Written by Lara Greguric
The symptoms began a few years ago. One morning, I awoke and was unable to move my hands. They were swollen shut into fists and attempting to wiggle my fingers was extremely painful. Over the next couple of weeks, the symptoms spread into other joints. My wrists, my shoulders, my knees and the joints in my feet became stiff, swollen, and tender. After a few weeks of suffering, I finally realized that this was not normal and went to see my family doctor. He referred me to a rheumatologist. At the ripe old age of 21, I was diagnosed with arthritis.
I was in shock upon hearing this diagnosis. I kept thinking “why me?” Arthritis was something that 85-year-old grandmothers get, not healthy, fit young adults.
Unfortunately, that belief is a myth. Arthritis is a blanket term for a disease that encompasses over 100 different conditions ranging from mild forms of tendinitis and bursitis to the crippling rheumatoid arthritis. As a disease, arthritis does not discriminate. It can inflict young children still in diapers, individuals in the prime of their lives, as well as the elderly. The condition is marked by an inflammation of the lining of the joints, resulting in joint and muscoloskeletal pain and eventual loss of mobility. Doctors do not yet know what causes arthritis and, although there is no known cure, symptoms can be treated through a variety of medications and lifestyle changes.
Immediately after my diagnosis, my symptoms worsened. I was mildly depressed and in a great deal of pain. There were days when I couldn’t even get out of bed because of the swelling and stiffness. I was also experiencing a limited range of motion in some affected joints. I could no longer lift my arm up high enough to blow dry my hair and doing up zippers on the backs of dresses was impossible.
I was put on a series of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). For those unfamiliar with NSAIDs, they are not the most user-friendly family of pharmaceuticals. They are quite powerful drugs that suppress immunity, have negative side effects on the liver and kidneys, and are corrosive to the lining of the stomach. I was unable to tolerate these medications. They gave me violent stomach cramps, nausea, and diarrhea. In my case, the prescribed treatment was almost as bad as the disease itself.
Growing increasingly impatient with traditional courses of therapy, I became convinced that there had to be a gentler, more effective way to treat my arthritis. After many hours spent reading everything I could on the topic, I discovered the link between diet, exercise, stress, and arthritis. Many conventional therapies treat only the symptoms of arthritis. On the other hand, lifestyle changes affect the individual as a whole, making him or her healthier and providing a more positive outlook. In turn, such changes have a positive effect on the disease itself. That is how I came to be a physically active, stress-managing vegetarian.
Countless studies published in various medical journals show that a vegetarian diet lessens the symptoms of arthritis in most people. Both the Arthritis Society in Canada and the Arthritis Foundation in the USA provide the following dietary recommendations for individuals suffering from arthritis:
- eat a variety of foods
- maintain an ideal weight
- avoid too much fat and cholesterol
- avoid too much sugar
- eat foods that are high in fibre
- avoid too much sodium
- limit alcohol consumption
The above recommendations are highly compatible with a vegetarian diet. Specifically, I started eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. I limited my intake of processed foods, caffeine, and sodium and stopped consuming alcohol altogether. My new vegetarian diet was high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which promote joint health. It was also naturally low in fat, cholesterol, and sugar and high in fibre.
I also started a regular exercise program. The benefits of exercise were threefold. Exercise strengthened my muscles allowing them to support more of my weight, taking some of the pressure off of my joints. Exercise also helped me maintain an ideal weight ensuring there would be no excess pressure on my joints. Finally, exercise gave me an outlet to release stress in a positive manner.
After only a few short weeks, my lifestyle changes were having a profound effect on my quality of life. My pain and stiffness disappeared. I regained a full range of motion in the affected joints. Most importantly, I once again had a positive outlook on life. For the first time in a long while, I felt I had some control over my body.
Now, six years after my diagnosis, I no longer have to take medications for my arthritis. I am living relatively symptom-free thanks to vegetarianism, exercise, and stress-management.
I initially became a vegetarian for medical reasons, but eventually I evolved, taking up the ethical cause and becoming a vegan. Although I don’t recommend that individuals forgo medical treatment altogether, I do suggest that they educate themselves and make positive lifestyle changes such as vegetarianism as soon as possible. In some cases, doing so may alleviate the symptoms of the disease making traditional therapy unnecessary.
Arthritis and the vegetarian/vegan diet: the facts
- Vegetarian diet tends to be high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, substances which remove toxins from the body and promote joint health.
- Vegetarian diet is also high in fibre, another substance that detoxifies the body. Additionally, fibre is filling, making it difficult to overeat. Overeating leads to obesity, a condition that places major stress on the body’s joints.
- Vegetarian diet tends to be lower in fat and cholesterol than the standard North American diet, making obesity less likely.
- Vegetarians, in general, are less likely to be overweight than their meat-eating counterparts, which translates into less stress on joints.
- Vegetarians report to posses an overall sense of well-being. A positive mental attitude is key in combating the effects of any chronic ness.ill
For information on dietary and lifestyle changes see:
Dr. John McDougall promotes a low-fat, vegan diet to treat disease.
The Kushi Institute promotes a macrobiotic diet to treat disease.
Global Ideas Bank: Vegetarian diet eases arthritis
Fasting is known to be an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, but most patients relapse on reintroduction of food. Fasting followed by a vegetarian diet can lead to lasting relief.
Arthritis, by Michio Kushi
McDougall’s Medicine: A Challenging Second Opinion, by Dr. John McDougall
The McDougall Program: 12 Days to Dynamic Health, by Dr. John McDougall
From the September / October 1999 issue of Lifelines.