Look after your joints this Autumn and Winter – arthritis care and prevention
As the weather cools and Atlantic winds bring in a succession of squalls, I see the people around me in Bristol and Somerset slow down. Not because they’re wisely sitting next to an open fire with their feet up on the dog, but because, for many of them, the body starts to creak. So, while the mind is willing to crack on, knuckles, knees and backs won’t cooperate; arthritic pain is a huge health issue in Britain.
Arthritis Research UK tells me that 6 million Britons have osteoarthritic knees, 8 million have osteoarthritic spines, 400,000 adults in the UK have Rheumatoid Arthritis, and in every year over 10 million adults are consulting their GP with arthritis.
In this context, for those of us that plan to live a long and fulfilled life, if we haven’t already got arthritis, then we’re likely to get it. Which suggests that prevention is every bit as important as cure for joint health. However, when it comes to institutional approaches for the prevention of joint disease, as well as its treatment, there is very little to say. By contrast, acupuncture is pre-eminent in the treatment of joint pain, and this represents a significant proportion of my work in my Bristol-based clinic. I also use liniments and balms in the treatment of arthritis, and, of course, diet.
So here are some food fundamentals, with a particular focus on osteoarthritis (OA) as it is the most prevalent form of arthritis.
OA results from irritation of normally shock absorbing and slick cartilage, which is then worn away to reveal the underlying bone which gets roughed up and inflamed.
Nourishing and preserving the cartilage is key to prevent and treat this pathological process. As such, we should employ a common dietary principle – treat like with like. In this case that means eating bone and cartilage; easier said than done you might say! But, surprisingly to some, every major culinary tradition in the world (except for vegetarians of course) does precisely this. And that’s because they base their dishes on bone stocks and broths. Or when they cook with meat they keep the bones in the dish too thus creating the pre-eminent anti-inflammatory protein and mineral supplement for joint health. Chemical ingredients extracted from such broths and stocks include glycine and proline (the collagen/gelatin that forms the matrix for cartilage and bone), calcium and phosphorus, and hyaluronic acid and chondroitin sulphate (GAGs, the stuff that so many of us fork out for as a supplement).
But where are the bones, broths and stocks in the life of the modern Briton? Gone are the days when a stock pot was bubbling away daily on the edge of the hearth. Instead it has been replaced by plastic wrapped fillets and mock-stock cubes. Indeed bones are now considered domestic waste, a nutritional hindrance – in contrast to my childhood when they were always boiled up, then kept for the rag and bone man riding his cart up the street ringing his bell.
Step one for healthy joints therefore is to dust off the stock pot or its like (I use a slow cooker for stocks which can be safely left on all day). It’s not particularly important what bones you put in your pot, though cartilage rich bones are ideal, like feet, ribs, necks (it is common to find ducks necks for stocks on sale in French markets) and knuckles (trotter was once a delicacy). Also beneficial are mineral rich shellfish shells, whole fish carcasses with their heads, or small dried shrimp.
Then make a broth; and if you’re short of confidence or ideas then discover the extensive online stock community!
The broth can then be seasoned and drunk as an aperitif, or incorporated into all soups, stews or sauces.
Hence stock-based dishes can easily be consumed daily.
Step two involves spices that are traditionally and scientifically indicated for joint health. These spices are principally aromatic and warming in nature, they strongly invigorate blood circulation in the joints; an important consideration in our cold and damp climate. Studies also show them to be anti-inflammatory. Top of the list are ginger, turmeric, cloves, cayenne pepper/paprika and cinnamon; in most people these spices could easily feature in diet daily.
The same spices can also be used to create a warming, circulation-stimulating rub for external use. To make the rub start with 750ml bottle of clear spirit (like vodka) then add a handful of chopped ginger, 15 drops of eucalyptus essential oil, 12 cloves, a cinnamon stick and a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, and leave it to steep for at least 2 weeks in a cupboard, turning it every day. The rub is now ready for use. It can be applied to joints up to 3 times a day in winter, but, as is usual with any such preparation, if your symptoms worsen or your skin is irritated, stop using it immediately.
Much more can be said about joint health but, in dietary terms, these two steps have got to be the most fundamental. If we all adopted them, it would go a long way to defining British health culture.