The first thing I think of when I think of arthritis is pain. And the first thing I think of when I think of pain—whether it’s due to arthritis or not—is inflammation. In fact, arthritis is simply inflammation of a joint, usually accompanied by swelling, stiffness, and pain. It can be caused by a variety of things, including infection, degenerative changes, trauma, injury, or metabolic disturbances. While there are more than 100 different types of arthritis, osteoarthritis—wear and tear on the joints—is the most common.
When cartilage in the joints wears down, eventually you’re left with little or no shock absorbers—just bone rubbing on bone. That hurts. And over time, this rubbing will permanently damage the joint. Any joint can be affected; though it’s very common in the knees, arthritis can also affect the hips, neck, lower spine, hands, and feet. About two-thirds of all folks over age 65 have physical signs that you can actually see on an X-ray, but many don’t know they have it because they have no symptoms.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to combat arthritis and its symptoms. Foods that are rich in natural anti-inflammatories, such as apples and onions, are the go-to menu items for pain. In addition, there are some excellent supplements that are highly anti-inflammatory, such as omega-3s; some that are incredibly effective for pain, such as curcumin; and some that may help specifically with arthritis, such as glucosamine and chondroitin.
Omega-3s are some of the most anti-inflammatory molecules on the planet. They’re the parent molecules for anti-inflammatory hormone-like compounds in the body. But omega-6s—the fats found in those vegetable oils they keep telling us to consume—have the opposite effect. They’re the parent molecules for inflammatory compounds. Your body actually needs both inflammatory messengers and anti-inflammatory messengers, but they have to be in balance for optimum health.
The problem with the modern diet is that the ratio of omega-6 (inflammatory) to omega-3 (anti-inflammatory) is about 20:1. So in order to reduce inflammation, it’s important to cut back on your intake of omega-6s, which are in just about every processed food on the planet and are the major fatty acid in corn, sunflower, safflower, canola, and other common commercially processed vegetable oils.
Of course, you also need to boost your intake of anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Cold-water fish such as wild salmon are loaded with them. So are sardines and tuna. So it’s definitely a good idea to incorporate more fish into your diet. You can also supplement with fish oil or flax oil—I recommend Barlean’s Omega Swirls, which taste great and give you a much higher dose than most pills.
Fruits and Veggies
One of nature’s great anti-inflammatories is the flavonoid quercetin, which is found in apples, red onions, green tea, and other foods. So that old adage about an apple a day holds quite a lot of truth. Tart cherry extract—as well as cherry juice and dark cherries—is high in other anti-inflammatory compounds called anthocyanins. Studies at Michigan State University have shown that tart-cherry extract stops the formation of some inflammatory agents about 10 times as effectively as aspirin.
Blueberries have also been shown to fight inflammation as well as to protect against oxidative damage, due in part to their high anthocyanin content. You can get fresh blueberries year-round. Blueberry extract supplements, containing concentrated amounts of anthocyanin,
are also available.
Finally, cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts, should be a part of every anti-inflammatory diet. They contain plant chemicals known as indoles, which are widely appreciated for their anti-cancer activity. Less well known, however, is that these same indoles are powerful anti-inflammatories as well.
One supplement that really works for arthritis pain is curcumin, the compound found in the spice turmeric. It is supported by several clinical studies and known to be effective for pain. In one eight-month study of people with osteoarthritis, curcumin supplements reduced pain and stiffness, improved physical function, and reduced the need for drugs. Try 400 to 600 mg per day.
In addition, there are two other supplements I recommend specifically for arthritis: glucosamine sulfate and chondroitin. Glucosamine is naturally synthesized in the human body and is a basic building block of connective tissue—the cartilage in your knee, for example. Although we have an ample amount of the stuff when we’re young, we lose some of it as we age, leading to the thinning of cartilage, which frequently progresses to osteoarthritis. Though glucosamine can’t bring cartilage back, it can help prevent further loss of cartilage, as well as reduce symptoms such as pain, swelling, and joint stiffness. Chondroitin sulfate is another building block of connective tissue that actually stimulates the cartilage cells (called chondrocytes) and therefore works beautifully when paired with glucosamine to speed the regeneration and recovery of bone tissues.
Many studies have shown that glucosamine and/or chondroitin are beneficial in helping repair damage to the joints caused by osteoarthritis. For example, the Annual Scientific Meeting of the American College of Rheumatology in 2005 reported that the combination of glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate is at least as effective as Celebrex in treating pain caused by moderate to severe osteoarthritis.
The best studies used 1,500 mg of glucosamine a day, though many like the idea of “loading up” on 3,000 mg a day for the first month and then dropping down to 1,500. Pair it with chondroitin at around half the dose.
Remember, natural solutions—foods and supplements—work synergistically and may take some time to take effect. So follow the recommendations here consistently, give them some time to work, and you’re sure to get some relief!
illustration By Dave Klug
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DOCTOR’S BEST Glucosamine/Chondroitin/MSM This proven blend of purified glucosamine sulfate, bovine chondroitin sulfate, and pure MSM works synergistically to support healthy joints and connective tissue.