Inflammation is the body’s natural and necessary response to cell damage caused by trauma or injury, chemicals and other toxins, pathogens such as bacteria and viruses, and other irritants. It’s the way the body starts to heal itself.
But at times this response can be triggered when it shouldn’t be (as in the case of autoimmune diseases), or it can spiral out of control (as with sepsis). When this happens, instead of healing, inflammation causes more damage.
Signs of acute inflammation include:
- Loss of function (such as a joint)
Diagnostic tests can be useful in determining whether inflammation is causing or contributing to your joint pain. If it is, treatments are available to help control and possibly eliminate the inflammation.
First, though, you may want to try making some changes to your diet to see if that helps to relieve the pain.
Inflammation and arthritis
Although the role of inflammation is generally understood to be different in rheumatoid arthritis than in osteoarthritis, there is evidence that inflammation can be associated with both diseases.
There is also evidence to suggest that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet — one designed to reduce inflammation throughout the body — could be helpful in alleviating the joint pain associated with both types of arthritis.
It’s important to note that no diet alone can completely eliminate arthritis pain. But, when combined with other lifestyle factors such as proper sleep and exercise, an anti-inflammatory diet may be useful in reducing joint pain.
Research supports the potential benefits of this type of diet in other medical conditions as well, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and possibly even dementia.
The connection between diet and inflammation
Without getting too technical, here’s how researchers believe food affects inflammation:
By increasing inflammatory markers. A marker is a diagnostic sign of a disease or condition. An example is C-reactive protein, or CRP, which circulates in the blood and is produced by the liver in response to inflammation. Certain foods, such as processed sugars, appear to increase CRP levels.
By fighting oxidative stress. Oxidative stress occurs when free radicals (unstable atoms) outnumber antioxidants, leading to oxidation. Free radicals can damage fatty tissue, DNA and proteins in the body. Foods rich in antioxidants can help to remove free radicals from the body.
By “switching off” the inflammatory process. The pathway that signals the body to begin the inflammatory process can also signal it to stop the process. Omega-3 fatty acids convert into compounds called resolvins that can stop the inflammatory process.
Foods that may relieve arthritis pain
As noted above, a diet that includes foods high in antioxidants may reduce joint pain by helping to rid the body of free radicals. The following is a partial list of antioxidant-rich foods:
- Berries – blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries
- Cherries – tart cherries appear to be most effective for fighting inflammation
- Citrus fruits
- Leafy greens – arugula, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, collards, kale, mustard greens, spinach, Swiss chard
- Red kale
- Beans, lentils and pulses – black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils of any color, mung beans, navy beans, peas, pintos, red beans
- Bell peppers
- Sweet potatoes
- Onions and garlic
- Purple or red grapes
- Whole grains – especially brown rice, whole corn, whole oats and whole wheat
- Almonds and pecans
- Dark chocolate – go for at least 70% cacao, and watch the sugar content
- Spices such as ginger, paprika and turmeric
- Chili peppers
- Green tea
- Olive oil – most experts agree that olive oil has anti-inflammatory properties — just be careful not to overdo it
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids that could help turn off the inflammatory process include:
- Fatty fish – anchovies, herring, mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna
- Tree nuts – especially walnuts (and walnut oil)
- Ground flaxseed
- Chia seeds
Foods that may exacerbate arthritis pain
Just as there are foods that may help to relieve pain from arthritis, some foods could make it worse.
Sugary foods and drinks have been shown to increase CRP levels, for example, and thus could contribute to inflammation. Most baked goods and pastries, sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks are obvious foods in this category.
Other, less obvious foods are often high in sugar, too, such as breads, crackers, granola, energy bars and even salad dressings and ketchup. It helps to check the label, particularly if a food is marketed as “low fat.” Sugar is often used to replace fat in such products.
Other foods that have been associated with inflammation:
- Highly processed foods — this could include most foods with an ingredient list that contains hard-to-pronounce items
- Foods high in saturated fats — red meat, full-fat dairy products, rich desserts made with cream, butter, lard, margarine and certain types of oils
- Trans fats — hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils often found in fast food, fried foods, cookies and donuts
- Processed meats — bacon, sausage, salami, hot dogs, jerky, pepperoni
- Foods high in omega-6 fatty acids* — mayonnaise and the following oils: canola, corn, peanut, safflower and sunflower
- Refined carbohydrates — white bread, white rice, instant mashed potatoes, semolina pasta, sugary cereals, crackers made with refined flours
- Excessive alcohol
- Excessive salt – more research is needed to be conclusive, but high levels of salt in the diet may cause inflammation
*Note that the body needs some omega-6 fatty acids. The goal is to achieve a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Let good sense guide you
These lists are not exhaustive, and there’s no such thing as an “arthritis diet” that will magically make your joint pain disappear. With that in mind, it can’t hurt to try adding some of the “good” foods on these lists to your diet and eliminating or at least cutting back on some of the “bad” foods.
The key is to diversify your diet. For instance, it’s not a good idea to pick a food — say, salmon, or pineapple — and load up on it. That could have adverse effects you didn’t anticipate.
If you think about it, these lists, taken together, represent the usual advice for a healthy diet:
- Eat plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables
- Choose whole grains over processed ones
- Opt for “healthy” fats from nuts, seeds, avocados and olive oil
- Reduce your intake of red meat, processed meats, full-fat dairy, simple carbohydrates and sugary foods and drinks
- Limit alcohol and salt
Also bear in mind that no two people are alike. What works for someone else might not have the same effect for you. If adding or eliminating certain foods doesn’t ease your joint pain, try some of the other options.
Gradually, you’ll find the anti-inflammatory diet that works best for you.