Vegan Diet Improves Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms
A strict vegetarian diet led to improvement in symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis (RA), according to a clinical trial published in Rheumatology (2001;40:1175–9).
Thirty-eight people with rheumatoid arthritis were assigned to consume a vegan diet (a vegetarian diet that also excludes dairy products and eggs) and also to avoid gluten-containing grains (wheat, oats, barley, and rye) for one year. Twenty-eight other people with RA were assigned to eat a more typical unrestricted diet, including meat (control group).
Only 22 of the 38 people assigned to eat the vegan diet completed at least nine months of the dietary intervention. Of those, 40% (nine people) experienced improvement in the symptoms of RA compared with only 4% (one person) in the group eating the standard diet.
RA is one of a group of conditions called autoimmune diseases. In autoimmune disease, the body’s immune system, which is designed to fight off infectious agents and other foreign substances, mistakenly attacks its own tissues. In RA, the autoimmune damage is to the joints, but other tissues and organs are frequently affected as well. Conventional therapy includes drugs that reduce inflammation or suppress the immune system. Surgery may also be recommended, if the joint damage is severe. While these treatments are often helpful, many individuals with RA continue to experience symptoms. Moreover, drugs used to treat RA can cause significant side effects, ranging from bleeding peptic ulcers to bone marrow damage. Any safe treatment that might help relieve symptoms of RA would, therefore, be welcomed.
There are several possible explanations for the improvements seen in this study. Meat is high in a specific fatty acid (arachidonic acid) that is believed to promote inflammation in the body. Because vegetarian diets contain less arachidonic acid than omnivorous diets, consuming a vegetarian diet might produce an anti-inflammatory effect. Another possible explanation for the improvement is that plant-based diets are high in certain anti-inflammatory compounds such as essential fatty acids and enzymes. Finally, the results may be attributable in part to the avoidance of common food allergens, such as wheat and dairy products. Although the relationship between food allergy and arthritis remains controversial, a growing body of evidence suggests that allergy is a contributing factor, at least in a minority of individuals with RA.
Other natural treatments that have been reported to be helpful for people with RA include zinc, borage oil, black currant seed oil, and fish oil. Individuals with RA who wish to pursue the dietary or nutritional-supplement approach should consult a doctor knowledgeable in natural medicine.
Matt Brignall, ND is a graduate of the University of Michigan and Bastyr University. He works at the Seattle Cancer Treatment and Wellness Center, where he specializes in complementary medicine approaches to cancer. He has been published in several journals, including Alternative Medicine Review, Coping With Cancer, and the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Dr. Brignall also teaches clinical nutrition at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. He is a regular contributor to Healthnotes, Healthnotes Newswire, and the Healthnotes Quick!Reference series.
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