Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is a chronic, systemic inflammatory disorder that may affect many tissues and organs, but principally attacks flexible (synovial) joints. RA is one of about 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. RA accounts for 22% of all deaths from arthritis and other rheumatic conditions and the five-year survival rate for someone with severe RA and multiple joint involvement is around 45%.
Fasting has been found to be an effective therapy for RA sufferers due to a variety of mechanisms. For one, researchers have documented the anti-inflammatory effects of fasting in treating RA, observing a decrease in arthralgia, pain, stiffness, medication, and ESR.
ESR stands for erythrocyte sedimentation rate—or sed rate for short—a test used to measure how much inflammation is in the body. A study of 43 patients with RA found significant improvement in grip strength, pain, ESR, and functional activity after a 7 day fast. Fasting has also been found to increase the ability to fight infection.
Fasting research has helped to expose a strong association between RA and food intolerance. Researchers have suggested that the decrease in symptoms of RA during fasting are due to the decrease in gut permeability which accompanies fasting. This action reduces the absorption of antigenic molecules into the blood from the gastrointestinal tract. Based on these mechanisms, it is theorized that fasting prevents the leakage of undigested proteins into the bloodstream, thereby offering protection against RA and other autoimmune conditions.
A 2001 meta–analysis reviewed 31 studies on the effects of fasting followed by a vegetarian diet in patients with RA. The authors concluded that fasting, followed by a vegetarian diet, was useful in the treatment of RA.
In 2002, Joel Fuhrman, Barbara Sarter, and David J. Calabro published a series of 6 case studies detailing their work treating patients with RA using fasting and a vegan diet. They noted an improvement in all cases and said “Medically supervised, water-only fasting is known to be an effective means of lessening the symptoms of autoimmune illnesses; in many cases, remission of the disease occurs.”
According to many experts, in order to maintain the benefits of fasting in RA, it is important that patients adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet.