Over one in five Americans struggle with arthritis yearly, with symptoms ranging from severe joint pain and inflammation to organ damage. Medical treatment for arthritis pain is determined on a case-by-case basis – severe cases might require immediate attention through local injections or solid anti-inflammatory steroids. In contrast, milder cases can be managed through over-the-counter medication and cooling gels.
Arthritis is a condition as old as time itself, and treatments for swollen and painful joints can be found in nearly every culture, whether it’s a poultice, a massage technique, or a special diet. But what about other household treatments? How much merit do these practices have, and can they be of any use to your joint pain? Perhaps. Today, we’ll be looking at food – and how some foods can help manage joint inflammation while others can make it much worse.
Best Foods for Managing Joint Inflammation
Most anti-inflammatory medication interferes with the body’s two-step process for addressing injury or infection, whether in the form of enzyme-stopping NSAIDs or steroidal medication like cortisone. Can food have a similar impact on the body’s functions? The answer is sort of. Anti-inflammatory foods do not provide instant relief in the same way as an NSAID or different anti-inflammatory medicine.
Instead, an anti-inflammatory diet aims to reduce the factors that affect chronic, low-level inflammation in conditions like arthritis, type-II diabetes, and heart disease. Different phytochemical compounds in anti-inflammatory foods correlate with lower markers for inflammation in specific research: specifically antioxidants and polyphenols. Neither of these is a replacement for the acute effects of medication, and they cannot do much to deal with a massive spike of inflammation up-front.
That being said, a consistent, long-term switch to increased uptake of foods rich in antioxidants and polyphenols may help reduce inflammation and associated joint pain. Let’s look at some top contenders to incorporate into your diet:
- Fatty fish: Fat is a crucial building block for the body, an essential nutrient in the absorption and distribution of vitamins, and a powerful energy source. No single type of fat can be universally vilified (except artificial trans fats), but our diets tend toward certain fatty acids more than others. Omega-3 fatty acids, often woefully underserved in the standard Western diet, may help reduce inflammation when consumed equal to omega-6 fatty acids (found in vegetable oils and seed oils). To achieve this, try to eat more fatty fish than other protein sources.
- Leafy greens: Leafy greens, from spinach to bok choy, tend to be high in vitamins A and K, as well as antioxidants like lutein. In addition to being crucial nutrients for eye health, these phytonutrients can help bring down inflammation levels.
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli is chief among them; these vegetables are known for their distinct taste and numerous phytonutrients – the most important being the glucosinolates. Other cruciferous vegetables include most cabbages, watercress, turnips, cauliflower, collard greens, and kale.
- Dry beans: No, you don’t have to eat these dry! But most beans that come in dry packaging – white and red kidney beans, lentils, and black beans – make for an excellent source of protein and fiber in addition to combatting inflammation through their polyphenols.
- Blueberries: A primary example of red- and blue-colored fruits and vegetables high in antioxidants, such as resveratrol. Plants produce these as a defense mechanism against hostile environments – particularly bacterial attacks – and they’re also found in grapes, raspberries, and mulberries.
- Carrots: Carrots and other orange vegetables are an excellent source of beta-carotene, another big-name antioxidant and a useful phytonutrient.
- Sweet potatoes: In addition to being a complex carb on the sweeter side of things and a good source of fiber, sweet potatoes and yams are also good sources of phytonutrients. Eat the rainbow! Go for the colored roots for the best health benefits.
Worst Foods for Managing Joint Inflammation
Certain foods can help make a difference in a long-term diet. Traditionally, these are foods we know to avoid anyway: trans fats, refined sugars, and alcohol. However, certain foods can also accelerate your symptoms and generally worsen them. Here’s why these foods can trigger inflammation and make existing symptoms worse:
- Dairy products: High-fat dairy products are associated with more excellent rates of inflammation – that usually refers to whole milk, large amounts of butter, and most cheeses. If you are lactose intolerant, you may also suffer from a higher level of reaction to dairy products.
- Omega-6 fatty acids: Canola oil, palm oil, and most seed oils are a source of high omega-6, which often correlates to higher levels of physical chronic illness and inflammation. Aiming to reduce intake of omega-6 fatty acids usually means cutting out fried foods and reducing cooking oil consumption, which helps deal with metabolic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
- Refined sugar: There is nothing wrong with refined sugar itself, but its abundance is what seals the deal. Too much-refined sugar is a surefire culprit behind a lot of excess weight gain. Higher extra calories correlate with greater levels of inflammation and more excess weight, which can cause more joint pain.
- Alcohol: No, not even red wine will help reduce inflammation – and alcohol consumption, in general, is more likely to harm than good. The Mediterranean diet correlates with a longer lifespan and superb quality of life, which only shows that alcohol in moderation might not necessarily affect you if you’re eating better and have lower overall environmental stress factors. But if you experience a flare-up in symptoms after a beer or two, it’s best to stay away from booze entirely.
- Gluten: Gluten-free meal options are more than just a fad – while gluten sensitivity is nowhere near as severe as celiac disease, it is much more common and far less diagnosed. If you experience less pain on a low-gluten or gluten-free diet, consider cutting it out of your dietary plan entirely.
- Trans fats: These are hydrogenated oils used to create shelf-stable foods like potato chips and other snacks. Despite the biochemical innovation factor, trans fats are universally bad for you, especially if you have a chronic illness or inflammation history. Stick to low-fat popcorn or air-fried potato chips as a healthier alternative.
- Nicotine: Nicotine exposure, primarily through cigarette smoke, deteriorates cartilage and worsens arthritic symptoms. While not quite a foodstuff, smoking and other sources of nicotine (including gum) should be at the top of your elimination, hit list.
In a Nutshell
It can be challenging to talk about nutrition and health because as important as food is, it is not a cure for disease without a holistic treatment plan – that means incorporating a better diet alongside more physical activity, more sunlight, more time amid nature, and a medical treatment plan that fits your circumstances and symptoms. A diet designed around a person’s symptoms and preferences is also important. It is not enough to focus on specific foods or try to incorporate a salad or two into an otherwise unhealthy diet.
To make the most of these anti-inflammatory benefits, you need to readdress what you’re eating. Talk to a pain specialist if you are experiencing significant and chronic joint pain due to inflammation. Pain management clinics employ medical experts from multiple specializations, including certified dietitians, physiotherapists, and rheumatologists. They can help put together a pain management plan that matches your needs.
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