by Robert Silverman, DC, MS, CNS
When your joints ache, don’t open the medicine cabinet for a pain pill. Instead, head to the grocery store to find healthful—and delicious—foods the support joint health instead.
The deep orange color of a sweet potato comes from the rich supply of beta-carotene it contains. Beta-carotene is the natural precursor of vitamin A (retinol). When you eat a sweet potato, your body converts some of the beta-carotene into vitamin A. The rest of the beta-carotene acts as a potent antioxidant that helps prevent joint damage caused by free radicals.1 In fact, a 2016 study in the journal Spine showed that low levels of beta-carotene increased the risk of spinal degeneration in humans.1
Sweet potatoes also contain anthocyanin, an anti-inflammatory phytonutrient that also contributes to its orange color. One cup of cooked sweet potato contains 180 calories and more than twice the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for vitamin A. Sweet potatoes are also an excellent source of vitamin C, potassium and fiber.2
Juicy, tangy pineapple contains a powerhouse of nutrients that support joints.2 First, vitamin C: one cup of pineapple chunks has about 80 mg;2 to put that in perspective, the daily RDA for adults is 75-90 mg. You need vitamin C to make collagen, the protein that literally holds us together. Collagen is key to building strong cartilage in joints. It’s also essential to keep the tendons and ligaments that hold your joints together both strong and flexible. And vitamin C is well-known as a powerful antioxidant that helps combat free radicals from damaging your joints.3
Pineapple is also a great source of the trace mineral manganese, which is needed to build many of the antioxidant enzymes that protect your joints against attack by free radicals.2 Bromelain, a proteolytic enzyme found in pineapple, has valuable anti-inflammatory effects for joint pain, especially knee pain. A cup of fresh pineapple chunks provides approximately 85 calories.4 Avoid canned pineapple in syrup—it is double the calories, and the added sugar isn’t good for your joint pain.
Your body possesses a natural defense mechanism to regulate pain and swelling in your joints. These defenders are called prostaglandins, which have anti-inflammatory effects. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential building blocks for these substances, so having plenty of these healthy fats in your diet is crucial to reduce the discomfort from sore joints. Nuts in general are a great source of omega-3s in the form of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), but walnuts are a particularly good source. For good health, men need 1.6 grams of ALA daily; women need 1.1 grams. One ounce of walnuts (about a quarter cup) has about 2.5 grams of ALA. One tablespoon of walnut oil has about 1.4 grams of ALA. For vegetarians, vegans, and people who just don’t like fish, walnuts are an excellent alternative source of omega-3 fatty acids in the diet.2 They’re also a great source of vitamin E, B vitamins, and trace minerals such as zinc and calcium. To glean the full benefits of walnuts, consume the skin as well, as 90 percent of the phenols are found in the skin.
Adding walnuts to your dietary pattern is easy. They are a crunchy snack, a nice addition to cooked vegetables and salads, and make a delectable topping for oatmeal. Walnut oil has a rich, nutty flavor. It’s not great for cooking, because it can become bitter when heated, but it’s a wonderful addition to salad dressings.
Turmeric is long known in Indian Ayurvedic and traditional Chinese medicine as a digestive aid and is also anti-inflammatory. Turmeric is a plant from the ginger family that can be made into a deep yellow powder. It’s the main ingredient in curry spices and gives mustard its bright yellow color.
The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin, which has been shown to suppress the action of a number of chemical signals in the body, such as tumor necrosis factor, that attack joints. Curcumin also blocks other inflammatory signals, including those in the pro-inflammatory COX-2 pathway.
All fatty fish, including salmon, sardines, tuna, and mackerel, contain substantial amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, which support cell membrane health and fluidity. In particular, the omega-3s found in fish include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both extremely valuable for fighting inflammation. They work by inhibiting cytokines, or pro-inflammatory enzymes, and interrupting the chemical cascade that causes inflammation. Omega-3 fatty acids work best if you consume them routinely for prevention, not to treat a flare-up of joint pain. To support your joints and gain a high-quality, healthy source of protein, try to incorporate 3- to 6-ounce servings of fatty fish two to four times a week. High-quality fish oils also provide a convenient, concentrated source of EPA and DHA. When cell membranes are healthy and fluid, the cells function best, including absorbing essential nutrients to support joint and overall health.
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”—Hippocrates
- Imagama S, Hasegawa Y, Seki T, et al. The effect of β-carotene on lumbar osteophyte formation. Spine. 2011;36(26):2293-2298.
- USDA Food Composition Databases. V.126.96.36.199. 2018. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/. Accessed Feb 20, 2018.
- Peregoy J, Wilder FV. The effects of vitamin C supplementation on incident and progressive knee osteoarthritis: a longitudinal study. Public Health Nutr. 2011;14(4):709-715.
- Brien S, Lewith G. Bromelain as a treatment for osteoarthritis: a review of clinical studies. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2004;1(3):251-257.
Robert G. Silverman, DC, MS, CNS
Dr. Robert Silverman is a chiropractic doctor, clinical nutritionist and author of Inside-Out Health: A Revolutionary Approach to Your Body. Dr. Silverman is a health and wellness expert who works in private practice as founder of Westchester Integrative Health Center, which specializes in the treatment of joint pain using Functional Nutrition along with cutting-edge, science-based, nonsurgical approaches. Dr. Silverman serves on the advisory board for the Functional Medicine University and is a key thought leader in his field.