Tips for using diet to reduce pain.
June 2, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone has any experience with using a vegan, gluten-free diet to control Rheumatoid Arthritis and/or migraines? What experiences have you had and what hints / recipes would help make this transition easier?

I've read multiple articles and studies that indicate that my pain could be greatly reduced by changing my diet. I am currently mostly vegetarian, with occasional grass-fed / free-range meat eating, so while using this diet wouldn't be as drastic of a change as it could be, it'll be pretty significant. I was thinking of trying it for a few months to see if I notice changes...would this be long enough?

Most of my recipe questions involve the gluten-free angle. Are there good resources out there regarding what I'll be able to eat and what to stay away from? The hardest thing to give up will be my hoppy beers... are there good replacements?
posted by youcancallmeal to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Yes to gluten free. No experience with vegan.

All I can say is that my mysterious symptoms (joint pain and constant headaches - including at least one full-blown crazy migrane - as well as a crazy random rash that started spreading on my joints!) evaporated after about a month of being gluten free.

I would be pretty strict about what you eat starting out. I found a handful of things that I knew were safe and I've slowly added more things back in over time. But it is a long process to find things that are safe. There was a recent thread that had some really good ideas about how to go gluten-free. And I know there is a decent bit of crossover between that community and other healthy-living communities like veganism.

The most stunning thing that I experienced (and I'm curious to hear your experience) was the difference it made in my quality of sleep. I didn't realize I was so poorly rested until I started sleeping normally again. I went from being exhausted all the time (and being able to sleep for 16 hours at a time!) to finally being able to sleep for a restful 8 hours and wake up fully rested.

Best of luck.
posted by greekphilosophy at 10:42 AM on June 2, 2010

I would direct this and similar questions to a/the doctor who is helping you manage either or both conditions. They'll be in a better position to evaluate the current evidence on such changes (versus the Internet) and will also be able to recommend other treatments or alter current ones.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:44 AM on June 2, 2010

FWIW, I don't currently have insurance so I don't have access to a doctor.
posted by youcancallmeal at 10:45 AM on June 2, 2010

I strongly recommend a paleolithic diet and abstaining from nightshade vegetables to control inflammation/rheumatoid arthritis. Anecdotally I've been following a paleo diet for a few months now (paleo is gluten free, among other things) and haven't suffered a migraine (normally I would have one or two per month). Google can get you pretty far on this, or MeFiMail me if you'd like more specific information.
posted by telegraph at 11:02 AM on June 2, 2010

When I talked to a doctor and my nutritionist sister, the answer I got was a big shrug and the suggestion that pursuing formal diagnosis was hardly as useful as just cutting the offending foods out of my diet and seeing if that did anything for me. So while you should totally talk to a doctor, because it's the right thing to do, and we're going to toe the official line that medical science is good and desirable... I got the sense that this was a little-understood phenomenon for which the American medical system was ill-equipped to provide answers and guidance.
posted by greekphilosophy at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2010

Anecdotally, my mom has had migraines for as long as I can remember, to the point where she truncated her work days for a couple of years with sick leave so that she could leave the office early, since she was getting debilitating migraines every single day. She tried every medication her doctor could think of, which managed the migraines all right for awhile, but always lost effectiveness. Eventually, she had some allergy tests that showed that she had a sensitivity to wheat and to cow's milk, so she cut down on those two things. The migraines, while still occasionally happening, lessened in severity quite quickly.

Her migraines were so bad that, as a kid, I remember that I always had to be quiet and leave her alone after I got home from school, as she was usually in her room with the lights off. That has all but stopped.

Obviously, YMMV (and IANAD), but it couldn't hurt to try it out for a little while.

I also, a couple of years ago (and a couple after my mom cut out wheat) was diagnosed with a gluten-intolerance (and I "luckily" had more typical symptoms of this, so it was easier to guess what it was).

There are alternative GF beers, although they are not particularly adventurous, but you could always explore making your own, if such a thing appeals to you; one thing that I actually really appreciate about having to eat GF food is that it has encouraged me to try things that I wouldn't necessarily have thought to consider eating and it has helped me improve my cooking chops significantly. People always tell me how hard it must be, but it's really not bad at all, once you know what you're looking for.

The best resource that I can think of are the Celiac Foundation of Canada (which is a little more progressive than the US version, which tends to be a little more conservative when accepting things to be "Gluten Free" or not) which has a page on a Gluten-Free Diet. There's also a little booklet that you can order from them and carry around that is extremely helpful for shopping when you're first starting out... which I can't track down a link to right now. I'll poke around more and see if I can find it.
posted by urbanlenny at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2010

I did a short Master Cleanse to rid my system of any wheat hanging around in my innards, then went wheat-free because of my horrid RA. While on the cleanse I stopped all RA meds, and never needed them again. I've been med-free, pain-free and wheat-free for about 8 years now, I think. Best thing I ever did, also cleared up my asthma and helped the mid-afternoon slump I always experienced after eating a sandwich for lunch. The cleanse was my transitional phase. I use thai rice noodles for pasta now, and taco shells or tostados for sandwiches. You can memail me if there's anything specific you'd like to know. Good luck!

I went from being exhausted all the time (and being able to sleep for 16 hours at a time!) to finally being able to sleep for a restful 8 hours and wake up fully rested.

Me too! It was such a nice surprise and what an impact on my quality of life. From lethargy to energy! I think that wheaty starches are just so hard on the digestive system that one never experiences a deep rest - the body is working all night trying to break down the glue.
posted by iconomy at 11:29 AM on June 2, 2010

I'm a little confused -- are you saying that you have Rheumatoid Arthritis, or might have? That is a serious autoimmune disorder that, if untreated, can result in lifelong deformities. Rheumatologists actually know quite a bit about RA, and it's not at all the sort of thing that a doctor would shrug off as something medical science doesn't know much about anyway, and you might as well try DIY'ing yourself a solution. RA is not just headaches and joint aches, but your autoimmune system attacking your joints.

In case you do mean that you (may) have RA, this may be the kind of thing where in order to avoid very serious health consequences, like permanent disfigurement, you may need to figure out how to get medical coverage, whether by changing jobs or applying for some kind of public assistance.

I am very sorry to not-answer your question, but I feel that if this is your diagnosis, there's nothing responsible to be said but that you really, really need to be under a doctor's care.
posted by palliser at 12:43 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a bad idea. The literature on the subject says very conclusively that there's been no link proven between diet and arthritis. You should talk to your doctor about this. If you were to go to your doctor about this, he would probably look up the topic on UpToDate, which is a summary of every medical journal article written on the subject. It would tell him "There is no compelling evidence at present that any diet other than a healthy, balanced one is consistently helpful to patients with arthritis." (cite), and would point you at a list of therapies known/not known to show any efficacy. (You probably don't have access to the full-text of the article, but you'll have access to the citation and list I linked you to) It is possible that you have food allergies that are contributing to your problem, but again, you're better off getting that diagnosed by an allergist who can actually pinpoint what you're reacting to.

The cost of starting on a difficult and unwieldy diet cannot possibly be less than the $50 or so that a routine office visit would run you. Go talk to your doctor about how to manage your chronic conditions, before undertaking any drastic changes to your lifestyle. You're contemplating a drastic dietary overhaul, without actually determining what the source of the trouble is.
posted by Mayor West at 12:54 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you are investigating this, please also look into Eat To Live by Dr. J Fuhrman. He addresses RA on his website (you might need to scroll down). He is of the mindset that food can be medicine, and that boosting your immune system with excellent nutrition will help you manage your disease.

This is my experience with the ETL plan: I decided to try it for weight-loss and for my migraine headaches. I did the six-week plan to the letter (except I added one 6oz. cup of coffee each morning with a tiny dash of half & half and a teaspoon of sugar).

My headaches went away completely after the first week. I lost two dress sizes. My pores shrank, my skin glowed, I was able to fall asleep very easily for the first time in my life, and was also able to wake up easily, feeling refreshed and actually cheerful (not a morning person at all).

When I was nearing the end of the six weeks, I got in touch with an old friend I hadn't spoken to in a year, and found out that she had developed RA and was on monthly chemotherapy because the pain was so bad. I mentioned the ETL plan to her and sent her a link. She decided that it couldn't hurt to try.

Two weeks later she was off all her RA meds and was moving with ease. I know it sounds crazy and too good to be true, but it really worked for her. And lots of others, too. For a LOT of different health problems.
I have trouble talking about the ETL plan because I think I come across as a crazy zealot about it, which makes it look woowoo, but it really isn't. Please check it out for yourself and don't judge it by my enthusiasm. It isn't magical thinking, really.

This is a link to the reviews of it on amazon, which is where I stumbled across it in the first place. There is also a very active yahoo group for ETL, and when I was a member I recall that several of the women there had RA and were managing it completely with their diets.

On preview: I respectfully disagree with Mayor West. I think the way to approach it is to do your research, find a very specific eating plan (ETL or something else, but make it very specific) and run it past your doctor. Since RA is an autoimmune disease, ask your doc if following that eating plan would hurt your immune system.
If your doctor says it isn't going to hurt, there is no reason not to try it out. I think that medicine is good, but that doesn't make making positive dietary changes bad.
posted by Brody's chum at 1:25 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I think the modern medical complex is grossly overpriced and overused. If I can eliminate the symptoms of a problem by changing my diet, that seems like it should be worth trying.

I have not been diagnosed with RA (see, lack of insurance), but my mother has it, it can be genetic and I have about 90% of the early signs of it. Like I said, if there's something that I can do to slow it down if I do have it or eliminate the pain that I have if it isn't RA, I'll try it by diet before drugs.
posted by youcancallmeal at 1:44 PM on June 2, 2010

Mrs WASP-12b has a pretty serious autoimmune disease related to RA and she has RA type symptoms. We have a very progressive doctor who is at the forefront of her field in regards to the disease (she wrote the book). My wife also has celiac issues and has a gluten free diet at the recommendation of this doctor.

While she has seen that some of her symptoms have improved (migraines, joint pain) others still continue. Which is to say, the autoimmune issue is still there and we need to treat the other symptoms. What could be happening is that the underlying autoimmune is what is causing the gluten intolerance and that's just a manifestation of the disease - so even if you are getting relief, you may be missing the greater issue.

We've been struggling with this disease for 9 years now, it's almost a full time job to keep on top of, even with the help of several specialists. We've met many people with similar stories and many aren't so lucky to get the level of care we've had. I guess what I'm saying is that chances are likely that this isn't something you can, or should, handle on your own. I don't think that there is one single cure-all out there for any auto-immune disease and that as beneficial a gluten free diet can be to treat your symptoms short term, you really need to make sure you get a good diagnosis at least. This way, if things get worse, and I hope they don't, you can focus on getting treatment.

Whatever happens, best of luck to you, I hope you feel better.
posted by WASP-12b at 2:05 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have RA, and went gluten free about a year ago. It has made a drastic difference in my quality of life. Previously my fingers, wrists, knees, ankles, and toes would ache and throb constantly even while sitting still in a climate controlled office. It was miserable. Since cutting all gluten out of the diet, the aching has reduced by about 75% in all joints, though it still acts up a little when the weather changes or gets rainy. I've also struggled with Reynaud's Syndrome (another autoimmune disorder involving painful constriction of blood vessels & circulation reduction in the extremities), but this has also been nearly eliminated since going gluten free. My mind is clearer, my digestion better, and my sleep has improved. It's one of the best health decisions I've ever made.

I had been vegan for a short while in college, but have not been so in years & haven't done a combined vegan/gluten-free diet so I can't speak to that aspect, unfortunately. I do eat meat. Being gluten free is really much easier than most people realize. You don't need to survive strictly on "special" foods from the health food store. Just make sensible choices: Read ingredients on the packages and avoid anything with wheat, wheat protein, unidentified "food starch," rye, barley, spelt, malt, and malt flavoring. Yes that does eliminate a lot of packaged foods... but those are mostly junk and bad for you anyway. Eat normal, whole foods. Nothing breaded. If you like to eat out, there are loads of ethnic restaurants you can enjoy... Lots of Mexican, Asian, Indian, etc. dishes are traditionally already gluten free. Just ask for corn tortillas when you go Mexican, and if you're unsure about something just ask the waiter if the item is breaded or if there was flour used to thicken a sauce or soup (for example).

There is some debate about the gluten content of some foods. For example, some people may avoid oatmeal unless the label specifically says "gluten free;" this is because there is a possibility that there may be wheat contamination in some oats due to wheat fields growing next door to the oat fields, so some wheat may be harvested in with the oats -- or the packaging facility may also handle wheat products so some wheat dust may enter the oat packing lines. However I have never noticed a reaction after eating regular oatmeal. Some gluten free folks may also avoid any soy sauce that has wheat in the ingredients such as the brand Kikkoman. However Kikkoman has issued a statement that their sauce is gluten free due to the fermentation of the wheat and the small amount of it in the product. I've never had a problem with this product either. I use many soy sauces, and wheatless ones are easy to find if you're nervous (LaChoy is one brand).

Regarding drinks: As you know most beers are out because of the malt & barley. However there are some brands of gluten free beers that are quite good. I've enjoyed Redbridge (made by Budweiser Co.) and New Grist, which are made with sorghum. There are lots more brands out there, just do a Google search. Hard ciders are also your friend - Woodchuck comes in many flavors these days and is gluten free. General consensus is that distilled spirits such as whiskey and gin, even though they may originate from grain, are gluten free -- though if you like these you may wish to only go with higher quality spirits and avoid cheaper booze with added caramel coloring (which could be derived from wheat or malt).

For resources, you'll find heaps of info just by googling your specific questions (e.g.: "gluten free cookie recipes" or whatever). Sites like will provide a wealth of information. There are lots of places with recipes & tips like Gluten Free Girl. Amazon is also your friend if you want to keep books on hand, and you can even order some of your gf foods there.

It's really not as tough as you'd think. Just a little online digging will get you far. Good luck!! :-)
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 2:37 PM on June 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I was diagnosed with arthritis by the family doctor at least 6 years ago, so I don't remember specifics other than the fact that she handed me a few bags of sample arthritis medications that overwhelmed and discouraged me (and ultimately, I never really gave in and took regularly). I'm pretty sure I was NOT diagnosed with RA, because I think if I had been, I'd remember that part. But this may end up being useful, so I'll give you what I know anyway. Giving up refined wheat and sugar definitely made a BIG difference for me.

My mother did this same thing, and when I tried it later it worked the same for me. She had awful arthritis pain in her hands and feet, with her joints stiffened up; she got to the point where she had to go to the doctor for some kind of injection to help with the pain, it was horrific. She took refined sugar and refined wheat out of her diet (not all gluten, just refined wheat) and her arthritis went away completely.

I did the same thing, with the same effect. After I was off refined wheat and sugar, some experimentation revealed that eating a small amount of wheat would yield bad arthritis pain in my hands and feet almost exactly 36 hours later -- very wacky and interesting discovery. So I stopped eating the wheat, and the sugar ban stuck too; once I was off it, it was obvious how it was tearing down my immune system when I had even a little bit. I don't know how much the sugar contributes to the arthritis specifically, but there is definitely some kind of tie-in going on.

I don't have the research my mother has on this, but I know she has referenced among other things a Dr. Perricone who ostensibly explains how refined wheat and refined sugar encourage inflammation. I can't back this one up, but it may be worth exploring if you're looking for research. All the evidence I have is in my mother's experience, my self-experimentation, and the anecdotal evidence of a friend of mine who says he went through the same thing.

What I have is definitely not celiac, since I can eat anything with gluten but not refined wheat and have no problem. I've never had a particular problem with alcohol (at least, not in regards to arthritis -- alcohol is alcohol, of course). When I was adjusting my eating habits, I ate Ezekiel sprouted whole wheat bread and it didn't trigger the arthritis pain at all. Once I was off wheat for 9 or 10 months, I started to feel a tiny reaction to the sprouted wheat, so I think the effect is just much less noticeable.

I steer clear of anything that says "wheat" (flour, semolina, whole wheat, wheat flour, etc.) or anything that means "refined sugar" on the label as a general rule, since the very fact that it has a label means there's a decent chance it went through some kind of process unless I'm in an ultra-natural, back-to-basics sort of grocery. I don't even eat the sprouted wheat bread anymore, since I notice the effects now. And it's really pretty easy to eat this way. Much happier and healthier as a result, even outside of the arthritis issue.

Cuddles.mcsnuggy's comment above is ultra excellent, and I second a lot of that. I've never had a problem with wheat contamination or soy sauce, though it does stand to reason that the reaction might be so small I don't notice it, like I originally experienced with the sprouted wheat bread.

GF resources gave me great leverage then and still do, even though I'm not specifically avoiding gluten. Tinkyada makes great, delicious brown rice pasta (it's what we use when we eat pasta, though we don't often anymore) and there's a great brand of pasta sauce called Mother's with no added sugar. I have a slew of information about food without refined sugar as well (obviously memail if I can help somehow!).

As regards dairy, I still partake but it definitely does something to my sinuses -- a "packed" feeling that is definitely the source of pressure / headaches -- so I don't eat much, and I'm really looking for misery if I combine sugar and dairy (instant sinus infection). So I don't.

I'd say we eat pretty close to paleo these days, though I went through a vegan-celiac mode and a raw vegan mode that were absolutely excellent experiences.

No arthritis pain anymore, and I can keep my computer/internet career. Whew! Good luck on your quest, food experiments are definitely near and dear to my heart.
posted by schema at 2:57 PM on June 2, 2010

A disciplined gluten-free diet can be quite expensive. "Gluten-free foods, on average, cost a whopping 242% more than regular, gluten containing foods". (In my experience, they're drastically underestimating. My GF loaf of bread costs $6. It is less than a 1/3rd the size of a $2 wheat-based loaf. Similar price/volume distortions for pastas. I've comparison shopped to death. Here's the best I've been able to find for some common alt flours: sorghum ($.06/oz), millet ($.20/oz), quinoa ($.45/oz), almond meal ($.93/oz). Which never seem to go on sale, whereas wheat flour is routinely on special for $.025/oz. Big difference. It's not a fair comparison, since the alt flours need to be supplemented with xanthan gum (~$1.75/oz), and often also egg replacer powder.

If you're serious about 100% GF, you'll also need to replace certain things in your kitchen (e.g. toaster, pizza stone); otherwise gluten embedded in their surfaces will continue to contaminate. Some people also claim you have to strip the seasoning from cast iron pans, and start over with them.

Going GF is also a major life transition. Socializing over food -- restaurants, potlucks, dinner at friends' houses, etc. -- is very different when you always need to ask about every ingredient and ensure the food prep did nothing that would contaminate it. When making sacrifices every day, it makes a difference to have the assurance that you really, for sure, medically need it. So you may find that ultimately you want a formal diagnosis anyway.

If you want to chat about GF cooking/shopping, you're welcome to MeMail me anytime. Good luck with your decision!
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 3:26 PM on June 2, 2010

My sister has had very bad arthritis (at times debilitating) for about 15 years. She was in her mid 20's when it developed. Her doctor suggested reducing her intake of sugar as it amplifies pain, and that in conjunction with her other treatments would definitely help.

This has actually proven very effective from helping her manage pain. Additionally foods that your body converts into sugars easily like, bread, potatoes, pasta, white rice (just a few examples) also have an impact on her pain levels.

She also started reading labels to find the hidden sugars/gluten in what she was buying. (they are in almost everything pre-packaged)

So I would say you would likely find success by eliminating gluten and refined sugars, if my sister's experience is anything to go by.

Having said that - continuing to see your doctor/s is very important. Adjusted diets will not cure arthritis, this is a pain management technique.

Best of luck to you!
posted by Weaslegirl at 3:32 PM on June 2, 2010

..oops.. forgot to mention that we have many, recipes so if you want a few drop me an email and I can send you some.

posted by Weaslegirl at 3:35 PM on June 2, 2010

I have to disagree somewhat with Mayor West, after a year spent in various specialists' offices trying to diagnose my joint pain. What I have sounds like RA, acts mostly like RA, fails all the tests for RA and responds positively to a gluten-free diet. It was a super-cheap test, and one the doctors didn't even consider - I just cut out all gluten for two weeks, then gorged on half a loaf of lovely handmade bread, and three hours later I couldn't close my hands all the way. I've got the full support of my internist and my rheumatologist, by the way - better an annoying and restricting diet than the kinds of drugs they'd otherwise have me on.

That being said, there are blood tests, and getting some x-rays would be a good idea to figure out what kind of damage, if any, you have at this point. I responded to a gluten-free diet, but I do NOT have traditional RA with all the clear blood markers. I have something that's almost certainly immunological but not something anyone has been able to pin down, so I have to make do.
posted by restless_nomad at 4:40 PM on June 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

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