When we’re young, we define dangerous activities as things such as untethered rock climbing, bungee jumping or swimming with sharks … without the cage. As we get older, we value our physical health more and take it for granted less, and might steer clear of strenuous or dangerous activities like sky diving or, in my case, sewing.
A new endeavor, I thought mapping out my pattern on the floor and bending over it would be my best strategy. The stretch felt good at first, but as I rose to get my scissors, I realized I’d pulled my hamstring. Is it even possible to pull a hammy sewing? As we get older, I hear tales of pulling muscles and tweaking backs just by getting out of the shower the wrong way, so the answer might, in fact, be a resounding “yes.”
Aches and pains aren’t anything new and are often attributed to aging, but how much must we ache as we age? Arthritis has many causes and risk factors, but is there any relief to be had from changing our diet and lifestyle?
Countries in South and Southeast Asia have reported the lowest instances of osteoarthritis (the most common form of arthritis), while countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland and Sweden are among the highest. Interestingly enough, arthritis is predominantly found in high-income countries (perhaps those with enough disposable income that they can rely mainly on processed foods?). Like obesity, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and other health afflictions, arthritis is on the rise. As it stands now, 30 percent of adults aged 45 to 64 have been diagnosed with arthritis, which affects more women than men.
Whatever the geography and no matter the income, arthritis is a manifestation of inflammation in our body that builds up in joints, making them swollen and extremely painful. Many treatments include medications that either block pain or inflammation, or both. Antidepressants and even anti-seizure medications are often prescribed to ailing patients and while they might alleviate symptoms, none of them addresses the root cause of why we are inflamed in the first place.
Modern medicine perpetually divides body parts into different specialties, but what we’re seeing more and more is the relationship among these different systems and how they all affect one another. Many diseases come back to inflammation and gut health, and arthritis is no exception. In her book “Healing Arthritis,” expert Dr. Susan Blum discusses the importance of addressing the gut microbiome and inflammation in general when it comes to healing arthritis. She stresses that arthritis is not an inevitable part of aging, as many of us believe it to be.
We often think there is little that food and lifestyle can do to heal arthritis. When I set out to write this column, I wondered if there was anything other than nightshade vegetables and possibly inflammatory proteins called lectins that could have an effect on painful joints. The good (and perhaps surprising) news is that yes, there certainly is. While obesity is a risk factor for arthritis and for inflammation in general, arthritis is not just about the weight load on our joints.
According to Blum, inflammation means different things for different people, but she says that “the gut is … the home of where inflammation begins for anybody.”
Some people can’t tolerate lectins, which are found in legumes, most grains and some vegetables (though they can typically be cooked, peeled or soaked out with the exception of peanuts). Some people don’t notice anything with lectins, but are in pain after a night with the nightshade family of vegetables (hello tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant and peppers). Blum suggests the same thing I recommend to my clients: Eliminate nightshades from your diet for a couple of weeks, add them in thereafter, and see how you feel. If you’re back to creaking around, voila — you’re sensitive to nightshades and avoiding them might help reduce your systemic inflammation.
While there are several types of arthritis, Blum suggests the same approach for osteoarthritis (what we consider normal wear and tear) and rheumatoid arthritis, or RA, an autoimmune and inflammatory disease. We’ve all heard the term leaky gut, but in an interview with Dr. Mark Hyman, Blum discusses its role in RA. Over time, inflammatory factors and foods (think stress, processed foods, poor quality oils and sugar among others) erode the lining of our intestinal wall, making it permeable. This allows bacteria to leave our intestines and enter our blood stream. Blum reports that various studies have found certain types of bacteria in RA patients’ joints, meaning their leaky gut was a significant contributor to their arthritis.
What to do?
Eating for inflammation
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet and incorporating many foods showcased in the Mediterranean diet can help stave off or reduce arthritis in its many forms. Foods rich in healthy fats and antioxidants like olive oil, avocado and wild-caught salmon help to reduce inflammation. As with anything, avoiding inflammatory oils, sugar and gut irritants, like emulsifiers and other additives present in processed foods, will aid overall health and lower levels of inflammation.
Load up on antioxidants and polyphenols.
Blum stresses that many people who suffer from arthritis have more oxidative stress than those who don’t. Oxidative stress is a manifestation of too many free radicals in our bodies, which can be aided with antioxidants and polyphenol-rich foods. A quick rule of thumb is to search out colorful veggies and fruits. The brighter, the better!
Maintain blood sugar.
Balancing our blood sugar is important in healing most any disease or condition. Eating balanced meals featuring whole grains (like real whole grains, not just a package that says “whole grain”), protein and veggies can aid glucose levels. Eating twice as many vegetables as fruits helps to stabilize our blood sugar, as well.
While we might not all need to eliminate sewing from our exercise routines (especially those who actually know how to do it well), movement plays an important role in staving off inflammation and arthritis. The trouble with inflammation is that it makes us hurt, and when we hurt, we move less and less. Balance exercises are reported to be helpful for arthritis sufferers, and swimming can make movement easier for stiff joints. Building strength is important for maintaining muscle mass. Yoga is terrific for all things wellness, but if that’s not your cup of green tea (which contains antioxidants), just walking a bit each day is also beneficial.
Relax and destress.
We must not underestimate the importance of relaxing and taking time for ourselves. Though resting is often thought of as laziness, relaxation, meditation or just a couple of deep breaths are powerful tools to combat stress and the inflammation it brings.