Why You Should Start with Diet, not Drugs to Resolve Your Joint Pain

Ongoing joint pain can really wreak havoc with your quality of life. Very few of us spend any time at all thinking about how the foods we eat affect our bodies. We all know the basic carbs, fats, and proteins, and perhaps some things about micronutrients, but almost nothing about healing nutrients within foods and the natural remedies they contain. And…drumroll here…the number one way I resolved my joint pain was improving my diet. Not drugs. Diet plays a key role in resolving joint pain.

I was in my late 50s when I was still running 4 miles on the weekends and working out at the health club regularly. Suddenly after sitting down after exercising, my grandson asked me to play hockey and I couldn’t even get out of the chair and walk, it was so painful. Then, I found that there were times when my feet were so bad, that I couldn’t get out of my car, or rely on walking down the hallway. It seemed that my joint pain and stiffness were so unpredictable, that I never knew whether my feet would work or not. Sometimes the pain was so bad I couldn’t even sleep. I was so afraid that I’d never be able to play with my grandkids or be a reliable grandmother to help my kids out.

Even as a practitioner, health can sometimes feel elusive. I think of my health and my body as a continual work in progress, where I need to pay attention to it with regular routines, check-ins, tune-ups, and well, overhauls, like when my arthritis started. I conquered my arthritis pain by eliminating specific foods from my diet. I’ll share with you eight foods that most often cause arthritis joint pain flares.

Hi, my name is Leslie Parran. I’m a licensed nurse, a national board-certified health coach, and a Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner.  I have 40 years of experience working with chronically ill patients in pain and finding the best pain solutions out there. I help committed, optimistic, family-focused individuals who’ve hit a wall with joint pain, to turn it around naturally so that they can feel better, move better, and live better.

Practitioner fixing joint pain.
As a practitioner, I moved from pain to peace by changing my diet to fix joint pain

The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that one in four adults more than 58.5 million people suffer from arthritis. Joint pain not only causes physical suffering, but it also wrecks our ability to enjoy physical activities and it impacts our social relationships, our quality of life, and our dreams for the future. Unfortunately, it can make us dependent on others for support or even lead to self-esteem issues, anxiety, depression, and social isolation. What’s worse, is that most individuals with joint pain and arthritis believe that it’s incurable. They have no idea that eating the wrong foods can cause arthritis pain flare-ups. They assume that pain is a normal part of aging.

Telling yourself that story that arthritis is incurable, that joint pain will only worsen, and that pain is inevitable is accepting a life sentence of pain and suffering. There are natural ways to reverse arthritis damage. It starts with eliminating specific foods from your diet that can cause inflammation, pain flare-ups, and accumulation of a substance called fibrin, which makes your arthritis worse. Let me be clear that taking popular over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen and others or opioid pain medications will not solve the root cause of the inflammation and pain.

Here are the 8 foods that are most likely culprits in causing your joint pain flares:

#1 Gluten-This is the number one inflammatory food. It’s found in all the foods we know and love such as pasta, baking goods, pizza, bread, and in many that we don’t realize. Gluten actually disrupts the gut lining and, can cause a condition called leaky gut, where food particles and gut microbes can leak out of the gut, cause inflammation once in the circulation, and cause joint pain and autoimmune conditions among many other symptoms.

When inflammation is ongoing, your immune system responds by mobilizing an army of white blood cells. With inflammation comes swelling and pain. When you have arthritis, the joints in your knees, elbows, wrists, and neck are experiencing swelling burning, and pain. Fibrin, a protein that helps wound healing can accumulate in your joints, like scar tissue. It acts like sandpaper, irritating the joints and making inflammation and pain worse. Normally your body releases proteolytic enzymes to keep the fibrin under control, but sometimes you don’t have enough of these to control the fibrin. So, pain and stiffness can continue to worsen.

By eliminating this food, many people find their joint pain decreases significantly. While it can take 6 or more months to totally eliminate the effects of gluten from your body, many people see significant improvement in their joint pain within a couple of weeks.

#2 Sugar-For me, this was the second most important food to eliminate because I could link eating sugary foods with an increase in joint pain. A high sugar diet can increase your inflammatory markers and ultimately lead to obesity, insulin resistance, increased gut permeability and inflammation. Interestingly, diabetes, insulin, and joint pain are linked and there are numerous articles describing this. Interestingly, steroids that are many times used for decreasing joint pain, contributes to blood sugar disorders and joint dysfunction with chronic use.

#3 Dairy– Some people are sensitive to proteins in dairy. Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can flare up in response to these proteins.

#4 Transfats-Lovin’ that fast food? Well, it’s loaded with trans fats. Trans fats are found in things like French fries and other fried and processed foods. Transfats are strongly linked to systemic inflammation. The oils we use or get from fast food such as soybean corn, peanuts, and sunflower oils are all examples of vegetable oils that are rich in omega-six fatty acids which cause inflammation. Most Americans have a significantly higher ratio of omega-six fatty acids to omega-three fatty acids than is desirable which brings inflammation and excessive fibrin.

#5 Alcohol-People who drink beyond the recommended amounts of alcohol are at risk for leaky gut and leaky brain. Increased alcohol consumption can increase inflammation and fibrin. A leaky gut can lead to autoimmune diseases that cause joint pain such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, (RA), Ankylosing Spondylitis, and others.

#6 Blackened and Barbequed Foods-These foods contain AGEs or Advanced Glycation End-Products. These can be obtained from food or made within your body. Too many cause oxidation and inflammation which can worsen your arthritis. Grilling, barbecuing, and blackening foods can actually destroy the important proteolytic enzymes contained within the food that help with digestion and control fibrin.

#7 Foods high in purines-Purines in food are converted by the body into uric acid. When uric acid builds up in the bloodstream, a gout attack may occur. High purine foods include organ meats such as liver, beer, and alcohol, cured meats such as ham, bacon, or lunch meats, and some seafood, such as mussels and scallops.

#8 Nightshades- Nightshade vegetables include tomatoes, bell peppers, chili peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. Not all people are sensitive to nightshades, although some are and find that eliminating these can reduce their pain.  

So, what can you do to find the right diet and foods to help control your joint pain and minimize pain flares?

#1 Start with paying attention to your diet-Diet is the first thing to work on. While you can implement the strategies below yourself, it helps to work with a trained functional practitioner who can help you figure out specific foods that are triggers and the best diet for your body.

  • Try eliminating the foods above. You may want to start by eliminating one of the key categories rather than all at once, to see how you respond. Alternatively, you could try an anti-inflammatory diet or a short-term Elimination diet to eliminate inflammatory foods.
  • Keep a food journal to see whether after eating a certain food, your pain gets worse.
  • Try an anti-inflammatory food diet.
  • Add some super-foods to your diet to support brain neurotransmitters that are natural pain killers.
Foods can help us or make our joint pain worse.

#2 Test, Don’t Guess

  • Work with an experienced functional practitioner to test for specific foods that may be triggering inflammation and your joint pain. They can also help you identify other things such as nutritional deficiencies, toxins, infections, or gut issues that may be adding to your joint pain.
  • I offer in-home testing kits to my clients so that most of these tests can readily be done within your home and then based on the result, help them with a plan to eliminate those foods, at least for a period of time until inflammation subsides. Some foods may be able to be reintroduces, depending on the individual and type of food sensitivity, unless a gluten sensitivity is identifies.

#3 Consider supplements to:

  • Improve digestion-Digestive enzymes decrease significantly as we age. These enzymes are critical to getting nutrients out of our foods so that we can absorb them.
  • Address fibrin build-up that causes joint pain such as proteolytic enzymes. Two substances, plasmin and fibrin work together in both blood clotting and wound healing. Fibrin helps to form a clot to contain a wound and prevent excessive bleeding. Activation of plasmin promotes the removal of fibrin and stimulates restoring of blood vessels and tissue repair. Too much fibrin or not enough plasmin with wound healing can lead to problems with muscle and bone repair, causing tissue fibrosis and osteoporosis. Inappropriate fibrin or plasmin activity in a synovial joint can cause arthritis.1 Proteolytic enzymes can help to break down the fibrin and scar tissue to promote healing and reduce inflammation and joint pain.
  • Decrease inflammation with supplements such as turmeric, ginger, fish-oil. (see below). I help my clients choose high quality supplements based on their personalized needs.

#4 Use Natural Therapies to Reduce Pain-The side effects and long-term adverse effects of steroids, NSAIDs, and opioids are numerous and the reality is that they don’t cure arthritis or the source of inflammation. Natural therapies can be very soothing and are much safer if taken appropriately.

Naturally occurring terpenes, sterols, flavins, and polyphenols are able to modulate the immune system to inhibit the inflammation owing to the eruption of arthritis. By preventing the actions of NF–κβ and other associated factors these herbs control arthritic problems.2

Here are some natural therapies to consider:

  • Essential oils such as eucalyptus, clove, rosemary, peppermint, myrrh, and frankincense (Boswellia) can be applied locally to reduce pain.
  • Turmeric-Turmeric is well known for its ability to control inflammation. Randomized controlled clinical trials provide scientific evidence that supports the efficacy of turmeric extract (about 1000 mg/day of curcumin) in the treatment of arthritis.3  Curcuminoids can assist in the management of arthritis by improving the status of patients and reducing the perception of pain, the number of swollen and tender joints, and also inducing an anti-inflammatory response.4
  • Devil’s Claw-Devil’s claw has been the subject of over 50 research studies and has proven to be effective in the treatment of degenerative joint diseases and musculoskeletal disorders.5 It is often incorporated as a compound along with others into supplement preparations. It supports healthy COX-2 activity and can help improve joint discomfort.
  • Boswellia-Can be taken as a supplement. It has been used for centuries to reduce arthritis inflammation and pain. It also supports circulation.
  • Ginger– Ginger has been used to reduce arthritis pain and inflammation by decreasing the number of prostaglandins which are hormones that can trigger joint pain and inflammation.
  • Citrus bioflavonoids-These aid in the absorption of vitamins and act as important antioxidants that help to prevent arthritis as well as inhibit collagenase and elastin, the enzymes that break down the connective tissue which protects your joints and keeps them moving smoothly. Among citrus flavonoids, rutin and hesperidin are the most active compounds. They are present in fruits such as oranges, grapefruits, and tangerines, as well as in all other common citrus fruits.

There are other natural joint pain relievers that have not been addressed in this article. While products such as this can provide symptom relief, the first approach to healing is to start with diet, not drugs to help address the root cause of joint inflammation and pain. You want to find out the source of your joint pain and to eliminate foods that may be contributing to it. While working on your diet, you can use natural therapies such as those listed above, along with a number of other natural, holistic approaches.


1.          Gibson BHY, Duvernay MT, Moore-Lotridge SN, Flick MJ, Schoenecker JG. Plasminogen activation in the musculoskeletal acute phase response: Injury, repair, and disease. Research and Practice in Thrombosis and Haemostasis. 2020;4(4). doi:10.1002/rth2.12355

2.          Mitra SP. Pharmacology and biochemistry behind the use of natural herbs to control arthritis – A review. Indian Journal of Natural Products and Resources. 2017;8(3).

3.          Daily JW, Yang M, Park S. Efficacy of Turmeric Extracts and Curcumin for Alleviating the Symptoms of Joint Arthritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Clinical Trials. Journal of Medicinal Food. 2016;19(8). doi:10.1089/jmf.2016.3705

4.          Munekata PES, Pateiro M, Zhang W, et al. Health benefits, extraction and development of functional foods with curcuminoids. Journal of Functional Foods. 2021;79. doi:10.1016/j.jff.2021.104392

5.          Brendler T. From Bush Medicine to Modern Phytopharmaceutical: A Bibliographic Review of Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum spp.). Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2021;14(8). doi:10.3390/ph14080726

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