Don’t Let Joint Pain Slow You Down
Arthritis is a painful, chronic disease that can have a major impact on quality of life. As joints deteriorate, simple tasks become difficult: opening a jar, walking to the mailbox, handling tools. With time, mobility becomes more restricted. What’s worse, arthritis sufferers must face the unkind reality that their condition may gradually worsen.
But that doesn’t mean we have no recourse. Although arthritis is often incurable, there are measures we can take to help mitigate the pain and stiffness and even slow its progression. The key is understanding the disease and making the right lifestyle adjustments.
What is Arthritis?
Most people are familiar with the two main types of arthritis: rheumatoid (an autoimmune disease) and osteoarthritis (“wear and tear” arthritis). However, there are actually more than 100 forms of the disease. For example, psoriasis and other autoimmune diseases are sometimes associated with a type of arthritis. Lyme disease often affects the joints as well. Some of these conditions are more common in older people, but there are approximately 300,000 children with arthritis in the US. Overall, nearly 46 million Americans suffer from some form of this condition.
Although arthritis is mostly associated with joints, the disease can also damage other parts of the body. Some forms, such as rheumatoid, attack major organs and systems: lungs, kidneys, skin, and blood vessels.
However, the most common form—osteoarthritis—generally strikes the joints. With time our cartilage, the natural cushion between bones, can begin to wear down with repeated movements and strain. This leads to pain, stiffness, and decreased mobility.
At its base, arthritis is an inflammatory disease, so the key to controlling symptoms is mitigating that inflammation. To achieve this, we have a number of natural remedies at our disposal, including diet, activity, and targeted supplements. By combining these, we can put together an effective strategy to tackle arthritis.
We are often told that we are what we eat. Yet, as a nation, we really don’t take that advice to heart. Many of our most popular meals are highly inflammatory. Fast and processed foods, refined flour and sugar, and factory-farmed red meat are all known to increase inflammation. Add in alcohol, caffeine, stress, and exhaustion, and we get a perfect storm for chronic inflammation and the many degenerative conditions it can fuel.
But we must remember that controlling inflammation starts with food.
After we’ve reduced or eliminated inflammatory ingredients from our diet, we need to emphasize the anti-inflammatory variety: whole, nutrient-dense foods such as sprouted grains and legumes; lean proteins; healthy fats; green vegetables; brightly colored fruits, such as berries and mango; raw, unsalted nuts and seeds; culinary herbs and spices; and lots of filtered water.
Fiber-rich foods like sprouted whole grains will help detoxify the body and reduce inflammation. Brightly colored fruits and green leafy vegetables are high in phytonutrients and antioxidants, which help scavenge harmful free radical molecules, remove toxins, and fight inflammation, while offering numerous other protective benefits.
I particularly recommend alkaline vegetables, such as cucumber, broccoli, and avocado. These can help control acidity in the body and promote detoxification. Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and cabbage, are also rich in sulfur compounds, which slow inflammation and support joint and tissue health.
For protein, choose sprouted legumes, nuts and seeds, and organic meats or wild fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines. These fish are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which provide both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support. Omega-3s can reduce the joint pain associated with both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and have also been linked to improved cardiovascular, pulmonary, and cognitive health. Omega-3s are also found in walnuts, flax, chia seeds, and other sources.
For those who cannot bear the morning without a hot caffeinated beverage, switch from coffee to green or black tea. Tea is rich in antioxidants and polyphenol compounds that reduce inflammation, support immunity, and promote numerous other areas of health.
One of the unique things about cartilage is that it gets very little blood flow. The movement of our joints lubricates cartilage, brings in nutrients, and eliminates waste. For that reason and many others, movement is an important component to joint health.
I am a particular fan of gentle activity versus strenuous workouts that can damage muscles and joints. Walking and swimming are excellent and gentle ways to increase circulation and lubricate the joints. Walking, in particular, can be done anywhere. It’s as simple as seeking out the farthest parking space, rather than the closest.
Exercise also serves another important function: It reduces stress, which is a major contributor to chronic inflammation. Long-term anxiety increases the production of stress hormones, such as cortisol, which feed inflammation. As a result, anything we do to control stress reduces this inflammatory environment and supports both joint and overall health.
In addition to gentle exercise, I also recommend mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques, such as meditation, which have been shown to improve both mental and physical health and to control inflammation. In addition, moving meditations, such as yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong, combine the benefits of healthy exercise with mindfulness.
Bone and joint health are inextricably linked together. For that reason, it’s always a good idea to support strong bones. Calcium has been touted for years in dairy ads to increase bone density, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t act alone. Yes, having more calcium can be helpful, but we also need vitamins D3 and K2, as well as magnesium, to support bone health. Vitamin K2 is particularly important because it helps ensure that calcium goes where it should, rather than depositing on artery walls or other areas where it can cause problems.
While we’re on the subject, dairy may not even be our best source for calcium—it’s difficult for many people to digest. If you want an alternative source, kale, oranges, broccoli, almonds, and turnip greens are all calcium rich.
I also recommend methylsulfonylmethane (MSM), an organic sulfur compound that reduces joint pain and inflammation. Sulfur is a major component in many connective tissues. MSM can be taken in capsule form, but it’s also found in grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Glucosamine and chondroitin, which are found naturally in cartilage, have shown some benefits as well. In one large multicenter study, the combination helped relieve pain in many participants with severe arthritis. They were less effective, however, for people who only had mild pain. Although more research needs to be done, glucosamine and chondroitin certainly have their place in a larger anti-arthritis regimen.
Another excellent anti-inflammatory is curcumin, a highly active compound derived from turmeric root. Curcumin has been shown to regulate inflammatory proteins on the cellular level. Another excellent spice with anti-inflammatory qualities is ginger.
Galectin-3 Fuels Inflammation and Arthritis
One of the most interesting anti-inflammatory supplements comes from an odd source: orange peels. Citrus pectin has been used for many years to support digestive health, but because the molecules are so large, the body doesn’t absorb it. However, modified citrus pectin (MCP) is a special form of pectin that is easily absorbed by the body and does an excellent job reducing chronic inflammation.
The reason for this is that MCP blocks a protein called galectin-3, which is known for its ability to promote chronic inflammation and fuel a number of life-threatening illnesses. High levels of galectin-3 are linked to invasive cancer, heart disease, and fibrosis—uncontrolled scar tissue build-up associated with arthritis and stiffness, organ damage, and many other conditions. MCP has a special affinity for galectin-3: binding and blocking this rogue molecule to reduce systemic inflammation and fibrosis in organs and tissues—including joints. In fact, it seems to have a particularly powerful impact against arthritis.
MCP is also recognized for its ability to detoxify heavy metals such as lead, mercury, and cadmium from the body. Toxins tend to accumulate in joints, so a healthy detoxification program can offer relief against painful arthritis symptoms. For more information about the benefits of modified citrus pectin, I recommend a new book by health writer Karolyn Gazella, called “A New Twist on Health: Modified Citrus Pectin for Cancer, Heart Disease and More.” Details can be found at newtwistonhealth.com.
Arthritis can be difficult to treat because there’s no magic bullet or fast-acting natural relief. Although this is a challenge, it shouldn’t stop us. By harnessing diet, exercise, mindfulness, and targeted supplements, we can reduce the inflammation and scar tissue buildup in the body, increase lubrication to the joints, and consequently control the associated pain and stiffness. In addition, managing chronic inflammation also reduces our risks for cancer, cardiovascular disease, and numerous other conditions. In the long run, these simple changes can increase overall health to help us not only live longer, but also live better—with more energy and vitality for the things that keep us going.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has an MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Visit him online at dreliaz.org.