Arthritis is a term used to describe many conditions that relate to joint pain, stiffness and inflammation. According to the NHS, there are more than 10 million people in the UK who have (at least) one of the many similar conditions that are covered by the term arthritis. As such, these conditions can definitely be viewed as very common and they can affect people of any age, including children. Contrary to popular belief, therefore, arthritis is not simply a disease suffered by old people on account of general wear and tear.
In this article, we will attempt to assess whether a vegan diet can reduce the symptoms of arthritis or even – as claimed by some medical professionals and people with (or formerly with) arthritis – whether a vegan diet can effectively cure arthritis. After we delve into the scientific and anecdotal evidence for such claims, we will explain a little more about the conditions that commonly fall under the umbrella of arthritis. If you are unsure about the types of conditions arthritis refers to skip to that section first.
Can a Vegan Diet Help Reduce Arthritis Symptoms or the Risk of Developing Arthritis?
Based on the risk factors for developing arthritis (which we will discuss later in the article), it is clear that there are some things that you simply cannot change: your age and your genes being two of the most crucial when it comes to arthritis. But one of the biggest risk factors of arthritis that can make a difference is being overweight.
As we explain in detail in our article on Vegan Weight Loss, there is strong evidence to show that – on average – vegans have a significantly lower body mass index (BMI) than meat-eaters. And, this comes from a robust research study that included almost 38,000 participants in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford) study.
Of course, it is possible to be vegan and not healthy and not lose weight. There are so many vegan alternatives to common processed foods these days that simply going vegan does not automatically mean you will be healthier or that you will lose weight. A diet of vegan sausages and vegan ice cream is not a recipe for healthy living! But a well-planned vegan diet that includes lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and good sources of plant-based protein and vegan fibre has many health benefits, not least in reducing the risk of developing heart disease and potentially even reversing diabetes (type 2) – as shown by strong research carried out by the Diabetic Association.
Research in Relation to Veganism & Arthritis
When it comes to arthritis and veganism, there is an increasing body of evidence (albeit often anecdotal) that points to some other reasons why a vegan diet could reduce the risk of developing certain conditions that affect the joints. Arthritis Action suggests that “the polyphenols, antioxidants and phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables could reduce inflammation” and given that a vegan diet is based on fruit and vegetables, this is clearly something that is good news for those following a plant-based diet.
There is some scientific research out there that suggests a vegan diet – and specifically a low-fat vegan diet – could benefit those with rheumatoid arthritis. Though the sample size was small (24 patients with rheumatoid arthritis), the 2002 study concluded that, “patients with moderate-to-severe RA, who switch to a very low-fat, vegan diet can experience significant reductions in RA symptoms”. It is thought this is because a low-fat vegan diet, in this case, reduced both the rheumatoid factor (by around 10% after four weeks) and the C-reactive protein (by around 16% after four weeks), both of which are associated with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.
There is also evidence that suggests a vegan diet might improve the faecal microbial flora (essentially the gut bacteria), and that this could have a beneficial effect in decreasing rheumatoid arthritis activity. Again, this research is based on a small sample (43 participants), but it shows some promising signs that a vegan diet could reduce some of the bio-chemicals that can cause inflammation in joints (and other areas of the body).
Another study published in 2015, looked at whether a whole-foods, plant-based diet could alleviate the symptoms of osteoarthritis (OA). Based on 76 participants, the study concluded that, “The present and earlier studies provide further evidence for the beneficial effects of WFPB diets in many patients with OA”. They also went on to state they hoped the study would lead to an “increased appreciation and clinical evaluation of dietary variables and that WFPB diet therapies are recommended as an adjunct to standard medical management of this debilitating chronic disease”.
Many of the studies that suggest positive links between plant-based diets and a reduction in the severity or frequency of symptoms of arthritis contain relatively few participants. As such, larger-scale studies or meta-studies (that analyse many studies together to draw more robust conclusions) would be needed to solidify the case for veganism being an effective alternative (or an additional option) to medication for people with arthritis.
Could a Vegan Diet Reverse Arthritis?
There is no solid scientific evidence – based on well-constructed research studies – we found that confirms that arthritis can actually be reversed in a person who changes to a plant-based diet. But there are plenty of anecdotal accounts dotted around that certainly appear to make that claim. With such claims, it is very difficult to draw general conclusions because, though it might have worked for that person under their particular circumstances, there could have been any number of confounding variables involved.
As well as changing their diet, did they take any different medication, did they alter their exercise regime, sleep patterns, employment status, stop smoking or drinking alcohol? Such factors could be taken into account to a large extent in a research study (of sufficient quality and size) but given there are so many things that can affect the outcome of an individual it is impossible to draw concrete conclusions based on their testimonies alone.
Having said that, some of the stories people have told could certainly serve to prompt wider research in the area of plant-based diets and arthritis and it might be that people with arthritis could be encouraged to at least try veganism (or cutting down certain animal-derived foods) after reading people’s personal accounts of what has happened when they have dropped meat and dairy from their diets.
Irrespective of the direct impact on arthritis of a plant-based diet, there is little doubt (based on robust research studies) that changing from a diet with lots of meat and other animal products to one based on vegetables, fruits, pulses, whole grains, nuts and seeds is very likely to result in a reduction in BMI. Given that being overweight or obese is one of the major risk factors for developing arthritis (among other health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes), making even a partial shift towards a plant-based diet (for instance, being plant-based five days out of seven) is likely to have lasting health benefits. We discuss many of the benefits of a plant-based diet in our article on Health Reasons to Go Vegan.
Concerns About Veganism & Arthritis
One objection to using vegan diets as a potentially useful mechanism to help lessen the effects of arthritis is that there is a common perception that a plant-based diet cannot include sufficient levels of omega-3 and other fatty acids. Such fatty acids have been shown to help alleviate joint pain in patients with certain arthritis conditions. But, as we explain in our Vegan Omega-3 Sources article, it is not hard to get good levels of α-linolenic acid (from which the body can synthesise other fatty acids) from such plant-based foods as walnuts, various seeds, linseed oil and rapeseed oil. There are also various vegan-friendly omega-3 supplements available.
Another common misconception about a plant-based diet is that it is not easy to get enough protein. But as we explain in our vegan protein article, this is not only untrue but it could be argued that the protein sources on a vegan diet are healthier overall than those on an omnivorous diet as they tend to contain higher levels of dietary fibre and lower levels of saturated fat.
Protein is essential for the repair of tissue and to maintain health in general and it can help reduce food consumption as it increases satiety. Some proteins are associated with increased inflammation, however, but these tend to be proteins synthesised in the body under certain conditions (such as the CCL28 that is produced in the body when oxygen levels are low) rather than specific proteins found in most foods.
What Is Arthritis?
Though arthritis technically covers a wide range of conditions, the term is generally associated with swelling, pain and inflammation in various joints of the body. As well as pain, this commonly results in stiffness and reduced mobility in joints. Though it tends to be more prevalent in older people, it can occur in people of any age and the severity can be very different from person to person.
Some people, for instance, might suffer mild pain or stiffness localised to certain joints, while others might suffer chronic and debilitating pain in many joints, something that has a significant impact on their day-to-day activities. This could involve a reduced ability to perform fine motor skills, such as playing musical instruments, or it could make things like climbing stairs excruciatingly painful or difficult.
As mentioned, there are various types of arthritis and similar conditions that are related to an inflammation of joints or other areas of the body. Indeed, according to The Arthritis Foundation, the US non-profit organisation supporting people with arthritis, there are “more than 100 types of arthritis and related conditions”. Here we will outline the most common ones with some brief information about each. We’ll also look at what might cause the conditions and outline some of the risk factors involved (many of which are common to other health conditions such as heart disease or diabetes).
Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in the UK with almost nine million people affected. Initially, it affects the cartilage in joints which can restrict movement and causes pain and potentially stiffness. Swelling and bony spurs (called osteophytes) can occur when the cartilage lining has thinned out and the ligaments and tendons are put under more strain.
If the cartilage is worn out to a very severe degree, there is nothing to stop bones rubbing against each other in joints which can begin to alter the structure of the joints themselves and cause even greater levels of pain and restrict movement yet further.
Though osteoarthritis can occur at any age (often as a result of joint injury or another joint-inflammatory condition in younger people), it usually develops in older people (from their mid-40s onwards). It is also more prevalent in women and those who have family members who have had it in the past. It can occur in many different joints in the body but the most common joints that are affected are as follows:
- Finger & Hand Joints
- Knee Joints
- Hips Joints
- Vertebrae (spine)
Rheumatoid arthritis is the second most common arthritis condition in the UK and it affects around 400,000 people. In this condition, the body’s immune system turns on its own joints, first targeting the synovium (the outer covering of the joint) and then often spreading across more of the joint. This leads to swelling and pain in the joints and it can lead to misshaping of joints that have the knock-on effect of wearing out the cartilage and/or the bone itself.
As well as joints, rheumatoid arthritis can also lead to problems for other parts of the body, including the heart and circulatory system, the eyes or the lungs. It can also cause rheumatoid nodules (small lumps) to appear under the skin around joints and other bony areas.
The medical profession is not sure exactly why, but women are around three times more likely to be affected by rheumatoid arthritis than men, according to the NHS. Some of the early signs and symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis include the following:
- Joint Pain – This could be quite mild at first but if accompanied by swelling, stiffness and a feeling of tenderness that lasts for at least a few weeks, it could be a sign of the condition.
- Smaller Joints Affected – The condition tends to materialise in the smaller joints of the wrists, hands and feet before any of the larger joints (such as hips or knees).
- Symmetry – If the same joints on both sides of the body are affected, this could also be a sign of rheumatoid arthritis.
Another relatively common arthritis condition, gout affects around one in 40 people in the UK according to the UK Gout Society. It causes often severe swelling in joints, commonly those in the feet, and these can occur quite suddenly. Gout is caused by hyperuricaemia – too much uric acid in the bloodstream. This usually occurs because the kidneys have been unable to remove enough uric acid from the blood and it has begun to form urate crystals under the skin and in and around someone’s joints.
There are many suspected and known causes of gout, including eating lots of rich foods, drinking lots of alcohol, undertaking certain crash diets or taking some medications, such as aspirin or diuretics. It is also linked to many other health problems, such as obesity, cardiovascular problems, kidney disease and psoriasis.
Other Types of Arthritis
Often developing in young adults, ankylosing spondylitis (AS) usually affects the spine and can result in stiffness, back pain, swelling and fatigue. Though the cause of AS is not known for sure, there are some signs that there is a genetic factor involved. There’s also no cure and no way to reverse the damage, with physiotherapy and pain relief medicine usually used as treatment methods.
This arthritis condition affect the neck and shoulders causing stiffness and pain. It often results in headaches that originate at the back of the neck. Cervical spondylosis can sometimes be improved by undertaking certain exercises and by making improvements to your posture. Painkillers are also given to people who experience ongoing pain and stiffness.
Unlike some arthritis conditions, fibromyalgia, sometimes referred to as fibromyalgia syndrome, causes pain in all parts of the body. People with fibromyalgia can experience a range of potentially debilitating symptoms, including increased sensitivity to pain, muscle pain and stiffness, headaches and even digestive problems.
As with many similar conditions, there is no complete cure for fibromyalgia and treatment is generally focused on reducing the severity of the symptoms. The cause is not fully understood and it can sometimes be triggered by either physical stress (such as childbirth or a major operation) or psychologically stressful occurrences, such as losing a close relative or some kind of traumatic event.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease that has a range of symptoms, including rashes, joint pain, severe bouts of fatigue, and sometimes hair loss, high temperature, a person’s skin having a high level of sensitivity to sunlight. Also known as systemic lupus erythematosus, the condition tends to flare up and for weeks at a time and then settle down for a while, though some people have more constant symptoms.
Various medications are used to treat the symptoms of lupus though there is no known cure. The causes of lupus are not known either and it can be triggered by such things as menopause, viral infections, childbirth or going through puberty.
Psoriatic arthritis is an arthritis condition that tends to develop some years after the skin condition psoriasis is diagnosed and can cause painful swelling and stiffness in joints, often the knees, hands, feet and ankles. The condition occurs because the immune system attacks healthy tissue in the skin and joints when it shouldn’t.
If someone has psoriasis it does not necessarily mean they will develop psoriatic arthritis. If diagnosed early, corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs (DMARDs) can be used to slow the progression of the condition.
Similar in many ways to fibromyalgia, enteropathic arthritis is a condition that often affects people who have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), for example, ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease. Around 20% of people with those conditions also develop enteropathic arthritis.
Whilst it commonly affects the limbs, it can also affect the spine and abdominal pain can also be a symptom. As with most arthritis conditions, there is no known cure for enteropathic arthritis and the cause is thought to be genetic in nature. The condition can flare up for weeks at a time or be more chronic in some patients.
Juvenile Idiopathic Arthritis (JIA)
The most common form of arthritis in children and teenagers, juvenile idiopathic arthritis can cause pain and inflammation in various joints around the body with hands, ankles, knees and elbows often affected.
It is actually an umbrella term that incorporates various joint conditions in youngsters and these can vary in symptom severity, location and presentation. Some of the conditions mentioned above can manifest in children and would therefore fit under the JIA category.
What Causes Arthritis?
As you will have seen from our brief descriptions of many of the conditions that are linked under the term “arthritis”, the cause of most of them is not known. Some instances of arthritis can be attributed to wear and tear, particularly when the person with symptoms is elderly.
But others could be caused by genetic factors or be triggered by life events, including physical or emotional stress of some kind, or be related to hormones. In short, there are so many possible causes, often working in tandem, that scientists have found it very difficult to ascertain the direct causes of most arthritis conditions (with gout and one or two others being exceptions).
Arthritis Risk Factors
Despite there being no specific cause for many arthritis conditions, there are various risk factors that are associated with some of them. These might be very strongly linked, such as those associated with gout, or less obviously linked. But given that many people presenting with symptoms of arthritis often have other specific health conditions, these have been identified as risk factors.
Some of these risk factors are things over which people have no control but there are others that people can certainly influence. Here we’ll list some of the main risk factors for arthritis as identified by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Carrying excess weight puts more stress on joints and especially the hips and knees which bear a lot of the weight. This is one of the risk factors that are potentially something that people can improve and – as we shall see later – something with which a vegan diet can certainly help.
Excessive use of joints can cause repetitive stress injuries that increase the likelihood of developing some kind of arthritis. This might come about due to certain types of repetitive exercise or through particular types of work that require such repetitive stress.
While it is not always easy to avoid if it is part of your job, there are often things that can be done to mitigate the effects. These could include learning about safe lifting, using power tools instead of manual tools and modifying physical exercise/techniques to reduce the stress on joints.
Smoking is one of the worst things a person can do in terms of their overall health, as we discuss in our article Are Cigarettes Vegan?. Aside from causing cancer (seven out of every 10 cases of lung cancer are caused by smoking!), and increasing your risk of heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a range of other nasties, it also leads to an increased risk of rheumatoid arthritis.
Whilst it is not easy, quitting smoking is the single biggest lifestyle change you can make to ensure you don’t die sooner than you should. There are tips for quitting on the NHS site, among many other places.
Unfortunately, until science advances to the levels seen only in science fiction, you are stuck with the genes with which you are born. If these genes happen to include a genetic predisposition towards developing arthritis, there is nothing you can do about it.
It is a fact that most arthritis conditions affect women more often than they do men (though gout affects more men than women). This is clearly another factor over which people have no control. Scientists are unclear about the reasons some types of arthritis affect one gender more than the other.
As with many ailments, your risk of development arthritis increases as you age. Unless you have access to some elixir of youth, there is not a great deal you can do about this.
Veganism & Athritis: Conclusions
Arthritis can be a troubling and debilitating condition that comes in many forms. Like many health conditions, there are various risk factors that appear to increase a person’s risk of developing some kind of arthritis. Given that being overweight is one of the key risk factors, and that vegan diets have been shown – in general – to reduce people’s BMI, it stands to reason that following a plant-based diet could lessen a person’s risk of developing arthritis.
There is less robust evidence to suggest that arthritis can be reversed by following a plant-based diet, though there are plenty of anecdotal accounts that claim this to be the case. There are also various research studies that suggest the eradication of meat and dairy from a person’s diet can reduce the severity of some symptoms of arthritis. Further research could shed further light on the matter as scientists attempt to further understand the various conditions that fall under the arthritis umbrella.