Healthy Food, Healthy Bones

Diet and nutrition may help relieve joint pain

herbs and vegetables

Dietician Kristin Kirkpatrick, wellness manager at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute, says many studies show that, in addition to pharmacological management, certain foods, spices and supplements will help reduce morning stiffness, inflammation and pain in joints.

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Mediterranean diet

Many studies have found that a Mediterranean diet has various health benefits, some of which seem to overlap those attributed to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID).

A Mediterranean diet consists of consuming a high level of fruit, vegetables and legumes; a high level of unsaturated fats (especially olive oil) complemented by a modest amount of alcohol (mainly in the form of wine); a moderate to high level of fish; and a low level of dairy products and red meat.

A 2007 Scottish study showed that female patients with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) who followed a Mediterranean-type diet derived modest benefits across a range of areas. The results suggest that this diet may be a useful therapeutic adjunct to conventional anti-inflammatory medications, and is popular with patients.

Fish oil

The beneficial effects of fish oils are attributed to their omega-3 fatty acid content. Studies of fish oil show that it not only has anti-inflammatory benefits, but also is particularly helpful for joint pain. Natural sources of fish oil include cold-water fish, such as salmon, trout and sardines. Vegan and vegetarian sources included flax seed, chia seeds and soybeans. A 2008 Australian study is one of many that showed fish oil reduced joint pain, increased cardiovascular health and reduced the need for NSAIDs.

“Just one serving of cold-water fish twice a week is enough,” says Ms. Kirkpatrick. She recommends a daily fish oil supplement in addition to consuming natural dietary sources.

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Cruciferous vegetables

“In addition to other vegetables, you should try to eat one serving of a cruciferous vegetable every day, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or kale,” says Ms. Kirkpatrick. “These are all nutritional powerhouses, chock full of antioxidants, vitamins and fiber.”

In 2005, a team of researchers in Maryland studied the effects of sulphoraphane, an antioxidant compound found in cruciferous vegetables, and found that it blocks an enzyme that causes joint pain and inflammation. In addition to aiding arthritis patients, it may be helpful for athletes who put a lot of pressure on their joints.

Spices and herbs

Turmeric and ginger are spices noted for their anti-inflammatory benefit. Often used in Indian cuisine, turmeric also is used in traditional Asian medicine for its anti-inflammatory properties. A 2006 Arizona study showed promising research linking turmeric to the prevention of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis.

“Sprinkle a bit of turmeric over eggs or a lentil dish,” suggests Kirkpatrick. “It gives a rich, subtle spiciness.”

Besides adding great flavor, turmeric, like most fresh herbs and spices, has an anti-inflammatory benefit, she says.

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Green tea

Green tea is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world, and its effects on health is the subject of much research. A 2008 study in Maryland showed that green tea induced changes in arthritis-related immune responses. Long-term use of NSAIDs can have adverse effects and cause discomfort; the polyphenolic compounds from green tea possess anti-inflammatory properties and have been shown to be an effective complement to nutritional therapy.

Foods to avoid

Ms. Kirkpatrick recommends saying “no” to certain foods if you’re trying to lessen joint pain.

“Sugars and refined grains, including white rice, pasta and white bread, are the worst food culprits when it comes to reducing or relieving joint inflammation,” she says. “Red meat such as beef, lamb, pork — anything from an animal with four legs — also will increase inflammation. Another big no-no, for many health reasons, is trans fat or partially hydrogenated oil.”

A few more tips

  • It may seem counterintuitive, but exercising also will help bones and joints feel better. Kirkpatrick suggests using a pedometer and logging 10,000 steps daily to feel your best.
  • It’s never too late to start adding calcium to your diet. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of calcium. Plant sources include tofu, sardines and spinach.  
  • Vitamin D plays a strong role in bone strength, yet most of us are deficient in it. Ms. Kirkpatrick recommends having your Vitamin D levels checked by a physician before beginning a supplement regime.
  • And, as always, check with your physician before beginning any type of adjunct nutritional therapy.