You may have noticed your pain climbs to a new level after eating certain meals. That’s because food can play a role in aggravating or reducing inflammation.
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural immune response. Infection, wounds, and tissue damage wouldn’t be able to heal without it.
But inflammation also causes a lot of discomfort, pain, redness, swelling, and heat.
Keeping inflammation to a minimum is especially important for people with chronic pain or conditions like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Crohn’s disease, and other autoimmune diseases. In fact, not only does inflammation increase joint stiffness and exacerbate pain for people with RA, but it can also speed the progression of the disease.
Instead of reaching for an anti-inflammatory medication, here are five soothing foods that may reduce inflammation and make your pain more manageable.
1. Hot peppers
Try adding hot peppers to your diet if you have joint pain.
Capsaicin, the compound in peppers that makes your mouth feel hot, has been found to produce an anti-inflammatory effect and potential antioxidant properties.
Hot peppers are also chock-full of vitamins B-6 and C, as well as potassium, fiber, and beta carotene, which your body turns into vitamin A. It’s believed that the red and orange pigments in peppers, called carotenoids, protect against cancer as well.
Hot pepper benefits
- reduces inflammation
- promotes a healthy heart and lungs
- helps balance your metabolism
Try: Spice up your favorite dishes with jalapenos, habaneros, cayenne, serrano, and cherry peppers. Even bell peppers work if you prefer a milder flavor.
Need to know: Hot peppers may cause indigestion, especially if you don’t normally include them in your diet.
Turmeric is that bold, orange-yellow spice that makes curries so colorful (and delicious). But it’s also a great food to incorporate into your diet to reduce inflammation.
“Turmeric has been found [to be] as effective in reducing inflammation as some anti-inflammatory medications, thanks to the compound curcumin,” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDE, author of “Belly Fat for Dummies.”
Curcumin is the main active ingredient in turmeric. It’s been found to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects and is a very strong antioxidant. It matches the effectiveness of some anti-inflammatory drugs, but without the side effects. It does so by blocking the molecule that moves to the cells’ nuclei and activates genes related to inflammation.
- contains antioxidants, which are essential for health
Try: Turmeric is featured heavily in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking. You can also use it in salad dressings, soups, or your own anti-inflammation tonics and smoothies.
Need to know: Turmeric contains oxalate. When consumed in high doses, oxalate may contribute to kidney stones. Also, not all commercial turmeric powders are pure. Some may have additives that aren’t as beneficial.
Garlic isn’t only delicious — it may reduce inflammation from joint pain. That’s thanks to the anti-inflammatory sulfur compounds found in garlic.
Garlic is part of the genus Allium, which is known for its production of organosulfur compounds. When extracted and isolated, these compounds have a broad spectrum of benefits against microbial infections. They also promote heart health, fight cancer, and ease inflammation.
- helps maintain a healthy heart
- contains anticancer properties
Try: Add garlic and herbs to any savory meals, salad dressings, or sauces.
Need to know: Garlic might produce unpleasant breath or body odor, heartburn, or gas.
Cherries have compounds in them known as anthocyanins. These are antioxidants that work to alleviate pain. Research shows that antioxidants in tart cherry juice can reduce pain and inflammation from osteoarthritis.
Cherries are a rich source of polyphenols and vitamin C, both of which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- boosts immunity
- regulates your metabolism
Try: Both tart and sweet cherries are delicious on their own, but you can also try incorporating cherry juice into your diet, which has similar effects.
Need to know: Since cherries contain fiber, eating too many may lead to bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
Salmon is chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s interfere with immune cells called leukocytes and enzymes called cytokines, which are both main players in inflammation. The omega-3 fatty acids stop the process before it even starts.
Research also shows that people who eat fish regularly, especially fatty fish like salmon, are less likely to develop RA. Those who already have RA report having reduced joint swelling and pain when they incorporate salmon into their diet.
- high in protein
- contains antioxidants
Try: Use canned salmon in place of tuna when making tuna salad. Baking salmon for a delicious lunch or dinner is essentially fool-proof, too.
Need to know: Fatty acids, while beneficial, do have potential side effects. High doses of omega-3s may lead to digestive issues, increase the risk of bleeding, and may affect blood pressure.
Foods to avoid
It can also help to start eating less of — or eliminating — some foods from your diet that can exacerbate inflammation.
“When you consume more added sugars than the body can process at one time, it increases the release of pro-inflammatory compounds, cytokines, and may elevate the inflammatory biomarker C-reactive protein,” says Palinski-Wade.
Choosing fibrous, nutrient-dense carbohydrates over refined and processed carbs can have an effect on decreasing inflammation. Opt for lower-sodium foods, too. Excessive sodium in the diet can lead to water retention, which can increase joint pain.
Meagan Drillinger is a travel and wellness writer. Her focus is on making the most out of experiential travel while maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Her writing has appeared in Thrillist, Men’s Health, Travel Weekly, and Time Out New York, among others. Visit her blog or Instagram.