Joint pain has been with humans since the beginning—cave men suffered sore knees too. A condition brought on by injury or disease, joint pain intensifies with age, and with the wearing away of the body’s flexibility. One of the main causes of joint pain is rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic condition usually treated with medication and physical therapy. Certain substances and behaviors can cause an arthritic flare-up—eating the wrong food increases inflammation in the body, and aggravates joint pain.
1. Refined sugar
Arthritis is a disease of the immune system; inflammation (redness, swelling), is how the immune system fights off danger. Refined sugars, like those found in soda, candy, processed baked goods, desserts, and some fruit juices, trigger the release of cytokines, enzymes that cause inflammation. Chronic joint pain (a continued state of inflammation) makes it harder for a body to break apart sugars; besides making joint pain worse, refined sugars put added stress on blood sugar levels. Aspertame is marketed as an alternative to refined sugar, but it’s actually a neurotoxin that also brings on inflammation in people who are sensitive to this chemical.
2. Saturated Fats
Saturated fats are some of the heaviest compounds we ingest, so they’re hard for our bodies to break down. Bloating, gas, and loose stool are one frequent result of ingesting too many saturated fats (along with arterial clogging). Saturated fats also prompt the release of adipose, fat tissue inflammation—this aggravates joint pain. Pizza, thick cheese, heavy dairy products, and red meats are loaded with saturated fats.
3. Trans Fats
Trans fats (short for trans-unsaturated fatty acids), are uncommon in nature but mass produced commercially, pumped into products like margarine, packaged baked goods, and snack foods. Even worse for the body than saturated fats, trans fats induce inflammation, accumulate and harden arteries, and remain in the digestive system for way too long. Trans fats are created when hydrogen molecules are added to vegetable oil, turning the oil from liquid to solid; this extends the shelf life of the product, but is no friend to the human body.
Celiac disease commonly accompanies rheumatoid arthritis. It’s another chronic condition of the immune system, triggered by gluten. The response to gluten happens in the small intestines—bloating and diarrhea are first, followed by joint pain inflammation for more sensitive people. Research published in the Oxford Journal of Rheumatology found 41% of rheumatoid arthritis patients responded positively to a gluten-free vegan diet. Gluten is the main protein found in wheat and other grains; it’s what makes dough puffy and thick. Going gluten-free is a challenge at first, but many people (even those without joint pain) find they have more energy when they cut out gluten.
Dairy products are wonderful, in moderation; they have protein, calcium, and vitamin D, all essential for healthy bones and organs. However, dairy products are rough on folks with food sensitivities, and people with joint pain have more food sensitivities than other folks. Lactose intolerance is another immune system disorder, where milk proteins are falsely identified as harmful, and antibodies are produced in response. These antibodies incite inflammation in other parts of the body, including in the joints. Replace cow milk with almond milk or rice milk, and try frozen yogurt instead of ice cream; besides avoiding inflammation, you’ll lower your bad cholesterol levels.
A lot of people have found a vegetarian diet relieves the symptoms and frequency of arthritis flares. Thick, protein rich meats are easily converted into pro-inflammatory chemicals; plant foods have the opposite effect, often reducing inflammation. Many plants are strong sources of protein too, particularly beans, kale, lentils, soy, and spinach. Cutting back on meat intake makes less work for the heart and GI tract too.
Mono-sodium glutamate is what’s called a food additive (read: salty flavor enhancer). It’s added to many prepared Asian dishes—it’s part of soy sauce—and to prepared soups, dried soup and sauce mixes, salad dressings, and deli foods. MSG causes headaches in people who are sensitive to the chemical; it activates two main paths of chronic inflammation. MSG also has a bad cumulative effect on the health of the liver.
The chemical structure of alcohol is difficult for the liver to sort out and pass along; even one drink a day makes the liver work harder than it wants to, and excessive drinking permanently weakens the organ. Too much drinking also disrupts the way organs work together, and causes inflammation in the body. People prone to joint pain benefit from light to moderate drinking. Corticosteroid drugs, which are the most common treatment for joint pain, intensify alcohol’s effects.
9. Refined carbohydrates
The main component in white flour goods—breads, crackers, rolls, cakes—refined carbohydrates are thick starches whose overconsumption is driving obesity rates higher than even saturated fats. White rice, starchy white potatoes, and many cereals also contain refined carbs. These chemicals have a high-glycemic index, so when they are broken down in the bloodstream, they release a big shot of sugar at once. This release taxes the cardiovascular system, and it increases the production of advanced glycation end (AGE), a compound that creates inflammation.
10. Excess omega 6 fatty acids
Fatty acids are essential for a healthy body; omega 3s get more attention than omega 6s, but they’re both important. Unfortunately, an excess of omega 6 fatty acids can set off the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals, worsening joint pain. To keep the right balance in your body, reach for more omega 3 fatty acids, which are found in sunflower oil, grapeseed oil, flaxseed, almonds, peanuts, and corn oil.