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Americans eat a lot of sugar! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average American consumes roughly 47 pounds of cane sugar and 35 pounds of high-fructose corn syrup per year. We all know sugar is the main ingredient in the obvious villains such as candy, ice cream and other desserts. But there are also hidden sugars in most processed foods as well as many so called “healthy” foods such as whole grain breakfast cereals, granola bars, pasta sauce, yogurt and sports drinks. It is widely known that overconsumption of sugar causes obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, but did you know that it could be contributing to your muscle and joint pain as well?

Research shows that the consumption of foods high in sugar can cause inflammation. Studies measuring inflammation with a blood test called C-reactive protein (CRP) discovered that foods with a high concentration of sugar increase CRP levels. This occurs because sugary foods cause a spike in a hormone called insulin which starts a cascade of biochemical reactions that lead to the production of inflammation. Insulin is secreted from the pancreas and is responsible for taking sugar out of the blood stream and storing it in the cells, which also contributes to the accumulation of fat. Visceral fat, or stomach fat, itself secretes inflammatory proteins and hormones which generates chronic inflammation. Most forms of joint pain and muscle aches involve inflammation and, even if pain is the result of trauma, symptoms may be exacerbated and prolonged by eating foods high in sugar.

Sugar also contributes to joint pain and stiffness experienced with aging through a process called glycation. Glycation occurs when sugar bonds with proteins to form compounds called advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. These compounds damage cells in the body by speeding up the oxidative process and changing normal cell behavior. AGEs are thought to be a major factor in aging as well as contributing to many age-related chronic diseases. Studies have shown that accumulation of AGEs in joint tissues causes changes in articular cartilage, making the cartilage more susceptible to damage and development of osteoarthritis. Limiting sugar intake is a must for reducing the accumulation of AGEs that can lead to joint damage and pain.

Lastly, sugar depletes important minerals that are needed for proper muscle contraction and relaxation. A high sugar diet results in the loss of minerals such as magnesium, potassium, and calcium in the urine. These minerals are not only critical to the proper function of every cell, but also play a key role in skeletal muscle contraction and function. An imbalance or deficiency of any of these minerals can lead to excitability of nerve and muscle tissue and result in excessive muscle contractions or cramps. According to Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride, author of the book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, the body requires at least twenty-eight molecules of magnesium to metabolize a single molecule of sugar. Therefore, a diet high in sugar can deplete the body of this very important mineral that is essential for maintaining proper muscle contraction.

Dietary Changes to Reduce Muscle and Joint Inflammation and Pain

  1. Reduce sugars, especially high fructose corn syrup which is a highly concentrated sugar. Read labels for hidden sugars. The World Health Association recommends adults and children reduce their daily intake of added sugars to less than 10% of their total calorie intake and believes that a reduction to below 5%, or roughly 25 grams per day, would provide additional health benefits. To put this into perspective, a 12 ounce can of Coke has 39 grams of sugar.
  2. Eat more fish such as mackerel, salmon, tuna and sardines. These fish contain potent omega 3 fatty acids that help to reduce inflammation.
  3. Eat healthy fats that have anti-inflammatory properties:
    • Olives and olive oil
    • Coconuts and coconut oil
    • Organic pastured egg yolks
    • Raw nuts like pecans and almonds
    • Butter made from raw grass-fed organic milk
    • Avocados
  4. Eat foods rich in the minerals magnesium, potassium and calcium
    • Magnesium rich foods: Almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, green leafy vegetables, beans
    • Calcium rich foods: Collard greens, kale, sardines with bones, yogurt, ricotta cheese
    • Potassium rich foods: Sweet potatoes, white beans, spinach, dried apricots
  5. Include foods rich in anti-oxidants to help combat the oxidative process from AGEs
    • Bilberries, black currants, wild strawberries, cranberries, acia and goji berries are among foods with the highest antioxidant sources
    • Vegetables with the highest antioxidant content include artichokes, spinach, kale, red and green chili peppers, red cabbage and red beets
    • Nuts include pecans, walnuts and almonds
  6. Additional anti-inflammatory foods to round out your diet
    • Garlic-has been shown to work similarly to NSAID pain medications (like ibuprofen) by shutting off the pathways that lead to inflammation
    • Onions- contain a compound called quercetin which helps stabilize the cells that release histamine creating an anti-inflammatory effect
    • Berries- contain anthocyanins which have anti-inflammatory properties
      • red raspberry extract helped prevent animals from developing arthritis
      • blueberries help protect against intestinal inflammation and ulcerative colitis
      • women who eat more strawberries showed lower levels of CRP in their blood

Avoiding high sugar foods and incorporating foods which contain nutrients that will help to calm inflammation can help with joint pain and so much more!

Anti-inflammatory Herbs that can Help Reduce Inflammation and Pain

  1. Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or “Indian frankincense,” this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients, referred to as boswellic acids, that animal studies have shown significantly reduce inflammation. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with rheumatoid arthritis patients.
  2. Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful.
  3. Ginger: This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice. Powder capsules are also available, but I recommend using the fresh root.
  4. Resveratrol: a potent antioxidant found in certain fruits, vegetables and cocoa. It works by preventing your body from creating molecules known to trigger inflammation.
  5. Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain. It is reasonable for many to take these as a supplement, particularly if you struggle with dry skin in the winter, as this is a strong indicator that you are deficient in these fats.
  6. Turmeric: Capable of modulating proteins that induce inflammation. Turmeric has been used for centuries in both Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine as an anti-inflammatory. One study found that people using an Ayurvedic formula of herbs and minerals with turmeric, winter cherry, boswellia and zinc had less pain and disability.

There are many high quality supplements on the market that include these anti-inflammatory herbs. The product Zyflammend by a supplement company called New Chapter is an excellent example. These will not only help alleviate the inflammation response, but contribute to overall health by protecting every cell in your body from the unwanted effects of inflammation.

Although getting your nutrients from foods in your daily diet is always preferred, it can be beneficial to supplement with a whole food vitamin/mineral to ensure adequate intake of all needed nutrients. If you suffer from muscle aches and pain, there is a good chance you are deficient in magnesium. According to WHO studies, less than 30% of U.S. adults consume the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium, and nearly 20% get only half of the magnesium they need daily to remain healthy.

Symptoms of magnesium deficiency include muscle cramps, chronic pain and difficulty sleeping. A product from Natural Vitality called Natural Calm is a magnesium powder that you mix with water and drink at bedtime to help relax you and restore magnesium levels. There is also a wonderful topical magnesium cream from Ancient Minerals which provides rapid absorption of magnesium into the cells.

If you suffer with joint and/or muscle aches and pain, try eliminating sugar from your diet and focus on eating the REAL food provided by nature. You will be amazed how much better you feel and how much more energy you have, along with improved over all health and fitness!


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  7. King D, Mainous A, Geesey M, Woolson R. Dietary Magnesium and C-reactive Protein Levels. Journal of the American College of Nutrition. 2005;24(3):166-171. doi:10.1080/07315724.2005.10719461.
  8. int. WHO | WHO calls on countries to reduce sugars intake among adults and children. 2015. Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/sugar-guideline/en/. Accessed November 2, 2015.
  9. Campbell-McBride N. Gut and Psychology Syndrome. [Cambridge, U.K.: Medinform Pub.]; 2010.
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  11. Carlsen M, Halvorsen B, Holte K et al. The total antioxidant content of more than 3100 foods, beverages, spices, herbs and supplements used worldwide. Nutrition Journal. 2010;9(1):3. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-9-3.
  12. University of Maryland Medical Center. Turmeric. 2015. Available at: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/turmeric#ixzz3qCMG839Z. Accessed November 2, 2015.

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