I believe that there has been a shift in consciousness recently about the quality of food that we are consuming. In the past few years, there has been a shift towards purchasing local and wholesome food and therefore, more people have been eating seasonally. As this movement has occurred, people have started to realize that they feel better and have started telling their friends. I am very excited for this to continue to happen! There is something special about cooking food that you have grown yourself or that you know exactly where it comes from. It is an entirely different experience.
When it comes to ailments such as arthritis and joint pain, this is the best way to eat. For anyone, but especially for those with widespread inflammation, it is essential to have a diverse diet with loads of fresh fruits and vegetables. The easiest way to create diversity in your diet is to eat with the seasons. This will prevent you from eating too much of one thing, and possibly creating an inflammatory response in your body with these repetitive foods. I can explain this further in a future post, but to understand it in the most basic sense it is important to know what inflammation is.
Inflammation is the body’s defense mechanism. When the body senses something dangerous, it will trigger an inflammatory response to call immune system cells to the location to help remove the stimuli and restore balance to the system. When you have a chronic inflammatory disorder such as arthritis, you’re immune system is continuously fighting inflammation and therefore will associate foods that you eat too much of or too often with the inflammation and start treating them as an enemy. For example, when I had Lyme Disease I was eating a lot of bananas. Since they are high in sugar they fed the bacteria and I would crave them. My immune system began to associate bananas with the inflammation caused by an explosion of bacteria growth, causing more inflammation. When I went through treatment, bananas were one of the foods that I could not have under any circumstances. Now that the bacteria is gone, I can have as many bananas as I want and my body no longer recognizes them as a threat.
Now, before I begin detailing what you should and should not eat and what you should and should not do, let me reassure you that I know that it can be overwhelming to be given a laundry list of diet changes and lifestyle advice. I have food allergies and I have gone through rigorous elimination diets, so I know that ‘well then, what can I eat?’ feeling well. Just, please, hear me out.
What to Avoid
This really goes for everyone, but especially for individuals who are prone to inflammation. As it currently stands, processed food contains a heap of preservatives that influence our natural body chemicals leading to negative effects, such as inflammation. If you’re interested in specifics about this, do a quick search of harmful food preservatives. I will warn you, that it might make you angry to know what has been included in your food, and what information has been kept from you.
Processed foods include; table salt (Try sea salt or Himalayan salt, it contains more beneficial minerals), gluten, chips, cereal, microwave meals, pastries, cookies, etc.
Refined Sugar or Added Sugar
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states that processed sugars trigger the release of inflammatory messengers called cytokines. (This topic is a worm-hole in itself. I highly recommend the documentary, Fed Up) Refined sugar, essentially, is digested too quickly by our bodies, and evokes an inflammatory response from our immune system as our insulin levels are heightened. It is also highly addictive and damaging to our pancreas, and hormone centers of the body. I know that it is delicious, but look for my suggestions of substitutes below and I promise, you will not miss it.
For everyone, it is so much better to consume healthy fats instead of saturated fats. Fat is nothing to fear. It is a major component of our cells and therefore, our entire existence. However, the saturated fats found in red meat, full-fat dairy products, pasta and grain based desserts trigger adipose (fat tissue) inflammation causing more pain to those with preexisting inflammation.
Although the FDA has set a deadline for trans fats to be eliminated from our foods by the end of this year (2018), our body makes these fats through the breakdown of hydrogenated oils, like those found in some margarine and butter substitutes, and salad dressings. Trans fats have been studied by the FDA and associated organizations and found to trigger systemic inflammation, a nightmare for anyone regardless of preexisting inflammation.
This one might seem surprising since it is also something that you should definitely be consuming, but the body needs a balance of Omega 3 and 6, which is why you will often see them in supplements together. Too much Omega-6 can trigger the production of pro-inflammation chemicals in the body.
Some sources of Omega-6 are, oils such as corn, safflower, sunflower, grapeseed, soy, peanut, and vegetable. It is also found in high concentrations in mayonnaise and salad dressings.
Lastly, refined carbohydrates such as white flour products have a high glycemic index, which means that they break down too quickly into sugar by the body and trigger an inflammatory response just like refined sugar does.
What to Eat
Don’t panic yet! There are plenty of things that you can eat! People with inflammatory conditions such as Arthritis and Joint pain generally do well with a Mediterranean style diet. This type of diet focuses largely on fish, healthy oils, fruits and vegetables, and nuts and seeds.
Fish and Other Proteins
The best fish for those with inflammation are salmon, anchovies, tuna and other cold water species. The Omega-3 fatty acids in these fish help reduce specific inflammation proteins in the body called the C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6. By reducing these proteins you are able to decrease existing inflammation and future inflammatory responses.
Beans are also a great source of protein, as well as fiber, folic acid, and minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc, and potassium. They also contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which will not only help with your inflammation but also help protect you from free-radicals or compounds in the body associated with the growth of abnormal, sometimes cancerous cells in the body.
Other white meats such as pork and chicken are okay also. If you are able to, try to purchase local, organic, sustainably sourced, and antibiotic free meat.
Fruits & Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants, which support the immune system and therefore, help reduce and help fight inflammation. Aim to eat a rainbow of colors and if you are worried about sugar intake, consume a protein-rich food such as nut butter with your fruits. This combination will slow down the body’s absorption of the natural sugars in the fruit.
Like I said earlier, don’t fear the fat! Olive oil is a heart healthy, monounsaturated fat that is full of antioxidants and oleocanthal, a compound that lowers inflammation and pain.
Onions and Mushrooms
Onions are extremely high in antioxidants and are so, so supportive to the immune system. They also assist the body in digestion of more complex carbs such as rice. Mushrooms are the only edible source of vitamin D, an essential vitamin that not only makes you feel amazing and optimistic but also aids in the body’s absorption of calcium. Keep in mind that mushrooms must be cooked for the body to absorb the nutritional benefits of them.
Nightshades are a category of plants that include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, blueberries, goji berries, eggplants, etc. They tend to get a bad rep because many people have become sensitive to them, but they are not harmful in moderation for people without a sensitivity. For arthritis and joint pain, they should be consumed for their antioxidant and other nutritional content, but should be limited due to their ability to create an acidic environment in the body. This acidity can worsen pain and inflammation.
Dairy is always a hot topic in today’s world, but for people with arthritis and inflammation it is entirely a personal decision. If you realize that while you are following the suggestions above, you have increased inflammation or pain after consuming dairy, ditch it. If you do not see a difference, don’t. Dairy contains levels of vitamin D and calcium that are important to joint and bone health. What you can do to reduce your exposure to the antibiotics used in commercial milk production which may contribute to inflammation is switch to local milk or more natural dairy products. At the end of the day, do what makes you feel better personally.
Your plate should contain protein from a white meat, a cold water fish, or a selection of beans. It should be at least half filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables and should contain at least 2 tablespoons of healthy fats like coconut oil or olive oil (cooking with these oils count). Try this for a couple of months and notice how you feel!
The most frustrating thing when I was suffering from joint pain was being told by my doctors that I needed to exercise. With the amount of pain that I was in, it seemed like the most disrespectful, inconsiderate suggestion for them to require me to put myself through pain in hopes that it would just go away. That being said, what they should have suggested are specific, low-impact exercise to increase mobility and flexibility of the muscles and ligaments in my joints.
Cardio is a daunting word when you suffer from joint pain, but cardio doesn’t have to fast and it definitely doesn’t need to be fast. A slow, gentle stroll can be enough. You can do this for as little or as long as you wish and you don’t need to push yourself. The simple movement of your joints, at whatever speed or intensity, is helping push lymphatic fluid through your body to help clear toxins and inflammation causing chemicals. The lymphatic system is the cleaner of your body, but unfortunately for us, it is passive meaning that it doesn’t move by itself. In order to get these fluids moving, we need to move which is why exercise is so important when we have a chronic condition such as inflammation.
Yin Yoga or Gentle Stretching
I fell in love with Yin Yoga when I had Lyme Disease. It made me feel like I was doing something, but I also could choose practices where I was laying down the whole time. Basically, Yin Yoga is a slow, gentle practice in which you hold an easy, relaxing pose for a longer period of time than typical yoga, usually five breathes or more. This extended gentle stretch allows the body time to release the tension from deep within the muscle that you are focused on, therefore reducing inflammation and pain.
If you’re not a fan of yoga, you can dedicate 10 to 15 minutes a day to do some gentle stretching. You can use the same technique of holding each stretch for 5 or more breathes or you can time each stretch for a couple of minutes to really get deep into that muscle.
This is a difficult one to explain how to do, so please watch a tutorial on YouTube before trying it on your own, but foam rolling is amazing for relieving tension and pain. I did this after my slow walks when I had Lyme Disease and now I do it occasionally when I feel tight. The idea of foam rolling is that you are “rolling out” specific muscles in your body to release tension and to move that lymphatic fluid around. By placing pressure on the areas of tension, these muscles are able to release giving you more mobility over time. This increased mobility will help reduce joint pain, by allowing that lymphatic fluid to enter into those joints and clear those toxins and reduce inflammation.
The most important thing is to be easy on yourself. It will take time to notice a difference in your pain, and it is okay if you need to take a day off when it feels really bad. Do what is right for you, and remember that it is a practice.
Hopefully these suggestions provide you with some relief. As always, maintain communication with your doctor whenever you are changing your diet, lifestyle habits or implementing herbal supplements into your routine. Let me know if you find this article helpful and look for recipes coming soon!