Most forms of joint pain, stiffness, and swelling involve some kind of inflammation — either local or systemic. Whether the cause is direct trauma or an overuse injury, this triggers a series of events in the immune system known as the inflammatory cascade. The process begins with pro-inflammatory hormones recruiting white blood cells to repair damaged tissue and clear out infection. This is what leads to the redness, swelling, and pain we typically associate with injury.
If the inflammation persists it can lead to chronic conditions such as osteoarthritis, the most common joint disorder. Though most often thought of as an “old person’s disease,” any individual who subjects his or her joints to wear and tear needs to be aware of their risk of osteoarthritis. Athletes – both recreational and competitive – are especially prone to developing the condition, as their joints typically receive a significant and frequent amount of stress. When this occurs the cartilage between the joints breaks down, pain might result, and performance may be impaired.
Though training variables can be modified and recovery methods incorporated to minimize the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis and other joint problems, certain dietary strategies can be beneficial as a complementary intervention. Specific compounds in the foods listed below have demonstrated the ability to fight inflammation, reduce symptoms of and in some cases even prevent both exercise-induced and age-related joint pain and discomfort.
Olive oil contains something called oleocanthal. This compound works the same ibuprofen does – by preventing the production of pro-inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes.
“By inhibiting these enzymes, inflammation and the increase in pain sensitivity associated with them is dampened,” says Paul Breslin, PhD, co-author of a 2011 study that looked into the topic. “Virgin olive oils from Tuscany, or other regions that have the same variety of olives, have the highest oleocanthal levels,” says Breslin.
A 2015 study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry looked specifically at the benefits of oleocanthal in managing arthritis. Researchers found that the compound had a significant impact on both chronic inflammation and the kind of acute inflammatory processes that typically accompany repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise.
According to researchers, 3 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil is equivalent to a 200-mg tablet of ibuprofen. That might sound like a lot but olive oil has other health benefits, while ibuprofen – like all NSAIDS – can lead to kidney damage, and gastrointestinal bleeding and ulcers, while increasing the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Cherries get their crimson color from a plant compound known as anthocyanin. Many studies have shown that both fresh cherries and cherry juice can halt inflammation… AS WELL AS OR BETTER THAN ASPIRIN OR OTHER ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DRUGS!
A 2013 article in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage reported that study subjects who consumed two 8-ounce bottles of tart cherry juice daily for 6 weeks experienced a significant improvement in pain, stiffness, and physical function. Patients also demonstrated a dramatic decrease in levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a blood marker of inflammation and one that your primary care doc should be checking at your annual physical to determine your risk of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions linked to out-of-control inflammation.
In another study, cherry pills were found to reduce osteoarthritis pain and stiffness, with more than half of the participants reporting improved pain and function after taking one cherry capsule a day for eight weeks. Each capsule contained 100 milligrams (mg) of anthocyanins. (For reference, three ounces of pitted dark cherries are thought to contain from 80 to 300 mg of anthocyanins).
And a study conducted at Oregon Health & Science University looked at the effects of tart cherry juice in 54 long-distance runners who consumed two bottles of either that liquid or a placebo, twice daily, for a week leading up to a race. Those who drank the tart cherry juice noted a significantly smaller increase in pain both during and after the race.
As an added bonus, cherries are a good source of melatonin, a natural sleep aid with potential anticancer and antiaging benefits.
Bone broth is trendy these days with the increased popularity of Paleolithic or “caveman” diets. Its inclusion recognizes that our ancestors made use of every part of an animal by boiling and then simmering the parts you can’t eat directly – bones and marrow, skin and feet, tendons, and ligaments. It’s thought that while cooking, the bones release compounds with healing properties. Among them are chondroitin sulfate and glucosamine, both of which happen to be sold in supplement form and touted for joint pain relief, though the evidence supporting these products has been mixed.
Bone broth also contains collagen, a protein found in the bones, skin, cartilage, ligaments, tendons and bone marrow of animals. Both age and exercise-induced stress like that sustained during jogging, basketball, plyometrics can lead to the degradation of joint cartilage. We know from previous research on athletes that collagen supplements can produce significant improvements in joint comfort and a decrease in factors that negatively impact athletic performance. Collagen from bone broth is easily absorbed and can help restore lost cartilage.
Another beneficial component of bone broth is gelatin, which can provide cushioning for bones to move freely and without friction. In clinical trials, subjects supplementing with roughly two grams of gelatin daily were largely reported to experience less inflammation, reduced pain in the muscles and joints, improved recovery, and enhanced athletic abilities in comparison to those taking a placebo.
Since bone broth is somewhat of a new arrival on the superfood scene, there hasn’t been much research on the stuff itself. However as discussed above, there’s considerable evidence that some of the nutrients it provides can improve health in a number of areas. This isn’t limited to joint pain and discomfort and also includes digestion and skin health. Beyond that, anecdotal support continues to mount and bone broth has made its way into the nutrition programs of professional sports teams.
If you’re interested in making your own bone broth at home, it’s important to use grass-fed bones, which you can find at a local farmer’s market or from an online health food store like US Wellness Meats. Here’s a recipe. Warning: the process is time-consuming! Fortunately for those who aren’t quite so ambitious, bone broth is commercially available. Just avoid products that contain the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG) – it’s a neurotoxic substance that causes a wide range of reactions, from temporary headaches to permanent brain damage. Kettle & Fire makes a good product.
ONIONS (AND GARLIC, LEEKS, AND SHALLOTS)
These are all members of the allium family, a group of vegetables loaded with a type of antioxidant known as quercetin. Research has demonstrated that quercetin may help relieve inflammation in diseases like arthritis. Quercetin inhibits the production of inflammatory molecules like histamine, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes.
In addition, alliums contain a compound called diallyl disulphine, which may reduce the enzymes that damage cartilage. One of these, 5-Lipoxygenase, is known to trigger a cascade of inflammatory responses in the body. Inhibition of these enzymes helps to lower inflammation levels in patients with arthritis.
Sulphur compounds are also present in onions and can provide protection against symptoms of arthritis through yet a different pathway. This naturally occurring mineral provides the cellular “scaffolding” on which connective tissue – cartilage, ligaments, tendons – is built. Sulphur has been used for generations to reduce pain and swelling and is a prominent ingredient in many beauty creams. It is commonly found in joint relief supplements under the names dimethyl sulphoxide (DMSO) and methyl sulphonyl methane (MSM) but getting your dose through consumption of foods like onions and garlic will confer the additional health benefits of allium intake, such as a reduced risk of cancer and heart disease.
CARROTS (AND SWEET POTATOES AND SQUASH)
Orange-hued vegetables get their distinctive bright color from antioxidants called carotenoids. One in particular, beta-cryptoxanthin, has been shown in research to reduce the risk of developing arthritis and other inflammatory conditions. Scientists have determined that people who eat diets high in beta-cryptoxanthin are half as likely to suffer from a form of inflammatory arthritis as those who eat very few. It appears that adding just one additional serving each day of a food high in beta-cryptoxanthin can help reduce the risk. Other foods that contain beta cryptoxanthin include winter squash, pumpkin, persimmons, papaya, tangerines, red peppers, oranges, and apricots.
There you have it! This is by no means an exhaustive list, of course, but I think it covers the bases pretty well.
I have two primary criteria when creating “best of” lists:
- The foods, or the compounds contained within the foods, also provide additional health benefits in other areas.
- The foods are relatively easy to find and incorporate into the diet.
The foods on the list above provide a lot of “bang” for your nutrition buck. In addition to helping prevent and manage joint pain, they can also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s…the list goes on. And, because they’re low in calories and carbohydrates when used in reasonable quantities – and satiating – they can assist with weight management.
So that’s the good. What about the bad? Just as some foods have a protective effect on joints, others lead to degradation and pain by promoting inflammation. This disease process also increases the risk of developing other chronic, degenerative health problems. In most cases, these foods offer little to no nutritional value anyway and there are safer alternatives. If joint pain is a concern for you, consider staying away from the following (your skin, midsection and brain will probably thank you too!):
FOODS TO AVOID
Corn oil in particular is loaded with omega-6 fatty acids, which promote the creation of eicosanoids. These “signaling” molecules increase systemic inflammation, leading to arthritis and a host of other health problems.
Processed sugars like those found in baked goods and sodas promote inflammation in the body by increasing the release of inflammatory messengers called cytokines. Refined carbs such as white flour are also pro-inflammatory.
Milk contains a specific type of protein – casein – that can irritate the tissue around a joint. Those suffering from rheumatoid arthritis commonly experience intolerance to milk because their bodies develop antibodies to casein in order to protect from what it mistakenly perceives as a harmful substance. These antibodies turn the body against itself in those with autoimmune diseases, manifesting in symptoms like joint pain and swelling.
When foods are cooked at high temperatures toxins known as advanced glycation end products (AGES) are formed. They corrode the body the same way rust damages metal in a machine. French fries, onion rings and fried chicken are common sources.
Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes are all members of the nightshade family. These vegetables contain the chemical solanine, which some people claim aggravates arthritis pain and inflammation. Plants produce solanine as a defense mechanism against insects, disease, and predators (humans included!).
To date, no scientific studies have proven that nightshades cause inflammation or worsen symptoms but it’s interesting that the World Health Organization has set an upper limit of 20 mg per 100 grams of solanine per fresh weight of potato. Above that limit, they are considered too toxic for human consumption and can’t be sold in stores.
Nightshades contain many beneficial nutrients as well but if you find they trigger joint pain, it’s probably best to avoid them. A three-month elimination diet should help you determine if the stiffness you experience when you wake in the morning or get up from prolonged sitting is caused by nightshade sensitivity.
It’s clear that paying more attention to your diet – in addition to smart exercise and recovery methods – could eliminate the need for doctor’s visits, bulky and cumbersome braces, and even surgery. Eating anti-inflammatory foods on a regular basis will allow for safer, more productive workouts, make activities of daily living more comfortable, and possibly extend your life.