by Pat Staszak
"Leave your drugs in the chemist's pot if you can heal the patient with food.”
-Hippocrates 460 – 377 B C
Osteoarthritis is our population’s most common disability and a huge burden on our healthcare system. In fact, 25 percent of all primary care doctor visits are osteoarthritis-related, and the incidence of arthritis has increased 30 percent in the last 10 years.
Last fall, we posted an article about chronic injuries and arthritis. It was written with an orthopedic focus — emphasizing posture, neutral joint alignment and a strong, balanced musculoskeletal system. It’s definitely the approach we teach our patients at APT to help them avoid injuries that could eventually lead to osteoarthritis.
But what about the rest of the story? How do nutrition, lifestyle and stress affect our joints? Turns out, more than you might think. The benefit of good nutrition is no secret. But lately, the causal relationship between chronic, low grade inflammation and poor nutrition has been getting more attention. This matters because inflammation is a major factor in many diseases, including diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer's, cardiovascular disease and osteoarthritis.
The risk factors for developing chronic inflammation are the same as those for osteoarthritis:
Poor nutritional choices can contribute to chronic, low grade inflammation. These include foods that are processed and high in sugar. Mechanical factors, such as physical inactivity or previous orthopedic injuries, can also pose a risk for developing chronic inflammation.
Obesity contributes to osteoarthritis in two ways. As we would expect, more body weight puts more stress through the joints. Additionally, body fat is a biomarker that contributes to the inflammatory process by actually secreting inflammatory hormones.
So yes, arthritis does occur as a result of old injuries and subsequent wear and tear. But more and more, we’re seeing the disease in individuals without previous injury. This is when poor nutritional choices, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity may be contributing factors.
What does this information mean for the treatment of osteoarthritis? Lifestyle changes have to be part of the treatment plan. It really does matter what we eat. In fact, the World Health Organization now recommends that nutrition be a vital aspect of orthopedic care. As physical therapists, we also need to incorporate nutritional counseling into our patients’ care plans.
To decrease your risk, you can start with a low inflammation diet. Like any healthy diet, an anti-inflammatory diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables. Additionally, you should avoid refined carbohydrates (such as pasta or white rice) whenever possible, and instead opt for whole grains (such as brown rice and bulgur wheat). Try to get most of your protein from lean sources, such as chicken, rather than from red meat or full-fat dairy foods. Make sure to include a good source of omega-3 fatty acids (such as fish oil or walnuts), and keep saturated and trans fats to a minimum. If you’re a fan of spices, feel free to include plenty of ginger and curry—both can have an anti-inflammatory effect!