Arthritis: Five common myths are busted

older woman's hands

There’s often a lot of confusion about arthritis, from causes to treatment – and especially about nutrition.  Here we give you the truth about five of the most common myths about arthritis.

Myth #1: You only get arthritis when you’re old.

It is very common to believe that arthritis is something that only happens when you are older because joints wear down as you age. 

In fact, arthritis can happen to anyone – from babies to teenagers to young (and old) adults. And while natural aging and wear and tear on the joints is one reason for arthritis, it can also be due to an injury or genetics.

There are over 100 different types of arthritis. They range from mild to so severe that they can cause disability if not treated.  

Some examples of arthritis that are not “wear and tear” related are: juvenile arthritis, which occurs in children younger than 16 years old; rheumatoid arthritis, which commonly appears in women ages 25-50; and gout, which strikes men around middle age. 

Myth #2: Rheumatoid arthritis is caused by allergic reactions to certain foods.

Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder. This means that cells in the body start to attack themselves and cause painful inflammation in the joints.   There is a theory that this inflammation and immune response is very similar to what happens when someone has a food allergy. That’s why some people say rheumatoid arthritis pain is caused by eating certain foods.

There is also a theory that people with rheumatoid arthritis have a “leaky gut”. This means that food particles don’t get absorbed properly in the digestive system. Instead, it is believed that they go into the blood where they set off an “allergic reaction” that causes joint pain. Some of the common food allergies thought to be related to arthritis include dairy, coffee, wheat, corn, beef, pork, peanuts, eggs, nightshade vegetables, salt, MSG and nitrates.

Arthritis flare ups are often sudden and random and it can be difficult to connect the occurrence of pain with a food. So far, there is very little research that proves that arthritis and food allergies are connected.  There is also very little evidence to prove that the “leaky gut” theory is true.

Some people try elimination diets to try to connect diet with arthritis pain. Elimination diets involve a period of fasting followed by adding foods in one by to one to see if they cause pain or an allergic reaction. These are very difficult to follow and can also cause malnutrition. It is not recommended that you follow an elimination diet unless you are supervised by a doctor or Registered Dietitian. 

Myth #3: Rheumatoid arthritis can be cured by going on a “special” diet.

You may have heard that following a special diet such as going vegetarian or vegan, avoiding nightshade vegetables, or eliminating dairy products can reduce arthritis symptoms. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to suggest that following any of these diets is helpful in managing arthritis.  Here are some things to think about:

Vegetarian or vegan diet: A vegetarian diet is good for your health but probably won’t do much to improve arthritis pain. The studies that have looked at vegan diets and arthritis symptoms show unclear results. For people with active rheumatoid arthritis, vegan diets are not recommended as they can result in malnutrition and too much weight loss.

If you wish to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, speak to a Registered Dietitian to make sure you are getting all the nutrients you need. 

Nightshade-free diet: The nightshade family of foods includes potatoes, eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. Some people believe that people with rheumatoid arthritis may have allergic reactions to these foods, which is what causes their joint pain. So far, there is no research to suggest that eliminating foods from the nightshade family can help arthritis pain. Instead, by not eating any foods from the nightshade family, you’d be missing out on tasty and nutritious vegetables and fruit.

Dairy-free diet: There is some evidence to suggest that milk and milk products may contribute to rheumatoid arthritis and juvenile arthritis because of the leaky gut theory (see myth #2). However, there is not enough proof to suggest that people with arthritis should stop eating dairy products. And in fact, because people with rheumatoid arthritis are at an increased risk for osteoporosis, a dairy-free diet is not recommended.

If you do choose to follow a dairy-free diet, make sure to speak with your doctor or Registered Dietitian about getting enough calcium and vitamin D.

Fasting:  It is possible that fasting can bring relief to people with arthritis. However, when the fast is over, symptoms always return and sometimes come back worse than before. Fasting is not recommended as a way to manage arthritis pain. 

Myth #4: When you have arthritis you can’t exercise anymore.

It’s easy to think that when you are suffering with arthritis pain that you shouldn’t exercise anymore. Not true! Research has shown that following an exercise program can decrease pain by keeping joints and cartilage healthy. It can also improve your fitness, flexibility and help you lose weight, which is especially important for people with osteoarthritis.

If you’re new to physical activity, speak to your doctor before getting started. If you are seeing a physiotherapist, work together to come up with an exercise plan that will work for you.  

Myth #5: Supplements can help heal arthritis pain.

There are quite a few herbal supplements that have been promoted to relieve arthritis pain. Here’s the scoop:

Glucosamine* and chondroitin: These two have become popular supplements for people with osteoarthritis who have severe knee pain. This is because glucosamine and chondroitin are found in joint cartilage so taking these supplements may help rebuild cartilage that has worn away. There is very little research that proves that these supplements can ease pain, but they are safe to take.

*Note: If you have a shellfish allergy, do not take glucosamine.

Collagen: The theory is that by taking collagen that comes from other animals, like chickens, you may be able to trick the body from attacking its own collagen and causing painful inflammation. Studies are underway to see if taking collagen in small doses can improve arthritis.

Gamma-linolenic acid (GLA): This compound is found in black currant seed oil, evening primrose oil and borage seed oil. It is thought to reduce inflammation, just like omega-3 fatty acids.  While there are some studies that have shown that taking GLA helps people with rheumatoid arthritis, other studies show no positive effects. More research is needed before we can make any recommendations.

The bottom line is that there is no guarantee that taking any of these supplements or other herbal therapies can help ease arthritis pain. Remember that just because something is natural does not mean that it is safe for you to take. Always speak to your doctor, a Registered Dietitian or pharmacist before starting a new supplement.

For more information:

Arthritis FAQ

Read Nutrition & Arthritis by The Arthritis Society and Dietitians of Canada to learn how eating well can help arthritis.

Visit The Arthritis Society for more information on arthritis, supports and programs.

Last Update – April 26, 2018

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