Are you aware how much your diet could be affecting your joint health?
Most people with achy joints, weak joints, arthritis and other joint health problems look only to painkillers and anti-inflammatory medication, sometimes spending years taking pills with a long list of side-effects. Others more pro-actively focus on exercise to ease out and strengthen joints, whether it’s yoga, qi gong, t’ai chi, swimming or going to the gym. Perhaps there are also regular trips to a massage therapist, physiotherapist, acupuncturist or osteopath. Having suffered with joint problems myself, I am deeply grateful to Hayley’s yoga classes, myofascial and deep tissue massage sessions with my husband and good strengthening exercises.
What most people underestimate is the importance of good nutrition. Not just eating a healthy, balanced diet, but focussing on specific support within that diet, and perhaps also with a few well chosen, high quality supplements. For many, this can be the difference between managing symptoms long term, and being free of pain and stiffness. At the very least, a joint health focussed diet will get your body to a place where it can get the most out of treatments and exercise.
Pain and inflammation
In my work as a nutritional therapist, I have worked with people who have specifically asked for help with joint problems and pain. I have also worked with people with entirely different aims, and who only mention joint issues when I specifically ask about it. In both cases, I have been repeatedly surprised at just how effective – and often how quickly effective – nutritional support can be.
To understand this, we need to look at what causes pain and inflammation. There are several factors that influence this, including how hydrated your connective tissue is, how nourished it is with healing and anti-inflammatory nutrients, the balance of electrolytes available to your muscles and nervous system, how well your body is processing acidity and toxins, your body’s response to stress.
What causes pain?
Scientists are still trying to understand this, as the answer is more complex that you might think.
Your connective tissue contains different types of receptors for different types of sensations and pain. Which is why grass brushing your leg feels entirely different to a deadly snakebite. Unless grass brushes your leg when you are in a similar situation to when you were previously bitten by a venomous snake. In this case, your nervous system might give you snakebite levels of pain just to be on the safe side. (For more on this, see the excellent and entertaining TED talk by Lorimer Moseley here.)
Your nervous system may also be over firing because your adrenal/nervous system is in a state of hyper alert due to previous trauma. And/or due to an excess of sodium and calcium in your connective tissue. This can happen due to stress and dietary imbalances – including low levels of magnesium, for example. Interestingly, magnesium will be depleted by stress. Also where there is excess acidity and/or general dehydration.
Joint health and hydration
The connective tissue around your joints needs to be very well hydrated. to work well. Your cartilage, in particular, contains very few blood vessels, so needs to be hydrated so that nutrients can seep in, like a sponges absorbing water rich in ingredients to keep your joints healthy and heal any damage. If you have injured your joints, then part of the healing process will require taking debris away from the area. If your connective tissue is dehydrated, then this won’t happen quickly or efficiently.
At the base of all connective tissue is something called ground substance, which attracts water to it by a slight electromagnetic charge. However, if you have a lot of excess acidity in your body, the ground substance will attract that instead. This is a clever move, as it keeps your vital organs safe. But it leaves you with dehydrated, malnourished, stiff, inflamed and painful joints. A combination of hydration and cleaning up your diet is key to address this.
Acute and chronic inflammation
Inflammation is an amazing thing. When part of you is damaged through injury, trauma or malnutrition (not having the right nutrients available to make healthy tissue), your body’s first response is inflammation. This brings the emergency services to the area: heat/energy, white blood cells, and the nutrients/ingredients you need to heal and renew your tissue. When the job’s done, your adrenals send out hormones which trigger the production of anti-inflammatory substances that cool everything down – whether it’s a cut, burn, muscle sprain or joint injury.
If you’ve had joint inflammation or pain for a while, however, then the situation is described as chronic. Chronic in this case essentially means that your body is unable to quench the inflammatory fire. (As opposed to acute inflammation, where the emergency services do their job quickly and well.)
This could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps you are lacking the basic ingredients to make anti-inflammatory compounds, such as EPA in fish oil. Or perhaps your joints aren’t responding to the anti-inflammatory hormones your adrenals are sending out. If your adrenals have been sending out stress hormones for a long time, your body stops listening to their calls to calm down inflammation. This can happen if the stress is ongoing, or in the past but unresolved.
Inflammation and gut health
Naturopaths have noticed for many years that inflammation starts in the gut. Scientists are now starting to agree. This because of breakthroughs in understanding:
- why there are so many nerves in your gut and how they work
- how an inflamed and “leaky” gut lets pathogens into your body that create inflammation throughout your body
- the role of your gut bacteria (aka bowel flora or microbiota) in immune responses such as inflammation
This means that by soothing and healing your gut, working with an anti-inflammatory diet and looking after your friendly bacteria, can help calm down inflammation everywhere, even in your joints.
How diet can help
- Keep hydrated.
Aim for about 2 litres of filtered water, mostly between meals (and not all at once!).
- Calm your nervous system.
With breathing exercises, mindfulness practises and also through magnesium-rich greens and gut-soothing broths.
- Support your adrenals.
With specific nutrients (e.g. vitamins C, B5, B6) and herbs as well as mindfulness practises
- Provide anti-inflammatory nutrients and foods for your gut and your whole body.
Including EPA from a good quality fish oil (or algae extract for vegetarians), zinc, magnesium, vitamin D, curcuminoids in turmeric together with black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg etc.
- Keep your gut bacteria in balance.
e.g. with regular small amounts of sauerkraut, kefir etc.
How you can learn more
Come to our Day Retreats and/or Summer Retreat, where Hayley North and I (Kirsten Chick) will be going into all of this in more detail. We’ll not only help you to understand how to best nourish yourself for optimum health, we’ll also take you into the kitchen to make delicious supportive food. And on the Bloom Summer Retreat, you’ll have daily qi gong and/or yoga too. So you’ll go home with the confidence, empowerment and insights you need to make a real difference.