rheumatoid arthritis + my diet

I know that getting diagnosed with RA (rheumatoid arthritis) can be confusing, overwhelming and terrifying, so I’ve compiled a list of the most frequently asked questions I get from readers. People have asked about what I eat, what drugs I’ve tried, what herbal supplements I take… the list goes on. I love hearing from y’all. It’s comforting and inspiring, and most importantly, I think we’re all learning something from each other. Just remember that I’m not a doctor and everyone’s bodies are different. I’m not here to preach about any particular diet; I can only speak to what has worked for me. If you have other questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. But first…

What is RA?

An autoimmune disease in which chronic inflammation of the immune system causes joint pain and immobility. No one knows what causes it, there is no known cure, and anyone can get it, at any age. I was diagnosed in 2003, when I was 21.

Why should I try changing my diet?

I thought the idea was ludicrous at first — but it worked. Back in 2007, I cut out all the meat and dairy in my diet overnight, cleaned out my fridge and cabinets, and stocked up on all new goodies. Within days, I felt better. I felt stronger. I felt healthier and more alive. I’ve tweaked what I’ve over eaten the years, but have always stayed away from dairy. Under the watch of Dr. Lipman in the spring of 2014, I started a Paleo diet — no grains, no sugar, no dairy — which has helped to heal my gut, and in turn, further relieve my joints.

I always tell people that it’s worth a shot. Try it for a week, see how you feel. I’m not suggesting a combination of hocus pocus drugs you’ve never heard of or anything that’s painful or uncomfortable. It’s healthy, natural food. What’s the worst that can happen? You’ve stumbled upon my blog so at least a small part of you is curious, or knows it’s time to take the next step. You can do this. Be your biggest, best advocate and in the same way you might try the latest drug from your doctor — try eating real food. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle — one that’s much less expensive, less stressful and has less side effects than all that medication.

What’s the easiest way to begin changing my diet?

I did it cold turkey (no pun intended) and stopped eating all meat and dairy and drinking alcohol overnight. Some people think you should cut out one at a time, so you can more easily tell which is the problem for you/your body and while I think that’s smart, it really depends on your situation. I was curled up in a ball in bed one New Year’s Eve, crying, in dire need of change so I dove in head first. If you only have a little bit of pain, maybe start small. Swap out the cream in your coffee or milk in your cereal for dairy-free options like almond or coconut milk. (Just be careful because losing dairy can mean adding sugar, so read your labels.)

You can also try taking the cheese off your salads and sandwiches and swapping your usual meat at dinner with a piece of grass-fed chicken or wild caught fish. See how you feel. Then you can move into sauces, dressings, and other places that these foods hide. They’re everywhere so you really have to educate yourself on reading labels and understanding where your food comes from. Most restaurant and store-bought dressings have dairy in them, so I usually use some combination of oil, vinegar, citrus, and/or mustard. If you feel like you’ll be depriving yourself, think again. You’re giving your body what it really wants and needs. You’re making yourself stronger. It is empowering to take control of a disease that can wield so much power over you and be so debilitating. Every time you go to the market, pick up a new fruit. Pick up a new vegetable or fish. Try a new kind of nut or seed to mix into a shake. Making small changes each day, each week, will add up and result in huge changes.

I’d also enlist whomever you live with and/or friends and family nearby. Tell them what you’re trying to do — and why — and make sure you have their support. Surrounding yourself with people who love you, care for you, and want you to be healthy is crucial to feeling strong and healthy.

What are some of my pantry / fridge staples?

I try to eat a lot of healthy fats — avocado, nuts and seeds, pasture-raised, grass-fed meats — so I always have Trader Joe’s organic virgin coconut oil (for sauteing vegetables, baked goods, and beauty needs — condition my hair, take off my makeup, etc…) on hand. I also keep lemons, limes, garlic, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric around to use in shakes, dressings, and sauces. Other staples: ghee, Maldon sea salt, eggs, apple cider vinegar, all kinds of nuts and seeds (almonds, cashews, chia, flax and hemp), kefir, lots of fresh vegetables, and a few different kinds of honey (manuka, raw, and bee pollen, too).

What equipment do I use in the kitchen?

I use a Vitamixblender, food processor and a spiralizer. I use the blender for my shake each morning, and to make other juices, smoothies and soups. The food processor is for crushing nuts and seeds, like when I make my grain-free granola bars. I use the spiralizer to make zucchini noodles, which are a great replacement for pasta.

If you don’t know how to cook, start simple. Find a recipe that looks good and follow it to a tee. Once you get some skills and confidence in the kitchen, you can get creative. Cooking is your path to healing because the easiest way to eat real food with good ingredients is to make it yourself.

What medicines do I take for my RA?

I have been through the gamut on RA meds — you name it, I’ve most likely tried it. I was on methotrexate for years, have taken meloxicam, Enbrel, Humira, gotten cortisone shots and even had a few Rituxan infusions. They all worked at first, but them my body just wanted more, more, more. There’s not a lot of research on the long-term effects of some of these drugs and that makes me nervous. Again, I’m not a doctor; I can only speak to what has worked for me and what I’m comfortable with. I currently take 4mg of prednisone a day (down from 25mg/daily at one point) and plaquenil. My goal is to get off both of these drugs entirely.

What herbal supplements do I take for my RA?

I’m always experimenting with different kinds and brands, but under the watchful, expert eye of Dr. Lipman I take inflammacore, L-glutamine, and probiotic powder to treat my leaky gut. I also take folic acid, vitamin D, and a multivitamin that he recommended. In the past I have tried fish oil, krill oil, Be Well GI herbal formula, meriva, and mycoflora.

Where can I get that Chinese herbal tea?

I no longer take the tea, because I see a different acupuncturist now. But according to their website, you can call and explain your symptoms over the phone to Mr. Lee and his wife, Mrs. Lee, who will boil down the right Chinese herbs for your ailment(s) into tea form. They will ship a 30-day supply anywhere in the US, but unfortunately don’t do international orders, at least not yet. If you decide to contact them and/or go for an appointment, please tell them “Jamie with arthritis in her hands” sent you. (They don’t speak very good English, but they know me well.) As I say in the post, they are two of the most kind, gentle human beings I have ever met.

Do you exercise?

Of course! When you have arthritis, it is very important to keep your joints moving. There are days when this will seem impossible, you’re too tired, your joints hurt… you name it and I’ve felt it. You have to listen to your body, but you also have to push yourself and move around as much as you can. I try to go to spin class as much as I can, but I also love flybarre, which I go to a few times a week. I also love restorative yoga, which I used to do with Bobby Clennell. Otherwise I Citibike with Brian and just try to stay active. I’ve found the stronger I get through working out, the less pressure there is on my joints.

Do I have to follow a strict dairy-free or Paleo diet to feel the benefits?

Absolutely not. You can make a big difference with small changes. Just changing one meal a day, adding in more portions of fruits and vegetables or cutting out some dairy and sugar will help your body. Each person is different so you have to find what works best for you. Of course the more strict you are, the more likely you are to feel better. But we all cave — hey, I’m human, too — and when I do, and scarf down say a piece of cheese at a party, my joints feel it the next day.

Do you drink alcohol?

Funny you ask right after I mention the cheese grabbing, because that only happens when I drink… and I rarely drink. I never do on school nights (weekday / work nights) except for special occasions because I already wake up at 3:24am so I don’t need to make it any harder on myself. My joints really do hurt after I drink though, so I try not to — a drink or two on a Saturday night for me is a pretty wild Saturday night. Instead I drink a lot of kombucha, which actually has trace amounts of alcohol. Wild, I know.

Some of the food blogs / sites I read regularly?

Bon Appetit, Eater, Grub Street, The Infatuation, Inspiralized, Milk & Mode, Purely ElizabethThe First Mess, Love and Lemons, Sprouted KitchenLove.Life.Eat, Deliciously Ella, the list goes on… Meantime here are some of my most-read RA-related stories and some success stories as well. Enjoy!