How a Vegetarian or Vegan Diet Can Help With Arthritis

The average person knows that arthritis is a disease, and that it affects the joints, but that's often where the understanding ends. Common wisdom often asserts that it's a disease for old people, suggesting that it's some kind of degenerative disease related to aging, but that isn't strictly true. 

All About Arthritis

The fact is, arthritis is a very common disease, but it's not all that well understood. In fact, to call it a disease is not quite accurate. "Arthritis" is actually a collection of over 100 different diseases and disorders, all characterized with similar symptoms. They can show up in people young and old, of all different races and sexes and more. The disease group is one of the leading causes of disability in America, with how common it is.

Arthritis in general is characterized by a few specific symptoms. The most well-known of these is joint pain and swelling, but it can also include stiffness and decreased range of motion in your joints. It can come and go, or it can be persistent. It can be mild, moderate, or severe. Sometimes it sticks around at the same level for years, and sometimes it escalates in severity over time. Some forms of arthritis can even affect organs including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and even eyes.

Obviously, many of us want to control our bodies using natural means. We don't like the idea of being reliant on synthetic medicines when it's possible that a simple change in dietary habits can relieve symptoms or even cure a disease. So is it possible to do so with arthritis?

In large part, managing a disease like arthritis depends on knowing the disease. Since there are so many different varieties of arthritis and related joint diseases, it's difficult to make any broadly applicable statements. You need to know your variation of the disease, the dysfunction that causes your symptoms, and the triggers that exacerbate it. Some of them can be improved with diet, while others might not.

Some of the major types of arthritis and their symptoms and characteristics are:

Degenerative Arthritis. This is most commonly osteoarthritis, or arthritis in the bones. In your body, your joints are lubricated and cushioned by cartilage. Over time, this cartilage degrades and wears away. This causes bone to rub against bone, which causes everything from stiffness to swelling to pain. Over time, when not treated properly, this leads to bone degradation, chronic pain, and limited range of movement. 

Osteoarthritis is often managed with a variety of common treatments, including limiting physical activity – particularly repeated activity – and maintaining a healthy weight to limit stress on joints. Assistive devices like a cane, walker, or chair can help as well. Anti-inflammatory medicines such as pain relievers are also a common treatment.

Inflammatory Arthritis. This form of arthritis is typically an autoimmune disease. In a normal, healthy body, your immune system functions to attack diseases and foreign bodies, to help prevent infection and disease. One characteristic of the body attacking a foreign agent is inflammation. Inflammation isn't bad, per se, it's your body simply increasing blood flow and access to a site to attack something.

Unfortunately, sometimes the immune system gets confused and starts attacking something it shouldn't. Any time this happens, it's usually called an autoimmune disease. When it attacks the bowels, you get Inflammatory Bowel Disease. When it attacks the nerves, you get Multiple Sclerosis. When it attacks the pancreas and insulin, you get Type 1 Diabetes. When it attacks cartilage in the joints, you get Rheumatoid Arthritis.

This is a much trickier version of the disease to manage, because your diet doesn't really interact all that much with your immune system directly. Some habits, like smoking, can drive it insane, but in general your diet isn't going to affect it much. Still, maintaining a healthy diet won't hurt anything.

Infectious Arthritis. This form of arthritis is typically a side effect of some form of bacterial or viral infection. Anything from salmonella to food poisoning to Chlamydia can lead to arthritis-like symptoms. Typically, this form of arthritis is a side effect of a different disease, and treating the original disease will lessen or remove the side effects.

Metabolic Arthritis. Your body naturally produces uric acid through normal functioning. Normally, this is processed by the kidneys and expelled in the urine. However, sometimes too much builds up, either through dietary processes, natural production, or kidney disease. A build-up of uric acid can form crystals in the body. In the kidneys, these are kidney stones. However, these crystals can also form in the joints, where the sharp, needle-like crystals damage the joints. This is characterized by extreme spikes in joint pain, or the symptoms of gout. Diet is a large contributing factor to this kind of arthritis.

How a Vegan or Vegetarian Diet Can Help Arthritis

There are three levels of diet that fall under the broad category of a vegetarian diet, and they all may have the ability to improve the symptoms of arthritis.

These three forms of diet are:

  • Vegan. This is the strictest form of diet, where the consumer cuts out all forms of animal products and byproducts as much as possible. Some animal-derived supplements or vitamins may still be used, but rarely.
  • Vegetarian. This is a less strict version of veganism, where the consumer cuts out any form of animal product derived from slaughter, including animal flesh and seafood, but are fine eating animal byproducts such as dairy and eggs.
  • Modified Vegetarian or Veganism. There are two broad categories of modifications; ovo and lacto. Ovo-vegans and Ovo-vegetarians are willing to eat eggs, as the production of eggs is natural and does not harm the animal. Lacto-vegans and lacto-vegetarians will allow themselves dairy products for the same reasons. In many cases, such modifications depend on sourcing ethically farmed eggs or dairy rather than products produced in factory farms that may be cruel or unethical in nature.

We aren't going to cover each of these diets individually in terms of their effect on arthritis, since they are all so similar. The specific range of the diet isn't the important part. The important part is just that these diets all tend to be healthier on average then unrestricted diets.

In fact, other major diets can have a similar effect on arthritis, though with different causes. Keto, which is more or less the opposite of a vegan diet, can also be considered a healthy diet and can have some beneficial effects on arthritis. Likewise, a balanced diet such as a Mediterranean diet can have similar benefits. The key is not to restrict your diet, but to eat a health, balanced diet.

So how do these diets help arthritis? 

Diet-followers are less likely to be overweight. One of the key factors in developing arthritis is simply manual joint damage. Repetitive stress on your joints from activities such as running, computer or phone use, or repeated, restricted manual labor can put extreme stress on the joints. This wears down cartilage quickly and doesn't give the joints time to regenerate. 

Now, following a vegan diet doesn't have anything to do with joint stress from manual actions. What it does do, however, is make you more likely to lose weight and maintain a low, healthy body weight. Less body weight means less weight pulling and pushing on your joints, which means less stress grinding your bones through your cartilage. The heavier you are, the more stress you put on your joints, and the more likely you are to develop arthritis symptoms sooner in life.

Following a vegan or vegetarian diet, modified or otherwise, is often used as a way to lose weight. Losing weight typically benefits any number of diseases, from diabetes to arthritis to cancer. The key, though, is to actually restrict your diet. Even a vegetarian can be overweight if they eat too much.

Diet-followers are more likely to emphasize getting all of their essential vitamins and nutrients. When you're concerned about your diet and you're paying attention to what you're eating, you're more likely to make sure you're getting all of the assorted nutrients, vitamins, and minerals your body needs to remain healthy. 

That's not to say that meat eaters are likely to have deficiencies. Everyone can have a nutrient deficiency, and in fact vegans are prone to certain deficiencies of nutrients primarily found in meat-based sources. The key here is not the diet specifically, but simply paying attention to what you're eating and what nutrients you may need more of to remain healthy.

Diet-followers typically have lower blood pressure and cholesterol. The link between blood pressure and blood cholesterol and arthritis is not clear. However, it is well known that high blood pressure is typically – though not necessarily – unhealthy.

Cholesterol, meanwhile, is a wax-like substance your body uses to protect nerves, produce cell tissue, and create hormones. It's naturally produced in the liver and obtained from food sources. There are two kinds of cholesterol, high-density and low-density. Low-density adds cholesterol to the body, while high-density removes it. High low-density cholesterol is damaging and can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

In general, anything that throws your body out of balance will lead to damage in sensitive areas, such as peripheral nerves, peripheral arteries, and joints. Cholesterol is no different. 

Vegan and Vegetarian diets are higher in anti-inflammatory ingredients. There are a number of different foods that have some level of natural anti-inflammatory properties, though there is still a lot of study left to do on how effective any of these properties actually are.

Foods that tend to cause or exacerbate inflammation include fried foods, sugar-sweetened and heavily processed foods, red meat, and lard or margarine. You'll notice that all of these are typically non-vegan.

Meanwhile, foods that have anti-inflammatory properties include vegetables like tomatoes and leafy greens, healthy fats such as olive oil, most nuts, fatty fish, and fruits such as berries and citrus. Among these, only fatty fish is non-vegan, which is why pescatarians – vegetarians that eat fish, basically – can gain many of the same benefits as vegetarians and vegans.

All of that said, it's not as simple as "switch to a vegan diet and your arthritis will go away." Most forms of arthritis are chronic and cannot be cured, only managed. Some may recede into a minor nuisance or go into remission for years at a time, but they never go away entirely. Only specific, acute forms of arthritis can be cured, and that's because they're actually just a side effect of a different, curable disease.

At the same time, a vegan or vegetarian diet is not without risk. These diets might lead to, for example, a deficiency in vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, or essential fatty acids. Since these are largely found in meats rather than in plant-based sources, a vegan or vegetarian may need to go out of their way to take supplements for these nutrients to ensure they get enough. Since B12, D, Calcium, and Fatty Acids all play a critical role in bone and cartilage health, a deficiency in these nutrients can lead to more inflammation and more damage to the joints. In other words, worse arthritis.

Should You Switch to a Vegan Diet?

With all of that in mind, is it worthwhile to switch to a vegan or vegetarian diet? The answer is a solid "maybe." For the most part, simply improving your diet in small ways will help with symptoms of arthritis, particularly if that dietary change helps you lose weight. If that means cutting out candy but otherwise maintaining your diet, fine. If that means switching to "meatless Mondays" to cut out some meat but not shift entirely, that works too.

The key to any successful diet is maintenance. You can't just switch to a vegan diet for a few weeks and cure your arthritis; you will need to maintain whatever diet you choose for years or for the rest of your life. That's why gradual changes tend to work the best.

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