Living with arthritis is no picnic. Depending on the type and severity, this disease can make everyday tasks such as tying shoes or even walking impossible.
In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points to arthritis as a leading cause of disability in the U.S., with 54.4 million adults being diagnosed annually. While there are many different types of arthritis, and they have traditionally been classified as either inflammatory or non-inflammatory, emerging research shows that chronic low-grade inflammation plays a role in virtually all of them, including the most common forms, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
The immune system’s response to injury, illness or any mental or physical stressor, inflammation triggers the body’s healing and repair process – at least when it occurs in short, small doses. However, long-term inflammation can result in a host of health maladies and, in those who develop arthritis, joint degeneration. Damage to the body’s pain processors can also occur, thereby exacerbating pain and other uncomfortable symptoms.
Why Your Anti-Arthritis Diet Needs More Flavor
Fortunately, a growing body of research shows that the foods you eat and the spices you use to give them flavor can ease inflammation and subsequent chronic pain in a big way, explains Dr. M. Elaine Husni, vice chair of rheumatology and director of the arthritis and musculoskeletal center at the Cleveland Clinic.
That’s because many spices contain antioxidants and chemical compounds that disrupt of the body’s inflammation-signaling pathways and lower the body’s levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, explains registered dietitian nutritionist Kim Larson, founder of Total Body in Seattle and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. Cytokines are a group of proteins that regulate cell activity, and can either contribute to or fight inflammation. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are helpful when the body is trying to heal after an injury. But sometimes the body creates more pro-inflammatory cytokines than it needs, resulting in chronic inflammation. Lowering pro-inflammatory cytokines can significantly reduce joint pain, swelling and tenderness, according to Larson.
Plus, spices do so without the potential negative side effects of prescription medications and even over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). On the contrary, apart from reducing inflammation, spices offer up benefits including a stronger immune system, improved digestion and a lower risk of chronic diseases, says pain management specialist Dr. Asher Goldstein, founder of Genesis Pain Centers in New Jersey and New York. Hence why an “anti-inflammatory diet,” rich in both spices and other inflammation-fighting ingredients, is quickly becoming a first line of defense in the treatment of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
To flavor your diet, feel free to use fresh or dried spices. Just keep in mind that dried spices can begin to lose their health potency after six months, Larson says. So freshen up your spice rack regularly. And be sure to tell your doctor if you’re using certain spices on a daily basis or taking them in high-dose supplement form, Husni says. Even though spices are natural, they are still powerful, and it’s important to eliminate any chance of drug interactions.
Ready to cut down on inflammation? Shore up your health and reduce arthritic pain by incorporating these eight spices into your daily diet:
1. Turmeric. Among the most well-studied spices for its anti-inflammatory benefits, turmeric owes both its vibrant yellow color and arthritis-fighting ways to the powerful compound curcumin, according to a study in Surgical Neurology International.
Get spicy: Our bodies depend on compounds in other spices, such as black pepper, to most effectively absorb curcumin, Larson says. So, to get the biggest anti-inflammatory benefits, use them together. Try sprinkling them both on roasted vegetables, or using a pinch of each to add flavor to savory scrambled eggs and frittatas. (More on black pepper next.)
2. Black pepper. One of the most popular and well-loved spices, black pepper offers both anti-inflammatory and pain-reducing effects. According to a study published in Arthritis Research & Therapy, piperine, a compound that gives black pepper its sharp taste, prevents inflammation. In fact, piperine was almost as effective as prednisolone (a common drug for the treatment of arthritis) in reducing symptoms.
Get spicy: Black pepper can be used to add heat and flavor to just about any dish. Grind whole peppercorns into balsamic vinegar and olive oil to create a dipping sauce for breads, or sprinkle the powder into a mug of chai tea. If cooking with whole peppercorns, be sure to remove them from the dish before serving.
3. Garlic. It may not do wonders for your breath, but garlic can help you fight the effects of inflammation. That’s because sulfur compounds in garlic prevent the activation of a protein responsible for inflammation, according to findings published in Arthritis Research & Therapy.
Get spicy: Add fresh garlic cloves to egg and pasta dishes. Lightly cooked garlic will give your meals a bold flavor, while slow-roasted garlic offers a mild sweetness.
4. Cinnamon. This tasty spice does more than sweeten your favorite apple pie recipe. Studies show that cinnamaldehyde, the compound that gives cinnamon its distinct flavor and smell, disrupts the signaling that’s responsible for the formation of pro-inflammatory cytokines, even at a low concentration. According to Larson, cinnamon also helps maintain insulin sensitivity, which further helps to keep inflammatory levels where they need to be.
Get spicy: Cinnamon is an extremely versatile spice that pairs well with a variety of flavors. Mix it in your morning oatmeal, add it to your favorite pancake recipe or sprinkle it into your coffee for an extra kick.
5. Cayenne. Capsaicin, the active ingredient that gives peppers their characteristic heat, is also what gives them – and their respective spices – anti-inflammatory properties. One study found the anti-inflammatory effects of capsaicin are comparable to those of one common NSAID.
Get spicy: Add a pinch of cayenne to your hot chocolate (make Mexican hot chocolate with cayenne, cinnamon and vanilla), or use it to turn up the heat in sauces, marinades and rubs. Cayenne can be intense, so start with a small amount and gradually increase.
6. Ginger. Commonly used to treat stomach upset, this super-spice can also decrease arthritis-related inflammation. A review published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine found the polyphenols in ginger, such as gingerol (the compound that gives ginger its flavor) and shogaol, prevent the formation of pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Get spicy: Cut off a chunk of fresh ginger (no need to peel!) and steep in boiling water to make tea. Add honey and lemon for sweetness and flavor. If you’re not a fan of ginger’s flavor, many health and natural foods stores offer ginger in supplement form.
7. Cloves. For anti-inflammatory effects, be sure to incorporate this strong, pungent spice into your diet. When University of Florida researchers had subjects consume cloves on a daily basis, they found that it took only seven days for cloves to significantly lower one specific pro-inflammatory cytokine.
Get spicy: Whether used whole or ground, cloves have a strong, powerful flavor, so start with small doses and work your way up. Cloves pair well with cinnamon and nutmeg, and add a tasty kick to meats and stews. (They are particularly popular in Indian dishes.) When cooking with whole cloves, be sure to remove them from the dish before serving.
8. Saffron. If you can get your hands on this pricey, bold spice, you’ll be rewarded with more than just a pleasant flavor in your soups and rice dishes. A report in Anti-Inflammatory & Anti-Allergy Agents in Medicinal Chemistry reveals the anti-inflammatory effects of saffron can be attributed to crocin and crocetin – compounds responsible for the spice’s intense color.
Get spicy: Opt for fresh saffron and add a pinch to rice, soups and stews. Get the most flavor by adding saffron early in cooking. And since its flavor is similar to vanilla, you can also use saffron in oatmeal or chia seed pudding.