It is sometimes difficult to wrap our minds around the fact that what we eat can cause (or at least worsen) joint pain. I mean, isn't that joint pain from some old injury I had in college? Or, isn't that joint pain simply part of the "aging process"?
No. And no.
Joint pain is a sign that your body is experiencing excessive inflammation. Excessive inflammation can manifest itself in many ways in the body from autoimmune conditions, to headaches, to joint pain and stiffness and more.
In a overly-simplified way, I am going to try to make the connection to our digestive health and the inflammation we experience as joint pain so you can see how the food you eat can directly impact how your joints feel and move. If you want to jump away from the "scienc-y" part of this blog and learn about the foods to avoid and those to add, then scroll down a bit. I won't be offended.
Remember, we can eat as healthily as we want but if our body is unable to absorb the nutrients we give it, or worse, if we are giving it foods that harm our absorptive capabilities, then we are doing nothing to improve our health. Absorption of foods requires 1) that we break down the food into a small enough (microscopic) pieces, and 2) we are not eating foods that inflame our gut and cause leaks in the GI tract.
Are we breaking down our food into small enough pieces for absorption?
This starts with chewing our food thoroughly to mechanically grind it down into the smallest pieces possible so that our stomach can do its job. If we are swallowing large chunks of food without thoroughly masticating (chewing) it first, we are forcing the stomach to break down way larger pieces of food that it should have to break down.
The stomach uses acid and enzymes to break food into small pieces to ready the nutrients for absorption. If the food pieces are too large, or we are producing too little stomach acid or stomach enzymes, then we are sending larger chunks of food down the line where they will not be able to be absorbed and instead become food for our
gut bacteria or, more often, just end up as undigested food chunks in our stool. FYI, poop should be dark brown, smooth and not contain any partially digested chunks of food.
I often see clients whose stomachs are not making enough acid or enzymes to break down food. Stress, medication, antacid use, lack of sleep are all reasons in which the stomach may not be making the juices it needs to digest food. When this happens, it doesn't matter how well we are eating, our body is not breaking the food down enough to absorb all of the nutrients from the healthy food.
After the stomach does its job, the small intestine also makes its own enzymes to further try to break down the food into smaller pieces. But often, for the same reasons the stomach cannot make enough digestive juices, the small intestines are also lacking in their enzyme production and alas, we send food through our system without the proper ability to absorb it.
This ultimately leads to deficiencies in key nutrients needed to support joint health such as vitamin C, magnesium and calcium.
Are we eating inflammatory foods that cause leaks in our gut?
I see this every day in practice. Clients are assuming they are eating a healthy diet full of whole grains, low fat dairy and tons of conventionally raised fruits and veggies but are unaware of how this food may be causing massive amounts of inflammation in the body.
We now know that certain proteins in "health foods" such as gluten, wheat germ agglutinan and lectins (found in the skins and seeds of certain fruits and vegetables), as well as pesticides/herbicides/fungicides found in conventionally raised produce and dairy products can wreak extreme havoc on our GI tract. It is scientifically documented that these foods and toxins actually "poke" holes and leaks in our small intestinal lining. This, in turn, destroys our absorptive capabilities.
Even worse, it actually causes inflammatory processes to run rampant in the body.
The small intestine is a long tube that is only one cell thick. On the inside of the tube is where our food passes through. The inside of this tube is lined with finger-like sensors that help with absorption of nutrients. The brain communicates with these sensors and when it senses we are in need of certain nutrients like calcium, it tells the sensors to find, bind and absorb the nutrients we need.
On the other side of this single cell layer is our bloodstream, which means that the nutrients we are binding and absorbing do not have far to travel before they are in our system and can travel to anywhere in the body.
Because this sensory cellular network is only one cell layer thick, it is of EXTREME importance that we keep those cells linked together as tightly as possible. If those cells start to break apart, then unexpected (and often inflammatory) foods enter the bloodstream without our permission.
Anytime there is something in our bloodstream that the body doesn't recognize or didn't ask it to be there, the body launches an immune/inflammatory reaction. The obvious example of this is when we are invaded by a foreign bacteria or virus. Another common example is if we have a sensitivity to peanuts or shellfish and experience anaphylaxis.
However, the scary part about digestive inflammation is that it is not extreme like a peanut reaction or bacterial food poisoning. We can go for decades eating inflammatory foods and slowly creating leaks in our gut leading to more and more inflammation until, one day, we reach a tipping point and start to experience overt symptoms (extreme fatigue, joint pain, migraines, bad bowel movements, autoimmune conditions, heart disease, etc).
This is due to the body attacking not only the foreign food particles that are in the bloodstream without permission but also because the identification tags on this food that the immune system reads to determine if it is a "good guy" or "bad guy" can look very similar to other tags in our actual body such as our joint tissue, thyroid gland, etc.
The immune system unknowingly starts attacking these "look alike" cells because it thinks they are part of the food invaders clan.
This is ultimately how the food we eat can cause or worsen inflammation in the body.
The Main Foods That Worsen Joint Pain
These are the foods that either poke the largest holes in the small intestine (see above for the science) or are inherently inflammatory based on how these foods were manufactured.
1.) Gluten. I know. I know. This food is always on my list of worst foods. But that's because I have noticed how many clients are negatively impacted by it and how many feel better when they eliminate (or at least significantly reduce) it. This food pokes big
holes in the GI tract.
2.) High lectin foods/nightshade vegetables. These include all peppers, eggplant, potatoes (but not sweet potatoes), tomatoes, goji berries, all beans, all legumes. This list is a bit tough for some folks to process since these are all seemingly "healthy" foods. However, some people are really sensitive to substances found in the skin and seeds of these plants. Think about it...what good is it for plants to be eaten by us and other predators? If the plants didn't have a way to "protect" themselves, they would be eaten to extinction. Therefore, plants produce various chemicals such as lectins, alkaloids, saponins that can cause issues in the animal or person eating them. This can
manifest itself as an upset stomach, pain, fatigue or a whole host of other symptoms that signal to the animal to "stop eating me!" For some folks, lectins can poke holes in the gut very similar to gluten which can cause a bunch of immune dysregulation issues such as autoimmunity and asthma.
3.) Processed vegetable oils, trans fats, conventionally-raised animal fats, rancid cooking oils. Every cell in our body is comprised of a fatty outer layer. The types of fats we eat get incorporated into every cell. Therefore, it is essential we "arm" our cells with the types of fats that are best for the cell to function optimally such as omega 3's, high quality saturated fats/cholesterol (coconut, pastured animal fats, etc) and long chain fatty acids such as olive oil. These allow our cells' outer layer to do its job as best
as it can. However, when we eat poor quality fats such as processed vegetable oils and trans fats, our body incorporates these fats into the cell membrane which can significantly alter the function of the cell and also predispose the cell to creating inflammation.
Top 3 Foods To Improve Joint Pain
1. Bone Broth: No surprise here. Bone broth contains almost every nutrient our joints need to feel great such as key amino acids that make up collagen (lysine, proline, glycine). It also contains key nutrients to support strong bones and joints such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, iron, copper). If using bone broth therapeutically to support your joints and improve pain, I suggest a minimum of 3 cups per day.
2. Curcumin: This is the anti-inflammatory component of turmeric. My favorite way to utilize this in its whole foods form (as opposed to supplemental form) is to create a strong tea from turmeric root. Grate some organic, fresh turmeric root into a pot on the stove. Add 2 cups of filtered water and simmer on very low until the liquid has reduced to approximately half (20-30 minutes or so). At this point, I usually add in
some other anti-inflammatory spices such as cinnamon, cloves and black pepper and combine this mixture with full fat coconut milk (1/2 cup or so). This makes a very satisfying, rich beverage (kind of reminds me of a chai latte) that is great for your joints. If you feel the need to sweeten it a bit, play around with a couple drops of liquid stevia at a time.
3. Vitamin C-rich foods: Vitamin C is a support nutrient needed in the formation of new collagen tissue. Therefore, I almost always include fresh lemon water in my day. Squeeze the contents of one lemon into filtered water or hot tea. This, along with the bone broth nutrients, gives your body vitamin C to help generate new connective tissue.
The best pain-relieving herb
White Willow Bark: This herb contains naturally occurring salicylic acid -- the same pain relieving ingredient found in aspirin but without the potential for gastric bleeding. As always, ask your physician before you change any medications but here and here are some published research articles that you can bring to your doctor in case you want to explore alternative pain relief options.