The Relationship Between Joint Pain and Food

You may have once heard, you are what you eat. But it turns out you feel what you eat, too. Keep reading to learn how your diet can influence your joint pain.

3 Ways diet can influence pain 

1. Excessive food consumption can lead to weight gain, which can worsen pain. 

Some research shows that being overweight or obese is a risk factor for chronic pain. This could be because carrying excess pounds on the body increases mechanical strain on your joints and connective tissues.1 Obesity is also linked with inflammation, which we'll learn more about in the next section. 

Keep in mind that many of us reach for comfort foods and comfort eating as a way to soothe pain. In this way, the relationship between pain and overeating may be a two-way street. That is, overeating may lead to increased pain, and pain may lead to more overeating.1

In addition, foods with a lot of sugar, fat, and salt tend to activate "reward" systems in the brain and increase the level of feel-good hormones in the brain such as dopamine.1 Some researchers believe this may drive food addiction, which is a challenge that many people with obesity and chronic pain struggle with. So, avoiding heavily processed sugary and fatty foods might help reduce cravings and the cycle of overeating and/or comfort eating. 

The Effect of Excess Weight on Your Joints

2. Foods can affect inflammation levels, which may affect pain.

Too much inflammation in the body is linked to joint pain.2 For many people, inflammation (driven by an overactive immune system) gets worse when they eat certain things like refined sugar and dairy.3,4 Avoiding these foods may help fight excessive inflammation and ease chronic joint pain. 

On the other hand, many nutrient dense foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats (especially omega-3 fatty acids) have been shown to reduce inflammation, which can improve pain.5,6 As an added benefit, these healthy foods also provide many important nutrients, such as protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals, that are needed to promote strong and healthy joints, muscles, blood vessels, and bones. 

Superfoods for Joint Health

3. Certain foods may influence the way pain medication works. 

If you and your doctor decide that pain-relieving medications are necessary to help you manage your chronic pain condition, you'll want to make sure you're eating foods that:

  • Won't negatively interact with the way your medication works or is metabolized in your body. For example, eating grapefruit or drinking grapefruit juice has been shown to affect the amount and length of time that certain drugs are in the blood.7,8 Alcohol can also increase the risk of adverse effects associated with some pain medications, such as bleeding or liver damage.9
  • Help counteract side effects of your medications. Since certain drugs can cause constipation, it's important to eat vegetables and other foods with plenty of fiber and fluid to help keep your bowels regular.5
  • Won't disrupt the colony of friendly bacteria living in your gut, which normally help you digest and absorb nutrients and metabolize drugs. A poor diet can harm your digestive tract, as well as the billions of bacteria living inside (called the microbiome). Such damage may negatively affect the way pain medications are broken down.10,11

Bottom Line

If you have chronic pain, talk to your doctor to see if there are any ways to improve your diet. Not only can a healthier diet boost your joint function and overall well-being, but it might help you manage your condition, too.

Basic food rules apply: avoid refined sugar and other processed goods, minimize alcohol, stay well-hydrated, and prioritize real nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, and lean animal protein. Talk to your healthcare provider for more information and which foods are right for you.

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  1. McVinnie, D.S. (2013). Obesity and pain. British Journal of Pain. 7(4): 163–170.
  2. Causes of Inflammatory Joint Pain (2020). Arthritis Foundation.
  3. The Sweet Danger of Sugar (2019). Harvard Medical School. 
  4. Is Dairy Arthritis Friendly (2020). Arthritis Foundation.
  5. Gregori, D., et al. (2016). Combining pain therapy with lifestyle: the role of personalized nutrition and nutritional supplements according to the SIMPAR Feed Your Destiny approach. Journal of Pain Research. 9: 1179–1189. 
  6. Diet Therapy for Arthritis Symptoms (2020). Arthritis Foundation.
  7. Neimenen, T., et al. (2010). Grapefruit juice enhances the exposure to oral oxycodone. Basic and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology. 107(4): 782-8.
  8. Thorpe, M. (2017). Grapefruit Warning: Can Interact With Common Medications. Healthline.
  9. Alcohol and Arthritis (2020). Arthritis Foundation.
  10. Houkai, L., et al. (2016). The influence of gut microbiota on drug metabolism and toxicity. Expert Opinion on Drug Metabolism & Toxicology​. 12(1), 31–40.
  11. Nichols, R., et al. (2019). Interplay Between the Host, the Human Microbiome, and Drug Metabolism. Human Genomics. 13: 27. 

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