Controlling Rheumatoid Arthritis with Diet

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Controlling symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis with diet is not something that most RA patients hear much if anything about. However, a healthy diet can play a huge role in managing symptoms as demonstrated by this compelling personal journey of healing from Drenda-Michell Brennan.

woman rubbing painful hands with arthritis

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), over 1.3 million adults in the US suffer from a debilitating autoimmune and inflammatory disease called rheumatoid arthritis aka RA. The vast majority of those suffering from the disease have no idea of the impact that food can have on symptoms.

This is a powerful and personal story from one patient who changed her diet and saw amazing results that helped her get her life back. There are more similar stories like Amy Fewell’s journey with RA as well.

Our plant-based starter kits are a great way to begin this new healthy lifestyle because they include a book, a set of DVD lectures from Dr. Neal Barnard, and a folder full of helpful literature from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

By: Drenda-Michell Brennan

Life gets out of control

The most regrettable part of my story is that I knew better, and I did it anyway.  I had been plant-based and doing well for years, (see Veggie-Hater article), and then life got hard and busy and I compromised and let myself go back down that slippery slope. 

It wasn’t totally unfounded–I was already working and living life at full speed and trying to help care for my precious grandmother who we were losing to dementia, and then my youngest son was in a serious accident that was life-altering.

Our traditional cooking methods were faster and easier and they made life simpler and besides, there’s a ton of fast-food places to grab something quick when I was out running around like a mad woman. Shortcuts just kind of crept back. I felt like I was in survival mode, but it wasn’t a wise move and it eventually caught up with me and proved to be anything but that.

Health crisis

In the summer of 2022, as I painfully went about daily tasks, I began to realize how far I had digressed.  I had regained about 20 pounds of the weight I had previously lost. My hands were a mess. I had suffered from trigger fingers before, but this time it was every finger, even my thumbs. I was constantly feeling the pain and clicking and dreading the next ‘lock up’ event.

Texting and typing were painful, and I could no longer grip things to open them or grasp them and trust myself to bear the weight safely. I couldn’t recognize my own signature because I could barely grip a pen well enough to sign my name.  

I was having flare-ups regularly throughout my entire body. I wasn’t able to walk without pain in my hips, ankles, and toes. My neck, shoulders, and back pain limited my mobility and the ability to even turn my head without pain. 

I also knew my neuropathy had greatly worsened. I had regular tingling down my arms into my hands and in my feet. I already knew in my heart that the rheumatoid arthritis had worsened so much that it would show up in the testing this time. I decided that after my son’s wedding, I would go to see my rheumatologist. 

Getting diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis

I’m a bit of a procrastinator when it comes to bad news, there’s a part of me that would just really rather not know. I don’t have to deal with it that way, but I couldn’t hide from this. My quality of life was deteriorating rapidly. I have watched my mother’s journey with rheumatoid and the resulting autoimmune diseases, and I knew that it was coming for me whether I acknowledged it or not. It was not a path I wanted to travel if I could avoid it.

So I made the appointment, and my fears were confirmed. I was positive for rheumatoid, and the list grew by the time all of the testing, x-rays, and MRIs were done. In addition to the rheumatoid diagnosis, osteoarthritis, stenosis, scoliosis, and neuropathy were added.

That day I was prescribed medications for the inflammation and pain in my joints and for the neuropathy and we set up an appointment date to start discussing my treatment plan.

Rheumatoid and genetics

On the drive home, I began to think about how my mother’s greatest fears that her children may inherit the genes that would cause them to have to follow her medical path were now officially confirmed.

I have watched her journey, and it has been debilitating and it is not a path I want to travel. The medications that have helped her manage the pain over the last 20 years are not without a great many side effects.

Diet and rheumatoid arthritis

On the flip side of my growing fear, however, I also realize that I am so greatly blessed! My sister Terri has a heart and mission in life advocating for a plant-based lifestyle that brings healing.  I have resources unending at my fingertips. I have been educated in the science behind the plant-based lifestyle for a decade and I have repeatedly seen the benefits and even experienced them myself.

I know it works and I never had a moment when I didn’t know what to do.  I just didn’t want to do it. Not completely anyway, but I had never before had the health incentive to be intentional about it that I did now.  

Learning about RA and diet

I called Terri and told her the news and within an hour she started sending me links.  She sent me tons of information and links to plant-based success stories with rheumatoid.  I jumped in and started researching.  I was greatly encouraged by one person in particular that Terri sent me, Clint Paddison. If you have had a rheumatoid diagnosis, you definitely will want to hear his story and see his Paddison Program

I was shocked to hear that the recovery rate for rheumatoid is around 96% with a plant-based diet and you’ll see most of the benefits within the first four months! I couldn’t believe that could be possible! It took me a long time to get myself in this shape, and I was a hot mess. Four months was unimaginable!

Medications and alternatives

I knew the alternative was medications and I knew that path from watching Mom. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very thankful for the option of medications. One day it may come to that point, but as long as there’s another viable alternative, that’s the path I want to be on.

The medication and treatment path has not been an easy one and despite it, most days my mother still lives in excruciating pain. I also learned from my research that the drugs actually worsen the leaky gut condition that causes autoimmune diseases in the long run.

I know from experience with Mom, that once I go on them it’s a never-ending spiral. I knew immediately I had to give it a try and see what happened before I did anything else.  I contacted my rheumatologist and told her my plan and that I’d like to make my appointment to discuss my treatment plan but I wanted to move it back four months.

Recovery and healing

The best way to demonstrate the results I saw from changing my diet to help with rheumatoid arthritis symptoms is to share a few experts from my journal during the process.

Excerpts from my journal

WEEK #1– I am already feeling some relief.  I’m not going to allow myself to get too hopeful.  I’ve done this before and I already knew going back to plant-based was going to help.   

WEEK #4 MUCH IMPROVED!  So much so, that I am actually allowing myself to start to be hopeful I might not have to start treatments. I’m now able to do things without pain that I haven’t been able to do in forever. I am no longer regularly taking any meds for pain. I still have inflammation in my hands and locking trigger fingers but feeling so much better that I have started taking yoga classes! 

MONTH #3 SO MUCH BETTER! Even my hands are much improved!  SOOO HAPPY!!  I can squeeze a washcloth to wring out the water to wash my face again without pain or fingers locking up! No tingling in quite a while, I’m going to start weaning myself off of the neuropathy drug before my appointment next month so that I can see if I still need it.

MONTH #4I FEEL GREAT!!  Still improving and I’m actually getting stronger and have much more flexibility. I feel like I’m finally on offense now and not playing defense and just ‘preventing’ loss.  I was able to come off the neuropathy drug successfully and have had no more symptoms of neuropathy! My hands are not completely healed, I’m thinking maybe the damage to the joints was too great. Not all fingers are ‘fully’ functional and especially the clicking thumb joint has not seen much improvement and is still locking up, BUT I am so happy and thankful! If this is as good as it ever gets, I am WONDERFUL!!  SOOOO MUCH BETTER NOW!! PRAISE THE LORD, I am leading an active life again and I’m confident I’ll have no need to start the treatments!!

Note from the four-month appointment with my rheumatologist:  “No treatment necessary at this point and no need to restart neuropathy drug. Keep doing what you’re doing and let’s check on you again in six months.”

MONTH # 6–  It didn’t happen within four months for me, and honestly I really didn’t dare hope for it at all.  I am so thankful for the incredible improvement that I have experienced, I dared not hope for even more. BUT it is month six and my thumb joint in my right hand, the final hold out, is no longer clicking and locking up!! It is totally pain-free and my pain management doctor has just completely released me from care. Surprised by how much better I am since our last visit he told me to continue to do exactly what I’m doing and no follow-up is necessary, “Just call me if you need us.”

MONTH #10I no longer have arthritis pain. Some of my joints are damaged and they will never fully be what they once were. A plant based lifestyle cannot reverse the damage that’s already been done to joints and it will not ‘cure’ you. I heard someone say, during my research, that with rheumatoid you are not healed, you are in remission. If you revert to your old eating habits, you will realize that very quickly.  That said, I ‘FEEL’ healed!  I am now able to workout at the gym and take yoga classes and LOVE IT!  I can work my bees and move forty-pound honey supers around with no problem.  Most importantly, I can play with my grandbabies and I feel I am able to enjoy living life to it’s fullest!  I AM SO VERY BLESSED!!

My advice for those diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis

#1: Don’t let yourself get discouraged.

At every appointment, the doctor or nurses regularly told me that there’s not much science to back up a plant-based lifestyle. I know I could argue the lack of science point, but they can’t deny the results they’re seeing and I think that speaks louder. My hope is that seeing how it has helped me will cause them to research it more and consider it as an option for other patients.

I ain’t gonna lie, it was hard. The practical day-to-day choices and changes that were going to be necessary were overwhelming initially. I was very discouraged, actually a kind of grieving I suppose, at the loss of no longer being able to eat all the foods that I love and that are so steeped into our family’s meal traditions. 

I knew I couldn’t impose my new diet choices on everyone else so that was going to mean cooking two different meals which was going to mean more time and work for me. Honestly, I felt a little isolated by the thought of it all.  

However, I also knew I wanted to be healthy enough to enjoy holding and playing with my grandbabies and be able to do it for many years to come. So, I was going to have to learn to navigate this new territory and do the work to make it a reality, and to remember to be thankful that I have an alternative to a medical treatment plan.

#2: Take it one meal at a time and have a plan.

I found that doing the prep work up front is critical for me because when I’m tired and undecided, I get frustrated and make bad choices. As the old saying goes, when Momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. It took me months to start to feel like I was getting into a rhythm. Getting myself organized and having a plan and preparing ahead were foundational. 

Rheumatoid meal planning tips

Make out a list of about 10 or 12 meals you like–4 or 5 lunch ideas and 4 or 5 breakfast ideas. This will be your list to refer to when you’re planning. It’s also a good idea to make a snack list because when you’re already hungry, it’s a bad time to be looking through the cabinets for something to eat.

Every Sunday, I make a weekly menu on a calendar and pencil in what I plan to eat/prepare each day.  I include items for breakfasts, lunches, and suppers/dinners.

  • BREAKFAST: My breakfasts are the same three or four things rotated. Overnight oatmeal for quick mornings because I can make it the night before. Grits, toast, bagels, and cereal all get sprinkled in on days I have time to prepare something before I start work.
  • LUNCH: Keep it simple. Generally, I have leftovers or sandwiches or a baked potato. Always something quick and easy.
  • DINNER:  I have a monthly calendar and each week I write out a list of things for supper for the week. It is mostly determined by how long my day will be that day and what I have in the fridge that I need to use before it goes bad.  Friday is always pizza night so that’s a given each week. I pencil in something for each night and then make sure I get to the grocery store to get anything we need before the night we need it. Batch cooking recipes is great because you can freeze the leftovers. At least one or two nights a week we defrost meals and have those on our busiest days.  On the nights I cook, I try to double or triple recipes for the next week(s).  

My husband has even started eating much of what I eat, now that he realizes that it tastes good and he already knows it’s better for him. On the nights he doesn’t want what I’m having, I adapt whatever I’m preparing. For example, if I’m having spaghetti, his will have meat and mine will not.

The structure and organization and getting a rhythm took time. Weekly menu plans, shopping, prep work, reorganizing my kitchen with new ingredients, researching recipes we enjoy, and cooking were all things I had to adjust to and make time for.

Being prepared has been key for me in starting to feel more confident and being successful. Over time, as I have become more comfortable with meal planning and cooking, I have even begun to branch out and try to modify and adapt the recipes that I love.

This is especially true for the Japanese foods that we are so accustomed to preparing and enjoying as a family because we are a mixed American/Japanese family.

Drenda Michell Brennan Family
Drenda’s family

Don’t give up!

Finally, do better than I did the first time around–don’t give up! Come to terms early on with the reality that making these kinds of life changes is hard, It is a big deal and it will take extra time and a lot of determination.  

Lean on your plant-based family or community to encourage you when you feel yourself wanting to compromise. Make a plan and get organized ahead of time to help you set yourself up for success.  I can tell you now that it is so worth the effort! Hang in there and it will get easier and you will get better! 

drenda michell brennan

About the Author

Drenda-Michell Brennan joined EatPlant-Based in January 2023 as a recipe developer and has continued to expand her skills into photography, SEO, technical assistance, and writing. Our EatPlant-Based community knows her as Chelbo from our Facebook Tuesday LIVES.

She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis/autoimmune disease and it runs in her family. Not wanting to give up the foods she loves led her to begin to adapt the recipes for a plant-based lifestyle.

Drenda-Michell is the mother of three Japanese-American grown children and grandmother (HuneyGram) to eight grandchildren. She is an avid apiarist and spends most of her time working with her bees. ( She also happens to be the sister of Terri Edwards, of EatPlant-Based. Read more about her story in this article, From Veggie Hater to Plant-Based.

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  1. oh my goodness! What an inspiring testimony of faith, determination and plant based nutrition! Thank you so very much for sharing!

    1. Hey Jody- It is such an important story to tell, and I’m beyond thankful that my sister was willing share it. I told her it was going to inspire and encourage other people, and I know it will.

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