When osteoarthritis sets in, people often turn to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs for pain relief even though long-term use of these drugs can cause serious side effects—including gastrointestinal bleeding, stroke and heart attack. But certain foods contain compounds known to be powerful, natural anti-inflammatories. One fruit, loved from earliest history—the grape—is just such a food, and a new study has found that grapes actually can help with arthritis. There’s even some evidence that grapes can help prevent damage to cartilage. So—how can you use grapes to reduce pain and make your joints feel and work better?
WHAT CAUSES OSTEOARTHRITIS PAIN?
First, to understand why grapes, among all foods, might be so good for arthritis relief, it helps to know a little more about osteoarthritis. In osteoarthritis, pain is caused by joint inflammation which, in turn, is caused by the destruction of articular cartilage. Articular cartilage is the cushiony stuff between the joint and bones. When it wears away, bone rubs directly against bone, causing thickening and spurs that aggravate the tissue around the joint. This is the process that makes activities such as kneeling, walking, standing up, holding a pen or unscrewing a bottle top so painful—sometimes nearly impossible. Strategies that keep the inflammation to a minimum and promote cartilage formation are the key to pain relief in conditions such as osteoarthritis, which is the most common form of arthritis in the United States.
Research from the Texas Woman’s University in Denton uncovered the power of the grape for osteoarthritis pain in a small study of 56 adults, mostly women (42 women versus 14 men) with osteoarthritis of the knee. The study participants were randomly assigned to either a treatment or control group. Each member of the treatment group consumed 47 grams of freeze-dried grape powder, dissolved in a glass of water, each day for four months. (This dosage is roughly the equivalent of two cups of fresh whole grapes per day.) Meanwhile, the control group consumed a powder that resembled the grape powder but was really a placebo.
The grape powder was not an extract but made from whole freeze-dried California grapes and included all colors and seeded and seedless varieties. This sort of grape powder isn’t on the market for regular people—it is made available by the California Table Grape Commission only to scientists who want to study how humans might benefit from grapes. The powder is, however, essentially equivalent to real, whole California grapes.
Before the study began and at its completion, all of the participants had blood tests to examine signs of inflammation and cartilage health. Participants also reported their levels of activity and pain using a questionnaire that rates pain, stiffness and ability to perform various activities, such as sitting or lying down, standing up, bending, walking, climbing stairs, getting in and out of a car or bathtub, putting on or taking off socks, shopping, and doing light and heavy household chores. Participants also received physical exams. The results…
- Pain. Pain improved significantly in the group consuming the grape powder, compared to the placebo group, which reported very minor improvement.
- Activity. Improvement in activity level was strongly seen in the grape-powder group—but only in participants who were younger than age 65. These folks were able to increase activities that they had originally rated as “very hard” by 70%, on average. Meanwhile, participants of every age in the placebo group participated less in such activities, and older folks in the grape group participated less in moderate-to-difficult activities as the four-month study progressed. This slowing down is common in osteoarthritis because activities become more difficult as time passes. But in light of the overall benefits seen in the grape group, researchers theorized that the older people perhaps needed to continue the grape-powder regimen for a longer time to see improvement in physical activity.
- Cartilage health. Markers in blood revealed that the grape-powder treatment improved cartilage health, but only in men. (Interestingly, although this same cartilage-boosting effect was not seen in women, women reported greater pain relief than men from the grape powder.) And again, it’s possible that improvements in cartilage might have been seen in the women if they had consumed the grape powder for a longer period of time. More research is needed to investigate this and why grape powder seems to have different effects in men and women.
THE WHOLE GRAPE IS BETTER THAN EXTRACTS
Of course, the grape is not a stand-alone magic bullet. Also, know that the grape-powder study was funded through a research grant from the California Table Grape Commission, which, of course, wants to promote grape consumption—but also wants to know exactly how the health benefits of grapes really work and whether the many nonscientific claims out there are really true. Research is increasingly showing that whole grapes—that is, all of the good things in grapes taken together—have superior health benefits compared with single grape extracts, such as resveratrol. Grapes are high in sugar, though. So, rather than eating large portions of them daily, you may want to include them in moderate proportions in a broader anti-osteoarthritis strategy that combines a variety of nutritional anti-inflammatory foods.