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Pain impacts many Americans and their ability to function at full capacity, whether physically or mentally. Long-term pain is so common that 1 in 5 Americans state they experience pain chronically. (1)
While joint complications may be common, research shows that they can be managed. To improve a joint disease, managing inflammation must first be learned.
Pain can originate from many different types of injury, but it is usually associated with some degree of inflammation. Inflammation is a cellular response to an injury in the body and is a life-saving biological mechanism.
If you have ever cut yourself, you might have noticed that your skin felt warm or hot to the touch, turned red, and swelled around the area of the wound.
These types of responses are due to the body releasing inflammatory mediators, such as hormones and histamine, that cause blood vessels to dilate and carry higher volumes of blood to the injured area. This uncomfortable process initiates healthy healing. (3)
However, an injury does not have to be visible for inflammation to occur. The body can respond with inflammation to an irritant, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, chemicals, radiation, and foreign objects.
Inflammation has five main symptoms:
- Loss of function
Inflammation can also occur when the immune system is not working like it should and releases inflammatory chemicals at inappropriate times. These conditions can trigger the body to attack its joint tissues and even activate nerves. (4)
These types of inflammatory pain can be caused by inflamed joint linings that cause nerve irritation, damaged bones that produce pain, fluid buildup in a joint that leads to stiffness, and muscle weakness that places stress on the joints. (4)
Aside from pharmaceutical anti-inflammatory medications, many diet and lifestyle changes can be done to combat joint inflammation. It can be painful, but multiple studies show that it can indeed be improved.
Foods to Avoid
Here are the most foods that may cause joint inflammation:
While we all love a good bowl of ice cream or a slice of warm pie, sugar has been proven to contribute to inflammation. (5)
A diet rich in refined sugars, starches, and trans or saturated fatty acids can trigger the innate immune system. This is generally due to the stimulation of proinflammatory cytokines, while the production of anti-inflammatory cytokines gets lowered. (6)
Some proinflammatory cytokines also participate in the process of pain itself, not something ideal for those experiencing joint issues.
You can limit your processed sugar intake by avoiding sweets, pastries, candy, and drinks with added sugar. Instead, incorporate 1-2 servings of fresh fruit in your diet every day.
2. Saturated Fats
Research shows that consuming saturated fats can trigger inflammation in fat tissue in the body. (5)
Saturated fats can be commonly found in fried foods, whole dairy products like butter, baked goods, and fatty cuts of beef and pork.
In America alone, the single largest contributor to saturated fat intake is pizza and cheese.
3. Trans Fats
There are sources of trans fatty acids in nature, but trans fats are typically man-made and have been shown to increase the risks of cardiovascular events greatly.
Consuming these man-made fats has been linked to heart disease and sudden death and is possibly linked to diabetes. Studies also show that trans fats promote inflammation in the body. (7)
In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration determined that partially hydrogenated oils (PHOs), the primary sources of trans fat in processed foods, were no longer considered safe and could not be added to foods after 2018. (8)
However, some food items are still working their way through distribution until the year 2021. Read labels on processed foods and avoid all partially hydrogenated oils.
Foods to Eat
Here are the most common foods that prevent inflammation:
1. Fiber (Including Fresh Fruits and Vegetables)
You can think of dietary fiber as a roughage that “cleans” your intestines as it passes through your digestive system.
Fibers, to some extent, are visible. Imagine the long and hairy “fibers” on the outside of a coconut. It is similar to a thread found in vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes.
Fiber has been linked to many health benefits, but the average American does not consume it near enough. The Institute of Medicine recommends 19-38 grams of fiber per day, depending on your age and gender.
Not only has fiber been linked to a reduced risk of developing heart disease, stroke, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, obesity, cancer, and diabetes, but high fiber intake is also associated with reduced inflammation.
Studies have shown that individuals who consume high amounts of fiber have lower levels of inflammation markers that are linked to rheumatoid arthritis. Besides, diets high in fiber are related to a lower body weight, which can also decrease inflammation. (9)
Foods high in fiber include:
- Black beans
- Kidney beans
- Black-eyed peas
- Collard greens
2. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Perhaps one of the more well-known compounds that reduce inflammation in the body is omega-3 fatty acids.
Although omega-6 fatty acids have gotten a bad rap when it comes to inflammation, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids is what is important.
Some research indicates that the increase in inflammatory conditions may be due in part to the American diet that is high in omega-6 and low in omega-3. (11)
Although more research is needed, the minimal intake of omega-3 fatty acids is thought to have a connection with inflammation in some fashion.
To improve your omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acid ratio, focus on foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as:
- Canola oil
- Cod liver oil
- Flax seeds
- Chia seeds
- Brussels sprouts
3. Green Tea
Green tea has been consumed for centuries and is often associated with health benefits due to its antioxidant and free-radical-fighting activities.
Green tea contains catechins (a type of antioxidant), which has been associated with protection against inflammatory diseases. (10)
Epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), one of green tea’s components, possesses anti-inflammatory effects.
You can easily incorporate green tea into your everyday diet and enjoy its mild energetic effects. Start your day with one cup in the morning and serve a second cup for an early afternoon pick-me-up.
You can also find green tea extracts as supplements. However, consuming green tea in its natural form is best to avoid taking large doses of extract, which may negatively affect liver function.
Focusing on a whole-food diet is one of the best ways to prevent inflammation. A diet full of a wide range of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy, nuts, and lean meat is optimal. A healthy diet may just be the key to improving your overall well-being!
Answered by Ms. Eileen Schutte, MS, CN, FMN, CLT (Nutritionist)
Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are referred to as essential fatty acids. In other words, they are fats that the body cannot make on its own and are needed for many functions, including controlling inflammation.
Controlling inflammation is one of the major roles of these essential fatty acids, with omega-6 majorly responsible for producing inflammatory responses and omega-3 for anti-inflammatory responses.
When the joints are damaged due to injury or arthritis, a proper inflammatory response is needed to start the healing process. But without enough omega-3 to balance out this inflammatory response, you can suffer from joint pain. Both of these essential fatty acids can be found in animal products, fish, nuts, seeds, and some plants like purslane.
Omega-3 fatty acids are predominately found in cold-water fish. Omega-6 fatty acids are predominantly found in seed oils (such as corn oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and cottonseed oil), nuts, and seeds (such as hemp seeds).
Currently, the American diet is very high in omega-6 fatty acids with the ever-increasing use of “industrial seed oils,” such as corn and soybean oils, which are highly processed. Livestock, poultry, and even farmed raised fish are also fed with corn and soybean. This practice increases the content of their meat with omega-6 fatty acids, making them more pro-inflammatory.
It is essential to maintain the proper ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 to reduce joint pain while maintaining a healthy and healing inflammatory response. The current American diet is estimated to have an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of as high as 10:1 due to the high consumption of corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils and trans fats.
It is estimated that in the hunter-gather era, diets were closer to the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 2:1, which is where we should be at, not just to reduce joint pain but to reduce the risk of most chronic diseases such as heart disease.
One study found significant improvement and mobility in patients with joint pain who had rheumatoid arthritis with supplementation of omega-3 fatty acids, showing their anti-inflammatory effects. So, enjoy some healthy salmon and sardines. For those on a plant-based diet, purslane is a rich source of plant-based omega-3 fatty acids. (12)(13)
The body regulates calcium levels very closely just like it regulates the pH levels within a very narrow range. If you consume a high amount of calcium from calcium-rich foods, such as dairy products, or supplements, the body normally will store the excessive calcium in your bones or eliminate it through your kidneys.
However, when a dysfunction in the parathyroid or a vitamin D deficiency develops, high blood calcium levels can result, which for some can lead to joint pain.
Excessive calcium in the blood can also bind to oxalates, a compound that the body produces and is found in many healthy vegetables, nuts, and legumes, forming crystals. These crystals can settle into joints and cause joint pain. This condition is referred to as oxalate arthropathy – a rare form of arthritis.
However, increasing prevalence of high oxalate levels (which can be tested in the urine) is found in people who consume green smoothies that contain spinach, kale, and other greens high in oxalates.
Ironically, calcium, whether from foods high in calcium or supplementation, taken with a meal will actually reduce the absorption of oxalate from food. However, if it is taken between meals, it will increase the risk of high oxalate levels, kidney stones, and possibly joint pain.
Foods high in oxalates are spinach, Swiss chard, beets, chocolate, nuts, and black tea. Overall, high amounts of calcium have not been proven to be effective and can possibly cause joint pain.
In addition, high consumption of calcium can actually lead to other conditions, such as calcification of the arteries and electrolyte imbalances. It is advised to get the required calcium from daily food items and in most cases skip the supplementation.
Dairy foods are the richest source of calcium. If you are avoiding dairy, you can get your calcium from fish such as sardines and get your omega-3 at the same time. (14)
One of the major causes of joint pain is food sensitivities and dairy is one food that many people have a sensitivity to.
Food sensitivities can be a root cause of joint pain as food sensitivities trigger an immune response that is very pro-inflammatory. In addition, responses to food sensitivities are delayed – even up to 48 hours. They are also dosage dependent, unlike food allergies that only takes a small amount to get a response such as hives or swollen lips.
So, you may not have a response with a glass of milk for breakfast but after you consume some cheese for lunch, your immune system responds, causing inflammation and joint pain. Two main proteins are found in dairy, whey and casein. In most cases, people react to casein, and that is why some people with dairy sensitivities can tolerate goat milk as goat milk has low amounts of casein.
Should you avoid dairy during joint pain? Yes, especially if you have not yet identified your food sensitivities or have not been tested for food sensitivities.
It is not uncommon for people who start an elimination diet to see significant improvement in joint pain when they eliminate dairy, corn, soy, beef, gluten, and foods high in sugar. By reintroducing dairy after a period of elimination of at least 4 weeks, you can identify if you have a sensitivity to it.
Is yogurt a better alternative? Yogurt, especially organic yogurt, may have the benefits of probiotics and is lower in sugar. However, it not a better alternative as it still contains the proteins and sugar (lactose) that people may react to, increasing inflammation and joint pain.
1. Stay away from processed foods: Reduce consumption of processed foods as they are high in trans fats, processed oils, and refined sugars and they do not provide the nutrients needed to manage inflammation.
The body is amazing but it needs crucial nutrients, such as omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants, to manage and lower chronic inflammation and thereby reduce pain.
Processed foods are not just low in nutrient value as most of the micronutrients have been removed, but they also contain chemicals that promote inflammation.
2. Reduce foods that cause a high glycemic response: High-glycemic foods are high in sugar or carbohydrates, such as white potatoes, and cause spikes in blood sugar and insulin, which are very pro-inflammatory.
Even though fruit in many cases is very healthy, it is also high in sugar, so always eat fruits with protein or fat, such as walnuts with an apple. You may also consume fruit at the end of a meal as dessert.
3. Reduce or eliminate foods high in omega-6 fatty acids: Avoid “heart-healthy margarine,” instead, opt for organic butter and organic olive oil. Make sure to include foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish, in your diet at least one to three times per week.
Also, eliminate consumption of corn, soy, and cottonseed oils, especially those that are highly processed (which most are), try to find organic, unrefined corn oil.
4. Add vegetables and fruits in your diet: Fruits and vegetables have high quantities of antioxidants, which help to reduce oxidative stress. Also, their bioactive compounds trigger healthy gene responses that help to reduce inflammation.
Over time, oxidative stress leads to chronic inflammation, which is one of the root causes of joint pain. The more color in fruits and vegetables that you eat in one day, the more you will benefit from their anti-inflammatory properties. Challenge yourself by adding a new fruit or vegetable every day for a week – you will be glad that you did.
About Ms. Eileen Schutte, MS, CN, FMN, CLT: Ms. Schutte owns a private practice located in the beautiful DeForest, WI, and a nutrition consulting company focused on helping women overcome hormonal imbalances, digestive conditions, and food sensitivities/intolerances.
Ms. Schutte holds a master’s degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport and is a certified functional medicine nutritionist. Her other passion is nutrigenomics, and she offers nutrigenomic testing and evaluations. She has also partnered with Digbi Health, offering weight management and prediabetes programs utilizing DNA testing and microbiome testing.