They say that food is medicine—and when it comes to easing the symptoms of arthritis, what you eat actually can help you feel better.
"Certain foods can help lower inflammation, which is a characteristic of arthritis," says Dawn Jackson Blatner, RDN, author of The Superfood Swap.
Of course, we're not telling you to swap your medications for a plate of kale—but by adding a few inflammation-lowering foods to your diet, you might be able to ward off some of the pain and swelling associated with the disease. The catch: These foods won't change your life overnight.
Jackson Blatner says her clients usually start to feel the results after several weeks of eating anti-inflammatory foods. "People who stick with it tend to notice that they can play tennis and their elbow isn't quite as sore, or they can go for a run without noticing pain in their knee," she says.
Here are six foods to stock up on to help ease inflammation—your joints will thank you.
Fish is a source of omega-3 fatty acids, which are famous for their inflammation-lowering abilities. Although these fats are often bottled in supplement form (where they're taken in higher doses than you'd find in, say, a plate of scallops), eating whole fish might help ease arthritis symptoms, too.
Researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital found that, among people with rheumatoid arthritis, those who eat fish at least twice a week tend to experience fewer symptoms of their disease than those who hardly ever (or never) ate the food. Another plus: Seafood is relatively easy to cook. "Broiling fish doesn't take a lot of prep or standing time, so you don't have to be on your feet for very long," says Jackson Blatner.
Aim to eat about three servings a week, she says. Although there's some mercury found in seafood, "the nutritional benefits [like the protein, omega-3s, and iron] outweigh the risks," she says. Steer clear of some of the bigger fish (like shark and marlin), which are higher in mercury, and opt for a variety of smaller fish, including salmon, halibut, and canned tuna.
This golden-yellow spice (which is derived from the turmeric plant, from India and Indonesia) contains an anti-inflammatory compound called curcumin, which is thought to help lower inflammation levels in the body. According to a 2018 research review in the Journal of Medicinal Food, taking turmeric extract (about 1,000 milligrams per day of curcumin) for 8 to 12 weeks is about as effective at relieving arthritis pain as ibuprofen.
The one downside of the spice: It has a pretty low absorption rate. Pairing turmeric with black pepper can increase your body's absorption of curcumin. Because it has a ginger-like taste, Jackson Blatner recommends adding a half teaspoon to your smoothie, coffee, or even condiments (turmeric mayo anyone?).
Tart cherry juice
Tart cherries are high in anthocyanins, or antioxidants that can help lower inflammation levels (among other talents)—and according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Functional Foods, they may also help lower the risk of gout, a painful form of arthritis caused by a buildup of uric acid in the body.
Those researchers found that people who drank two 30- and 60-milligram servings of Montmorency tart cherry juice experienced a reduction in the levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation in the body) and uric acid (a chemical that, in high levels, can cause gout).
Fair warning: Tart cherries, are, well, tart. Instead of eating them out of the jar, you might want to try them in juice form by adding 1 to 2 ounces of tart cherry juice to a smoothie.
Cruciferous veggies like kale, broccoli, and cabbage contain tryptophan and sulforaphane, two compounds that can help fight inflammation, according to a 2015 research review published in the journal Clinical Phytoscience.
If you're hesitant to spend 10 minutes chopping up a head of kale (we hear that), you might want to spring for a container of pre-cut vegetables. "They're slightly more expensive, but they're already clean and prepped," says Jackson Blatner. "Or, you can buy frozen bags of vegetables—they're fresh when they're packaged."
Fruits like cantaloupe, tomatoes, and kiwis are high in vitamin C, an antioxidant that helps build connective tissue and collagen, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Plus, the anthocyanins found in strawberries and blueberries can also help ease inflammation.
Try to work 1 to 2 cups of whole fruit into your diet each day, says Jackson Blatner. As with vegetables, you may want to opt for the pre-cut or frozen varieties to ease the strain on your hands.
Vitamin D isn't just good for your bone health—it may also help keep arthritis pain in check. According to a 2015 study in the Journal of Clinical Pain, obese people who had adequate levels of D reported feeling less knee osteoarthritis pain than those who didn't get enough of the vitamin.
Vitamin D is found primarily in the sun's rays (it's not called the "sunshine vitamin" for nothing), and it can be hard to find naturally in food. That's why it's a good idea to opt for vitamin D-fortified drinks like cow's milk and nut milks, says Jackson Blatner.
Another reason to sport a milk mustache: Drinking enough liquid throughout the day can help ward off arthritis pain, which might flare up if you're feeling parched, says Jackson Blatner. "Staying hydrated is like moisturizer for the body," she says.