Published 22nd February 2022

Can natural remedies help osteoarthritis, and how important is nutrition?

There are some natural remedies that may help with osteoarthritis. These include eating more of certain foods, doing specific types of exercise, managing stress, maintaining a healthy weight, and taking certain supplements.

If you’re experiencing osteoarthritis, you’re not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 32.5 million adults in the United States are living with the condition, making it the most common form of arthritis. 

It’s often referred to as “wear and tear” arthritis because the tissues of a joint begin to break down. This can lead to painful inflammation, stiffness in the joint, and limited mobility.

Typically, osteoarthritis develops over time, and the risk of getting it increases as you age. Other factors may also play a part, including joint overuse or injury, gender, metabolic health, and genetics.

Osteoarthritis can affect any joint in the body, but it is most commonly seen in the hands, lower back, knees, hips, and neck.

There is no cure for osteoarthritis. But certain medications and — in some cases — surgery may help. There are also a number of natural remedies that can help with the symptoms of osteoarthritis, particularly involving nutrition.

At ZOE, we run the world’s largest study of nutrition, with over 15,000 participants. We know that everyone’s responses to foods are unique. You can take a free quiz to learn more about how ZOE can identify the best foods for you.

And read on to find out what the latest science says about natural remedies for osteoarthritis. 

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Inflammation and osteoarthritis

Eating certain foods, adding joint-friendly exercise to your routine, maintaining a moderate weight, and taking steps to manage your stress levels are some of the natural approaches to osteoarthritis that we’ll assess below.

Many of these may help with osteoarthritis, thanks to their effects on inflammation. But what exactly is inflammation?

One type of inflammation is the redness and swelling you get after cutting or bruising yourself. This is called acute inflammation and is part of your body’s natural way of protecting and repairing itself. 

Another type is chronic inflammation. This is a continuing response by your immune system — like being in a constant state of alert — even though there’s no immediate outside danger to your body. 

Chronic inflammation can be bad for your health by increasing the risk of serious illnesses, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and by leading to conditions like osteoarthritis.

8 natural remedies for osteoarthritis

Here is what the latest science says about natural remedies for osteoarthritis.

1. Fruits and vegetables

Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is important for overall health. But it may also ease osteoarthritis symptoms and could even help prevent it from developing in the first place. 

Many fruits and vegetables are good sources of naturally occurring compounds called phytochemicals that give them their variety of vibrant colors. 

Phytochemicals are rich in antioxidants, which can help to protect cells from being damaged and lower inflammation in the body. Some phytochemicals may also have particular properties that could help with symptoms of osteoarthritis, although studies are in their very early stages.

Vegetables and fruits containing phytochemicals:

  • Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower all contain a compound called sulforaphane. While sulforaphane is not an antioxidant, studies indicate it may help prevent or slow down osteoarthritis. 

  • Alliums like onions, garlic, shallots, and leeks contain another powerful antioxidant called quercetin. Researchers studying the anti-inflammatory properties of quercetin in rats have suggested it has potential as an osteoarthritis treatment.

  • Citrus fruits contain high levels of beta cryptoxanthin, which gives them their orange and red colors. This has been shown to maintain joint health and prevent osteoarthritis in mice. Citrus fruits are also a great source of vitamins A and C, which are important for bone and cartilage health.

2. Healthy fats

Eating the right types of fat could also help with osteoarthritis. 

Research suggests that healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats may keep osteoarthritis from getting worse. 

Good sources of monounsaturated fats include:

  • olive, peanut, canola, and sunflower oil

  • avocados

  • nuts including almonds, pecans, and hazelnuts

  • seeds such as pumpkin and sesame seeds

Good sources of polyunsaturated fats include:

  • fatty fish including mackerel, sardines, and salmon

  • walnuts and walnut oil

  • safflower, sunflower, canola, and corn oil 

Virgin and extra virgin olive oil may be particularly helpful in managing osteoarthritis symptoms, thanks to a naturally occurring compound called oleocanthal

Oleocanthal has anti-inflammatory effects similar to drugs like ibuprofen. Initial studies using cartilage from people with osteoarthritis suggest oleocanthal has potential for treating osteoarthritis inflammation, although further research is needed.

3. Green tea

Green tea is rich in polyphenols, antioxidants in plants that may help lower inflammation. 

In one study, people with osteoarthritis in their knees had decreased pain after taking tablets containing green tea extract. Scientists are still researching whether drinking green tea can help osteoarthritis symptoms.

4. Dairy

While the interaction between dairy and inflammation is not yet clear, low-fat dairy foods such as milk, yogurt, and cheese are good sources of calcium, vitamin D, and protein — important nutrients for bone health.

There are only a few studies so far suggesting that dairy can help with osteoarthritis. But these results are not consistent, and further studies are needed. 

5. A moderate weight

Keeping your weight within a moderate range could help with osteoarthritis. If you have overweight, losing as little as 5% of your body weight may provide some relief from the symptoms of osteoarthritis.

Obesity is one of the risk factors for osteoarthritis. On top of the joint damage caused by heavier weight, excess adipose tissue or fat cells leads to chronic inflammation in the body, contributing to the development of osteoarthritis. 

Losing fat and, in turn, lowering inflammation may help prevent osteoarthritis from getting worse or developing in other areas of your body.

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Although it’s not a perfect tool, calculating your body mass index (BMI) can be a good place to start if you’re trying to find your moderate weight range. Remember, though, that there are limitations to using BMI as a sole indicator of health. Talk to your doctor before trying to lose weight.

If you are looking to lose weight, crash diets are not the answer. Not only are they hard to sustain, they can actually slow down your metabolism, or metabolic rate, so that your body burns less energy.

Losing weight can sometimes be a challenge. At ZOE, we know that nutrition is personal — the foods that work best for your body are unique to you. 

Unpublished research shows that people who closely followed their personalized ZOE program for 3 months lost an average of 9.4 pounds, while around 80% said they had more energy and didn’t feel hungry.

With the ZOE program, you can find the best foods for your body and your long-term health goals. 

You can take a free quiz to find out more about what ZOE can do for you.

6. Exercise

Regular, low-impact exercise can help improve osteoarthritis symptoms and overall well-being. 

Be sure to choose exercises that don’t put too much strain on your joints, and start at a safe level. If you begin to feel pain, change the activity so you can still stay active instead of stopping it altogether. 

Some examples of low-impact, joint-friendly exercise include swimming, walking, cycling, and dancing. Experts also recommend muscle-strengthening exercises like lifting weights, using resistance bands, and yoga. 

Yoga and other stretching exercises are good for improving your flexibility and range of motion, too.

Hydrotherapy, or water-based exercise, may also be beneficial for people with osteoarthritis. Being in the water takes some of the weight off your joints, which may help relieve pain. 

7. Stress management 

Finding helpful ways to manage stress is important for everyone, especially those with osteoarthritis. 

When you’re stressed, your heart rate goes up and your muscles get tense. Over time, tense muscles can make your joint pain worse. Stress also increases inflammation.

Along with exercise, the Arthritis Foundation recommend deep breathing practices and a type of talking therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to reduce stress.

8. Herbs and supplements

A small amount of research suggests that some herbs and supplements might help with osteoarthritis symptoms. Such herbs and supplements include methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), pycnogenol, Boswellia serrata, curcumin, and a type of collagen called undenatured type II collagen (UC-II). 

However, the amount of evidence differs for each of these supplements, and it’s not very strong.

Some herbs and supplements can also cause unwanted side effects or interfere with certain medications, so make sure to talk to your doctor before taking any of these.

Foods to limit if you have osteoarthritis

While healthy foods may play a role in relieving osteoarthritis symptoms, there are some specific types of fat that may worsen symptoms

If you have osteoarthritis, the Arthritis Foundation recommend limiting foods high in:

  • Saturated fats, such as meat, butter, cheese, and palm oil. Consumption of saturated fats is linked to inflammation, which can lead to cardiovascular disease and other health problems. 

  • Omega-6 fatty acids, a type of healthy, polyunsaturated fat that can be found in corn, sunflower, and soy oil. The evidence around omega-6 is mixed, with some research showing that it increases pro-inflammatory mediators and possibly worsens osteoarthritis symptoms. But other studies found that omega-6 fatty acids actually improve inflammation or that its effect on inflammation is complex. The Arthritis Foundation recommend consuming omega-6 fatty acids in moderation. 

  • Trans fats, which can be found in fried and processed foods, shortening, and many baked items. Trans fats should be avoided as often as possible. Diets high in trans fats have been linked with an increased risk of heart disease and other illnesses.

Summary

Osteoarthritis is a condition in which the tissues around a joint begin to break down. It can lead to pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. It’s the most common form of arthritis, and the risk of developing it increases with age.

Medications and surgery may help to manage symptoms, but so could natural remedies.

Try joint-friendly exercise, maintaining a moderate weight, and reducing your stress levels to see if this helps with your symptoms.

Eating a diet high in certain types of foods can help, too. This includes eating a range of vegetables containing phytochemicals, with a balanced intake of healthy fats. There are also some fats, like certain saturated fats, that you should try to limit.

When it comes to eating the right combinations of foods, ZOE’s PREDICT program — with over 15,000 participants to date — shows that everyone is different. 

The ZOE program can help you eat the best foods for your body and your health goals. 

Find out more with our free quiz.

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