I have rheumatoid arthritis, but I don’t have chronic joint pain thanks to regular exercise and a strict anti-inflammatory diet. When I say strict, I mean a whole foods diet with no dairy, no processed sugars, no animal proteins, no oils, and no alcohol. A lot of people tell me they couldn’t do what I do, but for me, eating a restricted diet beats the heck out of being in pain every day.
See Managing RA Fatigue Through Diet and Exercise
It took me years to get to this point. When I was initially diagnosed in 2006, my doctor told me I would have to take an RA drug like methotrexate for the rest of my life. Taking such powerful drugs seemed scary—and frankly, counterintuitive to me—and I refused them. I tried to relieve my symptoms with diet and alternative therapies, but nothing worked, and for the next year I was in agony. Nearly bedridden, I finally gave in to taking medications.
The medications relieved my symptoms and allowed me to live my life again. I also had a cortisone shot to relieve painful, intractable swelling in my left knee. But I didn’t give up hope that I could get off the medications one day.
I did research and found a study showing that people with RA who went on a 10-day water fast had a dramatic decrease in symptoms. I tried fasting, and sure enough my symptoms were gone within a couple of days. It was my aha moment.
Obviously, I needed to eat something, so I did more research and began experimenting with high-nutrient, anti-inflammatory foods, like leafy greens. Eventually I hit upon a handful of foods that worked for me, such as buckwheat groats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, leafy greens and dried seaweed. Slowly, over several months, I added in more vegetables and other whole foods, like rice, beans, fruits and nuts. And whenever I had an RA flare, I recalibrated immediately by eating just my baseline foods for a short period again.
Eventually I weaned myself off all my medications in close consultation with my rheumatologist. (I definitely don’t recommend anyone change medications without their doctor’s consent!) I’ve been free of medications for five years
Why did this dietary program work for me? I believe I healed my “leaky gut,” a term that describes intestinal permeability. Essentially, my intestines had too many tiny holes that allowed undigested food proteins to escape into my blood stream, where they are seen as a foreign body, causing my immune system to engage. With time, my joint tissue also came under fire from this attack, since their proteins look similar to those entering my blood, causing my rheumatoid symptoms to flare. My strict diet promoted beneficial bacteria growth and healing in my gut wall, allowing my immune system to relax.
A lot of doctors are dubious when they hear my story, but more and more often I hear from medical professionals who agree that diet can significantly impact rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
Even mainstream institutions like Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine acknowledge that RA can be caused by an imbalance of intestinal microbes—a condition called intestinal dysbiosis—along with other factors, like genetics.
I believe intestinal dysbiosis is a key contributor to RA. It helps explain why so many people I know began experiencing their RA symptoms after years of taking antibiotics to treat conditions such as acne (which is what I did) or chronic sinus infections. Antibiotics kill the unwanted bacteria, but they also kill the beneficial bacteria in your intestines. Kill too many good bacteria, and you have a microbial imbalance that can cause leaky gut.
Many people have tried my dietary and exercise program with great success. Others have tried it and notice a decrease in symptoms but still need their medications (though often fewer medications, or smaller doses). Every person is unique, and not everyone is able to eliminate their RA symptoms through diet and exercise alone. But one thing is for sure, no one has told me the strict plant-based diet makes their RA symptoms worse!