Evidence Grows for Food as RA Treatment

Bruce Jancin

March 16, 2021

Patients with rheumatoid arthritis are often eager to try dietary interventions in an effort to improve their symptoms. For guidance, they turn to their rheumatologists, who typically can offer little in terms of concrete evidence-based recommendations. That's because their training didn't emphasize the role of nutrients in rheumatic diseases, the scientific evidence has historically been sketchy, and the topic of diet and disease is rife with fad diets, inflated Internet claims, and hucksterism.

Dr Orrin Troum

But that's changing. Indeed, recent annual meetings of the American College of Rheumatology have featured randomized, controlled trials that bring welcome rigor to the field and provide findings of practical interest to clinicians and their patients, Orrin M. Troum, MD, said at the 2021 Rheumatology Winter Clinical Symposium.

He highlighted some of this work, including positive randomized trials of the dietary supplements Biqi – a traditional Chinese herbal medicine – as well as turmeric, along with reported progress in efforts to design a palatable anti-inflammatory diet that favorably alters the gut microbiome and systemic metabolome while improving clinical outcomes in patients with RA.

Troum, a rheumatologist at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and in private practice in Santa Monica, described a typical patient encounter in his clinic that appeared to resonate with his audience from throughout the country: "You can tell people to take another medicine and they'll start shaking their head no before you're finished. But when you say there are natural supplements that can help you, they're saying 'Yes!' "

RA Improvement on an ITIS Diet

Many physicians recommend a Mediterranean-style diet, first popularized in the landmark Seven Countries Study launched by the late Ancel Keys. This familiar plant-based regimen emphasizes liberal consumption of extra-virgin olive oil, legumes, fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts, and moderate alcohol intake, with very limited intake of red and processed meats, refined grains, and sugar. There is strong evidence that the Mediterranean diet is cardioprotective, which is relevant to patients with RA since they are known to be at elevated cardiovascular risk.

However, investigators at the University of California, San Diego, became convinced that the Mediterranean diet is lacking in key anti-inflammatory ingredients from other parts of the world. These include ginger, green tea, black pepper, turmeric, miso, flax seeds, and tahini, all of which are backed by evidence – from animal models and/or interventional diet studies in patients – that suggests beneficial effects in pain and joint swelling in RA. The researchers also suspected that certain vegetables embraced in the Mediterranean diet – notably eggplant, tomatoes, and potatoes – might be problematic for RA patients because they contain solanine, thought to increase intestinal permeability, which might have arthritogenic effects on the gut microbiome.

The investigators set out to develop an anti-inflammatory diet they call the ITIS diet, essentially tweaking the Mediterranean-style diet by incorporating these additions and subtractions. Importantly, they designed the ITIS diet in conjunction with a multiracial local group of RA patients strongly enthusiastic about the potential for dietary interventions aimed at improving their symptoms. The patients provided feedback that enabled the investigators to fine-tune the anti-inflammatory diet so as to boost palatability and acceptance.

As an illustrative example of the ITIS diet, a typical day might start off with a homemade smoothie of parsley, pineapple, strawberries, and water, followed by a breakfast consisting of one or two corn tortillas spread with avocado, linseed oil, and sesame seeds, accompanied by green tea. Following a mid-morning snack of plain Greek-style yogurt, lunch might be a choice of a large salad, legumes with vegetables, or whole grains with vegetables. For the afternoon snack: four walnuts plus mango, banana, pear, papaya, apple, or pineapple. And for dinner, the options are vegetable soup and a protein; salad plus a protein; or miso soup, cooked vegetables, and a protein.

At the 2020 ACR annual meeting, Roxana Coras, MD, presented the positive findings of an open-label, pilot study of the ITIS diet in which 17 patients with active RA involving at least three tender and three swollen joints adopted the diet for 2 weeks . The ITIS diet turned out to be not too much of a stretch for Southern California RA patients interested in dietary complementary and alternative medicine. Many had already adopted some elements of the anti-inflammatory diet. Dietary adherence in the study was good, as monitored in food logs and by mass spectrometry metabolic profiling of fecal and plasma samples.

Eleven patients were categorized as responders to the anti-inflammatory diet as defined by at least a 50% improvement in pain scores from baseline to 2 weeks; six patients were nonresponders. In the overall study population, mean pain scores on a 0-10 visual analog scale improved from 3.9 to 2.45. Scores on the Clinical Disease Activity Index (CDAI) also improved significantly on the ITIS diet, from 29 to 12.7, reported Coras, a rheumatologist at the University of California, San Diego.

The mechanisms for the clinical improvement on the diet are under study. Significant differences in the gut microbiome and metabolome were seen between the responders and nonresponders. For example, Mollicutes were increased and Coriobacteriales decreased in clinical responders versus nonresponders. A significant increase in circulating levels of anti-inflammatory oxylipins was also seen in responders. Longer-term controlled studies of the ITIS diet are planned.

Biqi Is Big in China, Gaining Ground in the US

Ayurvedic medicine in India and Chinese traditional herbal medicine have richly documented 4,500-year histories.

"It's so common in my neck of the woods, where there are large Asian communities, for Chinese or Korean or Japanese or Indian medicines to be combined with our medicines. And if you don't ask about them, you're never going to find out what these patients are taking," Troum said.

If they're taking Biqi capsules, readily available on the Internet, be advised that there is randomized trial evidence to show that they're using an efficacious and safe herbal medicine for RA. In China, the combination of Biqi capsules and a conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drug such as methotrexate is now widely used for treatment of RA. And at the 2019 ACR annual meeting, Runyue Huang, MD, of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, presented the results of a 24-week, randomized, multicenter, open-label clinical trial in which 70 RA patients were assigned to methotrexate plus a 1.2-g Biqi capsule twice daily or to methotrexate plus leflunomide (Arava) at 20 mg/day. The primary outcome – achievement of a 20% improvement in the ACR criteria, or ACR20 response, at week 24 – was achieved in 77% of the Biqi group, not significantly different from the 83% rate in the comparator group. However, the Biqi plus methotrexate group had significantly fewer adverse events and the combination was better tolerated than was leflunomide plus methotrexate.

In addition, a systematic review of earlier clinical trials concluded that Biqi in combination with methotrexate was more effective and had fewer adverse events than methotrexate alone.

"Biqi capsule with methotrexate appears to be a promising combination for RA if you can rest assured that what's found in the Biqi capsule is exactly what they say. And that's the main issue: You don't really know what you're getting unless it's in a trial," Troum said.

American RA Patients Embrace Turmeric

Turmeric has played a prominent role in Ayurvedic medicine for millenia. The most medicinally important component of turmeric root is curcumin, which has potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Americans with RA have gotten on the bandwagon, as demonstrated in a survey of 291 patients with RA or psoriatic arthritis presented at ACR 2020 by investigators from the University of Central Florida, Orlando. Among the respondents, 37% reported having taken curcumin, with no predilection based upon age, gender, or diagnosis. Fifty-nine percent took their curcumin in the form of capsules, with the rest took it as an oil or powder. Fifty-four percent got their curcumin at a local store.

Thirty-six percent of curcumin users reported improvement in pain after going on the herbal supplement. Twenty-five percent reported reduced swelling, 23% had less stiffness, and 16% reported improvement in fatigue. Patients taking 200-1,000 mg/day reported significantly greater improvement in symptoms than that of those taking less than 200 mg/day. Onset of benefits was slow: Patients on curcumin for a year or longer reported greater symptomatic improvement than did those on the supplement for less time.

Asked what he recommends to his RA patients who express interest in supplements aimed at achieving symptomatic improvement, Troum replied that he's comfortable suggesting curcumin capsules at 500 mg twice daily, which should be labeled as containing black pepper extract to aid in absorption. He also recommends fish oil both for its cardioprotective benefits and because of randomized trial evidence that it enhances the chances of achieving ACR remission in patients on conventional disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs.

What About Osteoarthritis?

Investigators with the National Institutes of Health–sponsored Osteoarthritis Initiative found in an analysis of the dietary patterns of 2,757 patients with mild to moderate knee OA who were followed annually for 6 years that participants could be grouped into two broad categories: Those who consumed what was termed the prudent diet, with high intake of fruits and vegetables, legumes, fish, and whole grains; and fans of the Western diet, characterized by lots of red meat, refined grains, and liberal consumption of French fries. Knee symptoms increased over time in dose-response fashion with greater adherence to the Western diet and decreased with higher prudent diet scores.

Also at ACR 2019, Australian investigators presented the results of the double-blind CurKOA trial, in which 70 participants with knee OA and moderate baseline effusion/synovitis by ultrasound were randomized to take a capsule containing 500 mg of turmeric root extract or identical placebo twice daily for 12 weeks. The group on turmeric plant extract experienced 9.11-mm greater reduction in knee pain on a 0- to 100-mm visual analog scale than did controls, which translates to a moderate standard effect size deemed by investigators to be "greater than other conventional pharmacologic therapies." Overall, 63% of the turmeric group achieved a treatment response by OARSI-OMERACT criteria, a significantly better outcome than the 38% rate in controls. However, there was no significant between-group difference in knee structural measures as assessed by MRI in this relatively brief trial.

Anne M. Stevens, MD, PhD, senior director of immunology translational medicine at Janssen Pharmaceuticals and a pediatric rheumatologist at Seattle Children's Hospital, rose from the audience to share that she recommends that her patients on high-dose curcumin not take NSAIDs because the two share a similar mechanism of action involving COX-2 inhibition, and the combination might therefore increase bleeding risk. But Troum said he hasn't seen any increase in bleeding in his patients on both agents.

Troum has financial relationships with numerous pharmaceutical companies, but reported having no financial conflicts of interest regarding his presentation.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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