Rheumatic disease can be challenging to manage, as joint pain and inflammation can have a significant impact on a patient’s quality of life. The role of diet in managing a variety of chronic health conditions from inflammatory conditions to cancer is being increasingly explored.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation is the body’s automatic immune system response to an infectious trigger or injury. In autoimmune diseases, an abnormal immune response causes inflammation of joints and tendons. When inflammation is chronic and uncontrolled, as is often the case in rheumatological conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus, this can lead to pain, permanent joint damage, and disability.

What is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet is built on a set of dietary principles that emphasize consumption of foods rich in anti-inflammatory properties, while limiting or avoiding pro-inflammatory foods. Although recommendations vary, an anti-inflammatory diet generally encourages consumption of unprocessed foods like whole grains, fruits, leafy vegetables, lean protein, nuts, and oils with high monounsaturated and/or polyunsaturated fatty acid content.

Basic components of an anti-inflammatory diet include:

  1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids: These help to reduce the production of inflammatory mediators. Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), flax seeds, chia seeds, walnuts, and almonds are some foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
  2. Antioxidants: These compounds help to neutralize harmful free radicals and decrease oxidative stress, which are often high in people with chronic inflammation. Antioxidant-rich foods include colorful fruits and vegetables (particularly those rich in vitamins C and E, beta-carotene, and flavonoids). Berries and leafy greens are great choices.
  3. Whole Grains: The fiber in whole grains promotes a healthy gut microbiome, which plays a critical role in immune regulation and inflammation control. Whole grains like brown rice, quinoa, and whole wheat are examples of foods in this category.
  4. Spices and Herbs: Certain spices and herbs (such as turmeric, ginger, and garlic) contain bioactive compounds with anti-inflammatory effects. Curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, is well known for its potential to modulate inflammatory pathways.
  5. Other Healthy Fats: Mono- and polyunsaturated fats found in olive oil, avocados, and nuts have been linked to reduced inflammation and improved cardiovascular health.

Does Scientific Evidence Support Anti-inflammatory Diet for Rheumatologic Conditions?

There are a limited number of well-designed studies on dietary patterns and nutrients, so it is difficult to make disease-specific recommendations. However, based on the literature, the Mediterranean diet – characterized by its emphasis on whole or minimally processed foods, fruits, vegetables, fish, and olive oil – has been shown to have beneficial effects.

In patients with rheumatoid arthritis, multiple studies have shown an association between an anti-inflammatory diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and fiber and decreased levels of inflammatory markers.

In individuals with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), a study published in Rheumatology (Oxford) in 2021 suggested that adherence to a Mediterranean diet might have a positive impact on disease activity and damage accrual.

For people with other pro-inflammatory conditions, curcumin may offer therapeutic benefit alone or in combination with other treatments.

Although an anti-inflammatory diet cannot replace traditional treatment, emerging evidence suggests that it can serve as a valuable complementary approach to alleviate joint pain and promote overall well-being.

Key Takeaways to Advise Your Patients About an Anti-inflammatory Diet

  1. Eat colorful fruits (berries, citrus fruits) and vegetables (green leafy vegetables).
  2. Consume fatty fish as a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.
  3. Use anti-inflammatory spices and herbs (turmeric, ginger, garlic).
  4. Choose whole grains over refined grains.
  5. Replace trans- and saturated fats with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil).
  6. Limit refined/processed foods and sugary foods/beverages (sodas and fruit juices).
  7. Increase intake of almonds, walnuts, and pine nuts.

Any dietary changes should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian, especially in patients with co-existing health conditions. By embracing the principles of an anti-inflammatory diet with appropriate medical care, individuals living with rheumatologic disorders can lead a more comfortable life.

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