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Can food really cause joint pain? I was skeptical at first too. But after helplessly watching my husband suffer with both psoriasis and psoriatic arthritis, we were ready to find out.

My earnest research led me to the concept of food sensitivities, which means even healthy foods can cause a negative immune response for some people, that results in many symptoms…including joint pain. 

I learned that people with autoimmune diseases (like my husband) or increased intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut) are especially likely to develop random food sensitivities that damage their gut, joints, and more. 

Okay…so we were game to experiment with this concept, but figuring out WHICH foods might be causing his pain was a whole other ball game. After much research and experimentation, we finally pinned down the foods that were causing inflammation for Shane and were able to dramatically improve it. 

I have since helped dozens of others figure out their trigger foods for inflammation. 

I can say with complete confidence now that food most definitely CAN cause joint pain. Also, you CAN improve your joint inflammation by what you eat. 

I am here to point you in the right direction by sharing which foods most often cause joint pain issues, and how to figure out what your food triggers are…which can ultimately help you heal your joints.

#1 | Gluten & Joint Pain

Wheat/gluten cause joint pain

I would say that gluten is the most common cause of joint pain among my clients. 

Gluten is a protein found in some popular grains like wheat, barley, and rye. We used to think that only people with Celiac’s Disease (an autoimmune disease in which eating even tiny amounts of gluten triggers your immune system to attack your digestive tract or other parts of your body) could not handle gluten. 

Now we know that there are even more people who don’t have Celiac’s Disease that still react to gluten in very harmful ways.1 

Gluten can cause digestive problems like stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation.1

But gluten can also cause joint pain, muscle pain, headaches, exhaustion, or depression, among other things.1

For my husband, we’ve learned through trial and error that wheat causes joint pain, but the ancient grain spelt (which also contains gluten) does not. 

He can also eat wheat in the form of sourdough bread with no symptoms whatsoever. Many people who don’t tolerate wheat or gluten find that they can eat true sourdough bread without any problem! Sourdough has lots of other health benefits over commercial yeast breads too. Double bonus! Click the image below to access the recipe that I like to use!

I recommend eliminating all forms of gluten-containing grains for several weeks and then trying to re-introduce different forms (like wheat, spelt, or sourdough) one-by-one to see which ones cause problems for you.

Keep in mind, it can take up to 3 days to react. So listen to your body and wait a few days before introducing something new.

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#2 | Dairy & Joint Pain

Can dairy cause joint pain?

Let’s just get straight to the point. Milk is a very nutritious food packed with many minerals, vitamins, and even certain fats that are highly beneficial and hard to get from any other source. 

I am a big fan of milk. Especially raw milk and A2/A2 milk (and if you can get milk that is both raw AND A2/A2-even better!). Yes, other health professionals will ding me for saying that… but that’s my honest opinion!

But there is no denying that dairy causes problems for many people. You could be lactose intolerant, have an allergy to casein or whey proteins, or not tolerate the A1 type beta-casein well. Any of these could increase joint pain and inflammation. 

Correlations between milk and joint pain are not getting much attention in research right now, but I have personally witnessed it causing problems for some of my clients.

Cow milk seems to cause joint pain for my husband, even my beloved A2 milk. Goat milk is even more inflammatory for him (we learned this from his MRT Test). But given in the form of cheese, butter, or yogurt, he handles it just fine!

Just because you don’t tolerate one form of dairy doesn’t mean you can’t tolerate others. Cow milk might make you sick, while goat milk does not. Butter, cheese, and yogurt are usually tolerated much better than plain milk. A2 milk or raw milk causes less problems for many people.

Again, you can find out by doing a simple 2-3 week elimination of all dairy. Then slowly add different dairy products back in. Listen to your body for symptoms. Wait a few days before adding in something new. 
Like gluten, the symptoms could be anywhere in your body, not just your gut. And you might not react for a couple of days, so pay close attention.

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#3 | Sugar & Joint Pain

Can sugar cause joint pain?

Sugar is another really common food that seems to cause joint pain.2–5 It does this in several different ways. 

First, sugar increases inflammation by causing elevated C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation in your blood). 

Eating more sugar also causes you to make more insulin, the hormone that controls your blood sugar levels. Insulin is inflammatory and also causes you to make more of a certain type of fat that also releases inflammatory chemicals. Double whammy!

Then there is the effect that sugar has on your intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which is a big player in arthritis. 

Sugar also changes your gut microbiome (the bacteria and yeast living there) in a negative way, leading to dysbiosis, another important root cause of joint pain and inflammation. 

To make matters worse, sugar can bind with proteins in your joints, a process called “glycation,” which causes damage and aging in your joints.6,7 

I do think there is room for a little sugar in a joint-healthy diet. I typically recommend following the American Heart Association guidelines, which suggest less than 25 grams per day of added sugars for women and children, and less than 36 grams for men. 

Sugar cravings and overeating sugar is a major challenge for most of my clients. I share some tips to curb sugar cravings in my 5 Day Action Plan to Improve Joint Pain with Food. I also provide my clients with even more ideas and resources to help! 

Reducing your sugar intake will probably make a difference in your joint pain (as well as your heart health, metabolic health, brain health, weight, and lots of other benefits). Give it a try for a few weeks and see if it’s worthwhile for you!

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#4 | Nightshades & Joint Pain

Can nightshades cause joint pain?

Whether nightshades cause joint pain is a subject of much debate. However, many health professionals that work with arthritis (including myself) have noticed a correlation.

Nightshades are a group of vegetables that contain the compound solanine. They include tomatoes, peppers, white potatoes, and eggplant. 

Research is inconclusive on this topic.8

My husband is one of those “anecdotal” people that reacts to peppers category of nightshades. They cause him to have severe joint pain within about a day, and it takes a couple of days to clear, so he has learned to just avoid them. However, other nightshades don’t seem to be a problem in his case. 

Other people may have problems with different nightshades. You may find you can handle them cooked, but not raw. 

If you can eat nightshades without inflammation, they are great to include in your diet. Again, a simple 3 week elimination of nightshades from your diet can help you observe how they effect your system and make a decision on how to move forward.

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#5 | Other Foods That Cause Joint Pain

Which foods cause joint pain?

Here is where it gets a bit tricky, but stay with me. I am gonna walk you through this!

Just about any food except salt, baking soda, and water could potentially cause you joint pain. Especially if you have leaky gut (very common) or an autoimmune disease. It varies by the individual and what your immune system has decided to react to. 

Corn, soy, tree nuts, peanuts, and grains are other common culprits. 

Even something as innocent as spinach or an apple could be a problem for you! Maybe certain food colorings or preservatives could set off joint inflammation for you. 

So what do you do? How do you know?

How Do I Know Which Foods Cause My Joint Pain?

How to know which foods cause joint pain?

I recommend starting with a basic elimination diet for 3-4 weeks. At the very least, eliminate gluten and dairy and reduce sugar. If you suspect other foods, by all means, include those in your experiment. 

Avoid getting too restrictive because you don’t want to become malnourished in the process. Also, you don’t want to become miserable in the process!

Observe what happens. It is helpful to start with a symptom quiz to get your baseline score and then take it again in 3-4 weeks. How do you feel? Has your joint pain and other symptoms improved?

If they’ve improved considerably, you are ready to begin working on other root causes like gut health. I have a big, juicy article about how to do that here:  

If you’ve only improved slightly, you are on the right track, but may want to eliminate a few more common culprits and see if you improve even more.

If you still feel lousy, you’ve got a trickier case and I recommend getting a Mediator Release Test to pinpoint exactly which foods your immune system hates. 
You also might have other root causes aside from foods that are causing your joint pain, like toxin overload, stress, infections, or one of many other possible root causes of arthritis. This is where it’s time to work with a functional dietitian and doctor to help you dig in a bit more and find a treatment plan that works for you.

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Summary

There are many foods that can potentially cause joint pain, but they are not the same for every condition. Even among people with the same disease (like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, or fibromyalgia), different foods create problems for different people.  

I’ve discussed the most common foods that cause joint pain, but literally any food could be a culprit in your joint pain- especially if you have leaky gut or an autoimmune condition. 

I’ve also outlined a simple elimination diet you can try for yourself. If that doesn’t move the needle, a Mediator Release Test and working with a functional dietitian or doctor can help you nail down your root causes of joint pain and drastically reduce inflammation. 

I wish you all the best on your journey to health and healing! Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you need extra support!

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References:

1. C C. Gluten Sensitivity. Ann Nutr Metab. 2015;67 Suppl 2. doi:10.1159/000440990

2. Tedeschi SK, Frits M, Cui J, et al. Diet and Rheumatoid Arthritis Symptoms: Survey Results From a Rheumatoid Arthritis Registry. Arthritis Care Res. 2017;69(12):1920-1925. doi:https://doi.org/10.1002/acr.23225

3. DeChristopher LR, Uribarri J, Tucker KL. Intake of high-fructose corn syrup sweetened soft drinks, fruit drinks and apple juice is associated with prevalent arthritis in US adults, aged 20–30 years. Nutr Diabetes. 2016;6(3):e199. doi:10.1038/nutd.2016.7

4. Linkedin. Why You Should Avoid Sugar if You Have Arthritis. Verywell Health. Accessed March 30, 2021. https://www.verywellhealth.com/sugar-and-arthritis-5093235

5. Khanna S, Jaiswal KS, Gupta B. Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis with Dietary Interventions. Front Nutr. 2017;4:52. doi:10.3389/fnut.2017.00052

6. DeGroot J, Verzijl N, Wenting-van Wijk MJG, et al. Accumulation of advanced glycation end products as a molecular mechanism for aging as a risk factor in osteoarthritis. Arthritis Rheum. 2004;50(4):1207-1215. doi:10.1002/art.20170

7. Braun M, Hulejová H, Gatterová J, et al. Pentosidine, an advanced glycation end-product, may reflect clinical and morphological features of hand osteoarthritis. Open Rheumatol J. 2012;6:64-69. doi:10.2174/18743129012060100648. The Truth About Nightshades and Arthritis. Living With Arthritis. Published February 21, 2017. Accessed March 30, 2021. http://blog.arthritis.org/living-with-arthritis/nightshades-arthritis/

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