true, but you’re probably looking for something more than that.
Natural Remedies That’ll Probably Work
My best collection of advice looks like this:
- Remove seed oils from your diet to get a favorable 3/6 fatty acid ratio
- Don’t eat for at least 1 hour before you go to bed
- Try and get a good 8 hours of sleep (common advice, I know)
- Consider taking a Vitamin D Supplement
- Be choosy about the meat and fish you eat (stick to wild caught and free range)
- Replace longer, strenuous cardio with shorter/high impact resistance training
- Make a point to have a whole food smoothie or fresh pressed juice daily with foods that reduce oxidative stress
Other advice which *might* be a good idea but I’m not entirely sure of:
- Consider going on an “elimination” diet to remove gluten, dairy, or animal products altogether.
The unholy trio of gluten, milk, and meat are popular targets amongst the health food cognescenti when it comes to chronic illness, but the truth is I couldn’t find a smoking gun linking any of them to chronic arthritis or inflammation when you hold other things constant. “Reboot” programs are all the rage right now, but I’ve always felt their success is not as widely applicable as their proselytizers like to believe.
But it’s entirely possible that one cause for your arthritis is your body’s adverse reaction to a particular food group you’re eating, so if the first group of remedies doesn’t get you very far then I’d cautiously recommend giving something like that a shot.
So now that we’ve covered the what, let me explain the why behind my advice.
What Arthritis Is and How It Works
Arthritis is the generic name for a condition when the cartilage and connective tissue between your bones begins to wear away. There are many different types , but they broadly fall under two categories: “degenerative” arthritis where the tissue wears away due to extended use, and “inflammatory” arthritis where the tissue wears away because the immune system attacks it due to (perceived) toxins in your body.
In reality, most cases of arthritis are some combination of both.
I encourage you to think about arthritis along the following lines:
- Arthritis is a problem of gravity: Some forms of wear and tear are inevitable as we age. There’s nothing we can do about this.
- Arthritis is a problem of regulatory disorder: Your bones and connective tissue are more dynamic than you think, and the relative amounts of different steroidal hormones, autrocrine/paracrine mediators, and endocrine regulators greatly affect the rate at which these tissues regenerate themselves
- Arthritis is a problem of inflammation: Some arthritis is due to the body destroying itself because it perceives certain tissues to be toxic, leading to a greater prevalence of inflammatory responses by your immune system.
There’s nothing we can do about item 1. But items 2 and 3 can be affected by the way you eat and lifestyle you live.
So let’s talk about that, shall we?
The Omega 3/6 Ratio and Inflammatory Mediation
I do not think the omega 3/6 ratio is the be-all-end-all of nutritional well-being. There are a few reasons to be skeptical about it. But it does play an important role in tipping the scales for certain metabolic see-saws which affect how osteoblasts (bone cells) and chondrocytes (cartilage cells) grow and heal themselves
They compete for space in the same pathways and are the precursors for two types of molecules called prostaglandins and leukotrienes that dictate whether or not your body is in a pro or anti-inflammatory state. Certain prostaglandins that promote inflammation can only be made from omega 6’s and others that inhibit inflammation can only be made from omega 3’s.
The majority of plant fats you consume are omega 6, since most oils added to foods are either corn, soy, or canola oil. No one’s quite sure what the “ideal” ratio of 3/6 fatty acids is, but most guess that for most of our history it was about 1-3:1 and now it’s somewhere between 15-25:1.
For this reason I believe it’s wise to eliminate the amount of commercial seed oils added to your diet. It’s true that you could simply take a fish oil supplement, but one of the problems with the omega 3/6 theory is that it says nothing about the absolute levels you’re supposed to have, and the majority of people probably have way too much omega 6 in their diet. So elimination is the wisest first step.
This is also why being careful to eat wild-caught cold water fish and grass fed beef is a good idea. Their commercial counterparts don’t have the same ratios.
Sleeping the Right Way
Most of the molecules used to regenerate tissue and regulate growth are replenished by your body when you sleep. Naturally, this means getting enough sleep is very important to health.
But there are other factors that determine the quality of your sleep. Ideally you want all of your body’s energy to be devoted to making itself better when you pass out for the night. Making new molecules can be metabolically expensive, and you don’t want to give your body other tasks it needs to divert itself towards.
Day to day one of the most taxing functions your body has to perform is digestion. It takes a lot of work, and if you eat before you sleep then your body is likely expanding a lot of effort digesting your food and not repairing the hormonal balance it needs to keep its reconnective tissue intact.
So I believe it’s wise to make sure you stop eating 1-2 hours before you go to bed.
Hormonal/steroidal balance is the same reason getting enough vitamin D is important. It’s well documented that most people are deficient, and a lack of vitamin D has been established as a causal mechanism is autoimmune disorders. It controls the rate at which certain immune cells are made by the body, many of which mediate your body’s autoimmune system.
Some Helpful Anti-Arthritis Foods
Most of the plant foods that are generally good for you are also good for your arthritis. The benefits of giving your cells the ability to remove toxins and reduce oxidative stress are universal. However, here are four that are particularly helpful:
- Cherries – a well established herbal remedy for gout, that has worked for relatives I know
- Ginger – A powerful anti-inflammatory that in some cases has healed inflammation better than the anti-inflammatory drug it was compared to!
- Cocoa – Highest ORAC food in your kitchen. Very powerful anti-inflammatory.
- Turmeric – The most potent herbal tonic in the Indian kitchen.
I’ll go into more detailed eating plans and possible exercises in the next segment.
<h4 style=”font-size: 17px;”>A Quick Word About Veganism, Gluten Free, and Elimination Diets
Lastly, I’d like to say a word about the use of elimination diets for this particular type of issue. I think they’re very likely to help many people, but are not universally applicable like the other advice I gave here.
Digestive health is an important part of an autoimmune disorder, because if there are particular types of foods that are not digested properly then it can create an immune response within your body that triggers inflammatory pathways and cause your condition to get worse.
So removing classes of food from your diet is likely to help many people. But the truth is that people react differently to different amounts of lactose, gluten, or large protein loads.
So I think it’s a good idea to use the other tips mentioned in this article first, and proceed to an elimination plan if you feel like you’re not getting far enough.
Hopefully by now you have a decent handle on why arthritis occurs and broad lifestyle strategies you can implement to make it better.
The next article will answer the following questions:
- What supplements should I take to support my arthritis, if any?
- Are there any oils I can use?
- What sorts of things should I cook?
- What sorts of exercises can I do that won’t give me pain?
- What would a sample day’s worth of food look like for this sort of plan?
Diet and Inflammation: A Link to Metabolic and Cardiovascular Diseases.
Prior, Ronald. “Fruits and Vegetables in the Prevention of Cellular Oxidative Damage”
Simopoulos, Artemis. “Omega-3 fatty acids in health and disease and in growth and development”
Simopoulos, Artemis. “Omega-3 Fatty Acids in Inflammation and Autoimmune Diseases”
Watkins, Bruce, et. al. “Modulatory effect of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids on osteoblast function and bone metabolism”
Watkins, Bruce, et. al. “Omega-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids and Skeletal Health”
Cantorna, Margherita, et. al. “Mounting Evidence for Vitamin D as an Environmental Factor Affecting Autoimmune Disease Prevalence“