Discover how an elimination diet can help pinpoint specific foods that trigger arthritis symptoms, leading to better management and relief.
Dietary choices can have a significant impact on the mind and body; studies show that making specific dietary changes, such as reducing processed sugars and increasing the number of whole foods in your diet, can lead to positive changes in mood, mental productivity, memory, sleep, and even mental health symptoms, in addition to improved liver, gut, and heart health.
Most people may benefit from addressing their dietary habits, whether to reduce excess sugars, cut down on “empty calories,” or consume a wider variety of vegetables and fewer processed types of meat. But for arthritic patients, dietary changes may need to be more specific than “less sugar, more salad.” Certain foods can be a physical trigger for arthritic symptoms, especially inflammation.
In many cases, it comes down to genetic predisposition – we tolerate certain foods better than others, and food sensitivities can lead to much more severe adverse reactions in people with autoimmune conditions like rheumatoid arthritis versus the general population.
Can Diet Really Affect Arthritis?
Your body’s inflammatory response is part of a crucial system of functions that keeps us healthy and combats potential threats. Autoimmune conditions, which many classify as arthritis, often involve a malfunctioning or hypersensitive immune system. Certain foods that might not usually classify as allergens, or are not typically the cause of an allergic reaction, may trigger arthritic symptoms.
It’s not quite as bad as having a severe peanut allergy, but it does mean that certain foods might lead you to develop more joint pain the next day than others.
Common Diet Triggers for Arthritis
For example, patients with gout are often aware that alcohol is a significant trigger. Alcohol consumption can lead to a short-term spike in uric acid in the blood, directly affecting and exacerbating gout symptoms and causing swelling and pain.
Other common triggers include gluten, a group of wheat proteins. Gluten sensitivity has become more common lately, not just in the context of Celiac disease, but as a standard consumer complaint – leading to a rise in gluten-free products.
Dairy products may also cause a spike in arthritic symptoms. At least some of this is due to lactose intolerance, one of the most common food sensitivities on the planet. If you are not allergic to cow’s milk, dairy consumption may be a boon or a bane depending on which products you consume.
Yogurt and other fermented dairy products may reduce symptoms; certain milk products with added probiotics may even aid digestion. Milk is also a good source of vitamin D, magnesium, zinc, and other minerals. But among dairy products are other items that may otherwise trigger more significant arthritis symptoms, such as high-sugar milk drinks and ice cream.
While milk does have higher estrogen concentrations, it is essential to note that there is no sound evidence to show that this affects humans. All studies showing a link between milk consumption and hormonal changes were rodent studies.
Bread and milk-based products make up a significant amount of the Western diet. But they are far from the only items you might want to check off your elimination diet checklist. Here are a few other considerations:
- Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, red bell peppers, eggplant)
- Citrus fruits
- Excess omega-6 fatty acids
- Sugary beverages
- Deep-fried foods
- Canned goods and certain preservatives
Creating Your Own Elimination Diet
One of the key points of an elimination diet is patient specificity. While there are templates for creating one, it ultimately boils down to cutting out certain foods intermittently until your symptoms improve. This means you don’t want to cut out too many foods simultaneously.
For example, if you cut out both bread and milk, but only milk aggravates your symptoms, you won’t know which one played a larger role until you reintroduce them both, which defeats the purpose of the diet.
This isn’t a short-term process; an elimination diet is a long-term endeavor to inform your future dietary choices. If you and your dietitian or physician find that your symptoms generally worsen when you consume products high in gluten, you may need to switch to gluten-free products.
If you want to utilize an elimination diet to identify your trigger foods, it helps to work with your physician or dietitian. Keep track of which foods you’re avoiding and for how long. Keep a food journal with your daily meals, notes on your feelings, and whether your symptoms have flared up.
Try to control for most of the factors that otherwise impact your condition – it makes little sense to attribute a food to a flare-up in symptoms when you’ve also been going through a bout of increased stress, poorer sleep, or are battling with a cold or fever from an unrelated infection.
If your symptoms and pain levels remain the same after two to four weeks of avoiding certain foods, you may reintroduce them, then move on to the next item.
Arthritis Treatment Options
Dietary changes can help reduce pain and improve your quality of life but may not necessarily replace medication and other treatment modalities. There are over a hundred forms of arthritis, and while watching what you eat might help, it’s unlikely to cure you.
If you are currently seeking treatment for arthritis, consider talking to your doctor about other options, less invasive treatments, or more conservative therapies if your elimination diet is improving symptoms. Many ways to combat chronic joint pain include viscosupplementation, joint decompression, and platelet-rich plasma therapy.
At some point, pain is not necessarily the result of general inflammation but localized nerve pain. Dietary and lifestyle changes can help with certain forms of neuropathy. They may be key in treating diabetic peripheral neuropathy and modalities such as radiofrequency ablation and nerve stimulation.
A holistic approach is always best, tackling arthritis through physical activity, better eating, mental health treatment, and medication.