How To Improve Your Diet & Lifestyle To Reduce Joint Pain

Jennifer Essary
Written by
Jennifer Essary Primal Health Coach

The body is continuously at work making new cells, molecules, proteins, tissues, organs, and bone. For the systems of the body to work they need resources in the form of nutrients. Those nutrients are supplied by the things we eat and drink. Food matters, and it matters so much more than we have been led to believe, especially when considering chronic pain diets. 

Think about it, if your body is trying to perform a function but you haven’t eaten the nutrient it needs how can your body function optimally? Typically it doesn’t. This is why eating better has been able to improve the health and reduce joint pain for many people. Food can either create inflammation and disease processes in the body or it can help prevent it. While food is the biggest factor it’s more than just food. General daily movement, sleep, and stress all contribute to your overall health.

Eating Better Isn’t Just About Weight Loss

When it comes to eating better, most people are motivated by weight loss alone. While weight loss can help alleviate pressure on the knees, feet, ankles, and hips, the problem is that weight loss isn’t always a good thing. Consider that one liter of water weighs 2.2 pounds. During the day you eat, drink, and use the bathroom. The scale fluctuates a few pounds up and down and most of it means nothing. What’s most disheartening is that some will use that number as a marker of how they feel about themselves that day. Weight gain isn’t always 100% fat and many forget the bigger picture. Maybe you’ve gained muscle, bone density, hydration, connective tissue, or organ mass. None of those things are bad. 

A better tool to measure your progress is how do you feel? Do you sleep well? How is your mood? Is your digestion good? Do you have frequent headaches? How often do you have joint pain and does the severity fluctuate? Those with autoimmune joint pain have been able to link physical symptoms and joint pain to food sensitivities. Even if your joint pain isn’t autoimmune. eating a better chronic pain diet will still give your body the best chances to heal. Eating better is about maximizing nutrient density with food. Dr. Terry Wahls has one of the most remarkable stories about the power of food and her own health. 

In her journey she tried using supplements to get the nutrients she needed but it wasn’t until she found those nutrients in food that things really began to change. This is a great example that you can’t supplement your way out of a poor diet. Dr. Wahls Protocol focuses on feeding your mitochondria which are the powerhouses of your cells.

How To Improve Your Chronic Pain Diet

One of the biggest challenges most people face when it comes to eating better is their mindset. The calories in versus calories in model of diets has done a disservice to many. Eating better isn’t about deprivation and white knuckling it through starvation. Your body is going to do different things with steak, broccoli, and chocolate cake. Calories are not all the same. The simplest way to get started is by focusing on adding more of the good stuff: meat, fish, fowl, eggs, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and a limited amount of fruit. That is, real food doesn’t have an ingredient list. As you add more of the real things it inevitably makes less room for the other stuff. 

All food used to be local and seasonal. When you eat locally it’s better for the environment, your community, and the produce also contains more nutrients. In the modern world food is often picked before it’s ripe and then transported across the globe.  Unripened produce can contain a lot of lectins. Gluten is the most popular lectin you’ve likely heard of found in various grains. The issue with too many lectins in the diet is that they damage the intestines and consequently hinder nutrient absorption.

“…high doses of isolated legume lectins and raw legume flours have been shown to impair the integrity of the intestinal mucosa by inducing intestinal hyperplasia, altering villus architecture, reducing disaccharidase activity, increasing intestinal permeability and activating the immune system. This change in intestinal integrity resulted in compromised nutrient absorption (protein, lipid and vitamin B12) and reduced growth of experimental animals”. [1]

For those with autoimmune joint pain this is an important factor to consider because autoimmunity typically begins with gut health. 

In addition to lectins in produce, when produce is shipped it has time to degrade and lose some of its nutritional value. The bonus is that by eating locally and in season you’ll often find that the produce is cheaper. There’s a common misconception that eating well has to be expensive and that simply isn’t the case. Many farmers will use no-spray or organic practices but skip the expensive organic certification process. That allows them to sell their produce for less. Make friends with the farmers in your area and ask them how they grow their produce and raise their animals. 

Is There A Special Diet To Follow?

This is the million dollar question and there isn’t a simple black and white answer. We’re all unique individuals with different genetic inheritances with varying degrees of health issues so there’s no one chronic pain diet. What works for one person may or may not work for you. The things that every dietary approach agrees upon is that we should avoid fast food, processed food, and sweeteners. 

Sometimes simply getting rid of artificial ingredients, chemical additives, vegetable oil, and added sweeteners is enough to feel a difference. Others have had success with paleo, autoimmune paleo, keto, or even carnivore. Mikhaila Peterson was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis at the age of 7. After years of suffering, a long list of prescriptions, and joint replacements she began experimenting with food. She didn’t find relief until she removed all plants from her diet. You can read my article about plant compounds and joint pain here. [2]

If your joint pain is autoimmune focusing on healing your gut will give you the greatest results. The concept behind elimination diets is that you eliminate the foods that have the potential to cross the gut barrier, also known as leaky gut. When undigested food particles leak out of the gut into the body cavity they trigger the autoimmune response. 

Some dietary approaches result in a significant decrease in carbohydrate consumption. I always recommend working with a healthcare provider and a coach who can help you make a slow transition, especially if you’re taking medications. 

How To Incorporate Exercise When You Have Joint Pain

There’s a common misconception that exercise is only something we should do for weight loss. The point of exercise is to strengthen the body and promote longevity. Did you know that people who have more muscle mass end up living longer? When we exercise stress is introduced to the body which then allows the body to rebuild itself stronger. (This is why diet is so important. You have to give it the things it needs to rebuild.)

Start with what you can do. Exercise in a swimming pool reduces impact on the joints and it’s a great place to start for that reason. If you can ride a bike or simply go for a walk those things will help. A common misconception is that exercise has to be intense to work (for weight loss) and that simply isn’t true. The body needs oxygen to burn fat so keeping your heart rate low during a walk is actually one of the best fat burning exercises.

When you exercise or simply move your body you increase circulation. Increasing circulation brings fresh nutrients, blood, and white blood cells to the tissues and it removes metabolic wastes. That is, it sets the stage to strengthen and heal the body.

How Sleep Affects Joint Pain

Did you know that sleep is equally as important as exercise when it comes to weight loss? Sleep deprivation has been associated with depression weight gain, decreased insulin sensitivity, increased vulnerability to infection, and decreased mental performance. When it comes to joint pain, a lack of sleep drives inflammation. Inflammatory cytokines are increased when you don’t get enough sleep. Some cytokines remain elevated for up to two days even when you’ve had two nights of recovery sleep. [3]

Recent studies have associated disrupted sleep and sleep deprivation with inflammation. Inflammation is associated with a decrease in overall health when markers such as c-reactive protein increase. Adequate sleep that is high quality may reduce inflammation that’s associated with aging and chronic disease. [4]

Reducing Joint Pain With Lifestyle & Dietary Choices

Many believe that they’re stuck with their current health challenges. They believe that it runs in the family and there’s nothing that can be done about it. It goes back to the nature versus nurture question. Even if you inherited “bad genes” are you turning them on with the diet and lifestyle you inherited? Exploring how much things can improve through lifestyle and dietary changes can give you a ray of hope especially if it’s something you’ve never considered before. Let us know how your chronic pain diet has helped you. 

Learn how to ease into making these changes in my Free 4-Day Masterclass at

Jennifer Essary
Written by
Jennifer Essary Primal Health Coach

After learning to manage her joint pain through diet and lifestyle Jennifer became a Primal Health Coach in 2016. She holds a BS in Environmental Science from the University of Cincinnati. Jennifer is a medical massage therapist licensed by The Ohio State Medical Board who specializes in myoskeletal alignment. In her spare time she’s a homeschool mom who’s working towards her black belt in Taekwondo. She’s a bowhunter, skier, a self proclaimed chef, and you’ll find her watching Christmas movies all year long. You can learn more about her story here at

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