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14th Nov 2023

How Diet and Nutrients Impact Joint Pain - What You Need to Know!

Posted by Melanie Winter

Have you ever wondered how your diet affects your joint health? We've all heard about the importance of eating well, but what specific impact do various diets and nutrients have on joint pain? Researchers have delved into the connection between different diets and joint pain, aiming to find answers that could revolutionize the way we manage conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

In a world where fad diets come and go, it's important to understand the science behind what we eat and how it influences our overall well-being, particularly when it comes to joint pain.

Unravelling the link between diet and joint pain

Researchers in one major study scoured through hundreds of studies, to explore the effects of anti-inflammatory diets on pain levels in individuals dealing with conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. Among the diets under the microscope were the mediterranean diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, renowned for the potential to reduce eicosanoids (involved in inflammation). Vegetarian, vegan, and ketogenic diets were also studied. However, no suitable studies were found to include in the analysis on ketogenic diets.

The findings: diets that soothe the pain

In nutritional therapy for rheumatoid arthritis (RA), the focus is on reducing inflammation by altering the balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids and increasing antioxidants. One key player in this equation is arachidonic acid (AA), an omega-6 fatty acid found in animal foods, which serves as the precursor for eicosanoids—a group of compounds involved in various cellular functions, including inflammation.

After analysing 12 carefully selected studies, the researchers found something intriguing. Individuals following anti-inflammatory diets experienced significantly lower levels of pain compared to those on ordinary diets. The difference was measurable on the pain scale used in the study. To put it simply, these specialised diets led to less joint pain, providing a ray of hope for those grappling with discomfort and limited mobility.

Anti-inflammatory diets

Mediterranean magic: Why fish and less meat make a difference

Imagine a diet filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, antioxidants, olive oil and a healthy dose of fish. That's the essence of the Mediterranean diet. Part of the secret lies in the omega-3 fatty acids found abundantly in fish oil (EPA and DHA). These fatty acids act as natural anti-inflammatory agents, reducing joint pain and swelling. By choosing fish over red meat, you're giving your body a powerful tool to fight inflammation, making your joints happier and more comfortable.

Vegetarian and vegan victories: Less arachidonic acid, more relief

Now, let's talk about vegetarian and vegan diets. What sets them apart? These diets are low or completely devoid of arachidonic acid, a troublemaker when it comes to inflammation. AA is like fuel for the fire, triggering those achy joints. By opting for plant-based goodness, you're steering clear of this inflammatory culprit. Think of it as putting out the fire within your joints, allowing you to move more freely and without pain.

Other sources of unhealthy omega 6 fatty acids

Over the last 100 years the levels of processed seed oils (high in omega 6) consumed has increased dramatically and therefore the ratio of unhealthy sources of omega 6 to omega 3 has increased from approximately 4:1 to 16:1. Sources of these refined vegetable oils used for cooking includes soybean, safflower, grapeseed, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, sesame, peanut and walnut oils. Research is mixed on whether all omega 6 is bad for inflammation, but there are also studies suggesting it is the high ratios of highly processed omega 6 that it likely to be more of a problem than healthier sources from nuts and seeds.

Other dietary factors - Gluten, Nightshades, and Your Joints

Gluten is the protein portion of some grains including wheat, rye, barley, spelt and sometimes oats, though usually through cross contamination. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease where the immune system reacts abnormally to gluten. Some studies show that people with coeliacs can also get joint pain. Some studies show avoiding gluten for these people reduces their joint pain and for others it doesn’t.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition where certain symptoms arise after eating gluten, despite not having coeliac disease or wheat allergy. Symptoms such as 'foggy mind', headache, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, leg or arm numbness even if more specific complaints have been described.

If you suspect gluten sensitivity, then this could be investigated as a source of joint pain.

Nightshade family

Nightshades are a group of vegetables that belong to the Solanaceae family, including tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, and bell peppers. Some people believe that consuming nightshade vegetables can exacerbate joint pain, especially in individuals with certain autoimmune conditions like arthritis. The theory behind this is that nightshades contain chemical compounds called alkaloids, which might contribute to inflammation and joint discomfort in sensitive individuals. However, scientific evidence linking nightshades to joint pain is limited and inconclusive.

If you suspect that nightshades are influencing your symptoms or causing discomfort, you can consider removing them from your diet for a period of two weeks to observe any changes.

Key take away points

  • There is a link between diet and joint pain
  • Certain diets can be pro-inflammatory (that is increase inflammation and therefore pain)
  • The balance of omega 6 to omega 3 can be important in this with processed omega 6 increasing inflammation
  • Arachidonic acid is a type of omega 6 found in animal products.
  • The Mediterranean diet is high in food sources of omega 3 fatty acids which are anti-inflammatory
  • Vegan and vegetarian diets may help because they are low in arachidonic acid which can be a cause of inflammation
  • Gluten and food sources of nightshades may cause pain in some people and could be investigated as possible causes 

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