Around 10 million Brits have arthritis and it can affect people of all ages. Here’s how to lower your chances
However controversial the maxim ‘you can’t outrun a bad diet’ is proving to be, it has a point when it comes to arthritis. The issue here is inflammation, which is your body’s crisis response to perceived threats. When permanently raised, this contributes to a host of conditions, including joint pain. Saturated fats can cause inflammation, so full-fat dairy, fried foods, cakes and biscuits hold dangers beyond derailing your best intentions for a calorie deficit. Omega 3 fatty acids, however, have been shown to ease some forms of inflammatory arthritis. Swap processed fats for rapeseed oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts, and add oily fish such as sardines, mackerel and salmon to your meals.
Damage to joints, whatever the cause, is progressive in most cases, so catching joint pain early can be crucial to slowing the deterioration. As tempting as it is to train through the pain, unusual pain, swelling or stiffness in your joints should be seen by your doctor. As Arthritis Research points out, the earlier you get diagnosed, the better the outcome. Developing a treatment plan tailored to a specific form of arthritis can help you stay active, which will in turn protect your overall wellbeing and help keep contributing factors in check.
If you have a tendency to focus obsessively on your protein intake or omega 3 levels, take a moment to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. “Overall, the significance of diet in preventing osteoarthritis relates mainly to maintaining a healthy weight, rather than adopting a specific type of diet,” says Phil. “Unless somebody has a specific diagnosed deficiency in a particular mineral, supplements aren’t generally necessary. We would always recommend a healthy, balanced diet, including all the key food groups and nutrients, combined with an active lifestyle.”
Okay, so it’s a cliché – but a useful one. “Orange vegetables, including carrots, squash and sweet potato, are extremely high in carotenoids, a family of substances that have anti-inflammatory properties,” says nutritionist Shona Wilkinson (shonawilkinson.com). “Some of these carotenoids, such as beta-carotene, can also convert to vitamin A in the body, which is vital for regulating and balancing our immune system.” Brightlypigmented berries, such as strawberries, raspberries and tart cherries, are all shown to reduce inflammation.
“Previous joint injury is one of the biggest risk factors for developing osteoarthritis,” says Phil, “though often osteoarthritis is the result of a number of factors acting together, including age, gender, being overweight or obese, genetics and a history of other conditions affecting the joints (such as rheumatoid arthritis or gout). Making sure that a sports-related injury to a joint is properly managed may help to mitigate the risk of developing osteoarthritis in that joint later on.”
You probably know that vitamin D is an important nutrient for healthy bones. What you may not know is that it also modulates your immune system, suppressing inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis – the autoimmune form of the condition. Recent research conducted at the University of Birmingham found that vitamin D’s fight against inflammation is most effective before diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis take hold, as cells can become insensitive to the nutrient. Sunlight levels in the UK should be sufficient to keep your vitamin D topped up between March and September, but dietary sources or supplements are worth taking once autumn arrives.
The populations of bacteria in our gut have been linked to just about every aspect of our health in recent years and arthritis is no exception. Researchers noting a correlation between low levels of gut microbes and high incidence of joint pain are getting closer to understanding the role our intestinal bacteria plays in arthritis. In fact, scientists in Germany recently found that a high-fibre diet had the effect of encouraging gut microbes to produce more of the short-chain fatty acids that fight inflammation and improve joint function.
“It’s widely accepted that exercise is good for the joints, as well as for general health, and there’s plenty of evidence that increasing your level of physical activity can ease symptoms of osteoarthritis,” says Phil Conaghan, professor of musculoskeletal medicine at Leeds University and spokesperson for Arthritis Research UK. What about wear and tear on the joints? “Most studies suggest that only people at elite sport level are at increased risk, with the vast majority of leisure runners having no increased risk of osteoarthritis,” Phil explains. “The important points are to make sure you have the right sports equipment (including footwear), to develop good technique and to build up exercise gradually.”
There are a thousand and one health reasons for smokers to kick the habit, but preventing rheumatoid arthritis might be one of the overlooked benefits. “In fact, there’s been quite a lot of research to show that, if the population stopped smoking, a large number of cases of rheumatoid arthritis would be prevented,” says Professor Karim Raza in a podcast for the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Inflammation and Ageing. According to the National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society, even moderate smoking (classed as six to nine cigarette a day) carries a significant risk, as it raises the antibodies understood to contribute to developing the condition.
Nearly 30 percent of women in the UK are overweight but shifting pounds could help reduce your risk of arthritis. Research suggests that in overweight or obese adults, losing one pound in body weight equates to a lightening of four pounds of pressure on knee joints. With arthritis (in its many forms) creating pain in the joints, weight gain is a biggie when it comes to the condition of load-bearing knees and hips. Disheartened by recent weight-loss efforts? Don’t be. Your knees thank you for every pound.