What you eat is crucial for so many conditions, such as diabetes, it would be great if the right food could also help ease chronic pain. Unfortunately, the link between food and pain is not as clear.
However, inflammation is a key cause of pain in many conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis. And there is some evidence to suggest that certain foods might help ease inflammation. Medication is proven to help RA symptoms, but some people do feel that food affects how they feel and function.
Here are some foods that could be potentially harmful or helpful when it comes to pain; use trial and error to see if they work for you.
Salmon is rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and these same compounds may also help reduce pain-promoting inflammation. That makes it a win-win for people with rheumatoid arthritis, who have greater risk of heart trouble than people without RA.
Studies have suggested that the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may protect against developing rheumatoid arthritis and could mitigate the severity of the disease. "If you have rheumatoid arthritis, it would not hurt to consume these,” says Dr. Hyon Choi, professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine. Tuna, mackerel and sardines are also excellent sources of omega-3.
Best: Olive oil
Olive oil works much the same way as omega-3s do—by potentially reducing painful joint inflammation, says Choi. It's also a staple of the famed Mediterranean diet, which was shown in a 2003 study not only to reduce inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis patients, but also to enhance physical function and vitality. A compound called oleocanthal, which gives olive oil its taste, may have the same effect in the body as aspirin, ibuprofen, and other NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs).
Keep in mind, though, that olive oil has as many calories as other types of fat so don't overdo it.
This spice, used liberally in India and other parts of Asia to add taste and also a creamy yellow color to foods, may also have some anti-inflammatory properties, although those effects are likely to be "very, very mild," says Dr. Eric L. Matteson, chair of rheumatology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The magic ingredient may be curcumin, the active compound in turmeric.
Best (and worst): Milk
Some research suggests dairy products are good for rheumatoid arthritis while others seem to indicate that they’re bad. People who are allergic to the protein casein found in milk will develop joint swelling if they drink milk, says Matteson. This is true even if they don’t have rheumatoid arthritis.
On the other hand, a study of almost 30,000 women in Iowa found that those who consumed high levels of vitamin D via various milk products had a lower risk of rheumatoid arthritis. Vitamin D may have anti-inflammatory effects in the body.
Onions contain tons of phytochemicals that may reduce inflammation. One study identified quercetin, a compound found in this vegetable, as a possible mediator for this effect. Onions have also shown some anti-cancer effects. And let's not forget they add taste, with virtually no calories.
A clove of garlic may be able to fight off not only vampires, but arthritis as well. Like onions, this flavorful little bulb may have properties that may keep your joints from aching.
"Garlic has phytochemicals that have been shown in mouse and rat studies as well as in test-tube studies to shut off the inflammatory pathways, similar to ibuprofen," says Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Best (and worst): Alcohol
Several studies have shown that people who drink in moderation have a lower risk of being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, and if they do have RA, moderate drinkers seem to have less severe symptoms, including pain, than non drinkers.
But beware of alcohol if you're taking medications for RA, cautions Sandon. "Drugs can interact with alcohol," she says.
Best: Raspberries, Strawberries and Blackberries
These berries contain phytochemicals known as anthocyanins, which may offer a benefit. "Anthocyanins stop inflammatory compounds in their tracks," says Sandon.
In one study, animals treated with red-raspberry extract were less likely to develop arthritis and less likely to have severe arthritis if they did develop the condition. There was also a protective effect on cartilage. Anthocyanins are responsible for the vibrant blue, red and purple colors seen in a variety of berries.
Worst: Bacon, butter and cream
The saturated fats in bacon and other animal products contain arachidonic acid, which may worsen inflammation and related pain and swelling.
So skip the prime rib, a cut of meat that is particularly high in fat and calories, and select lean proteins instead, says Sandon.
Best: Broccoli and other veggies
And it's not just broccoli—a vegetable-rich diet in general may be helpful. One study found that people who regularly ate cooked vegetables had a 61 percent decreased risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis compared to those who didn't.
Other research has found that vegetarian diets may help with swollen joints and joint pain. "Vegetables in general have been associated with a protective effect on the development of rheumatoid arthritis," says Choi.
But not just any cherry. "There's some evidence that tart cherries can affect the sensation of pain," says Sandon. And studies have shown decreases in blood levels of a number of different inflammatory markers associated with consuming this tree fruit. Cherries have a reputation for relieving gout, another form of arthritis that involves repeat episodes of pain.
In fact, a study conducted by Choi found that people who ate cherries over a period of two days had a 35 percent lower risk of gout attacks than those who didn't.
Worst: Red meat
High in saturated fat, studies suggest people who eat a diet that contains a lot of red meat are at greater risk of inflammatory arthritis.
Why? It's not clear, but meat fats or corrosive free radicals from iron may promote inflammation. Either way, limit your consumption of red meat, not only for pain, but also for your heart.
Best (and worst): Eggplant
Eggplant is a "nightshade vegetable," in the same category as tomatoes and potatoes. Evidence is mixed on the benefit—or harm—of these items.
"There are people who claim nightshades are helpful and others who claim they're aggravating or not helpful," says Dr. Matteson. There's no evidence that support claims one way or the other. And cutting out nighshades may cut you off from other helpful compounds, such as capsaicin in red peppers, which can dampen inflammation.
People with celiac disease, which is a severe gluten intolerance, can develop arthritis, so some people with rheumatoid arthritis steer clear of this ingredient.
Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley, and many grain products including breads, pasta, and cereal. Some medicines, vitamins, and lip balms may contain gluten too. You can choose legumes, nuts, quinoa, and rice instead.
But keep in mind that eating a completely gluten-free diet can be a challenge (and expensive), so no need to do so if gluten doesn't seem to be a problem.
Worst: Sugary drinks
There's really no clear evidence that sugary drinks are good or bad for chronic pain. However, they tend to be low in nutrients and relatively high in calories, and may be a contributor to the obesity epidemic.
In general, being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis by 24%, according to a recent study authored by Matteson. Carrying around extra weight also puts unnecessary stress on already beleaguered joints. So it might be best to avoid them as part of your healthy-eating plan.
Some types of yogurt contain probiotics—or beneficial microorganisms—and some researchers now believe there may be a connection between rheumatoid arthritis and the gut.
If that's the case, the more good bugs the better. "There's a theory that a healthy gut may control some of the inflammation . . . if you have good bacteria fighting for you," says Sandon.
Like other dairy products, yogurt may be fortified with beneficial vitamin D (check the label), but best to avoid it if you have an allergy.