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Best Autoimmune Diet For Joint Pain and Stiffness

As a Primal Health Coach, I have the privilege of being in a group of people who are very knowledgeable and passionate about health. Many of us use our primal certifications as a foundation to dive deep into specific health issues. One health issue that is growing in concern is autoimmune symptoms. When I found out that my friend Jennifer has lived through autoimmune symptoms and learned how to use nutrition to feel much better, I knew this would be an excellent topic for our readers. I feel like many of us can relate to her story and learn from her success. Read how she started as an analytical chemist working with toxic chemicals to becoming a coach and helping people remove these chemicals from their diet.

My primal lifestyle began long before the Primal Health Coaching program existed. Long before I learned about gut health, rheumatoid arthritis, the primal lifestyle, and how to find the best autoimmune diet, I worked as an analytical chemist. In my 20's I worked for The EPA, Avon, and Alkermes. Working in the lab, I regularly saw the safety sheets for various chemicals. One day in the supermarket, an alarm went off in my mind when I found an ingredient from the lab in a package of food. While it's true that too much of anything, even if it's water or salt, isn't healthy, there's an instinct you have when you encounter some chemicals. Part of my raw chemical testing included an odor evaluation, i.e., sniffing chemicals. BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) is the chemical I'm referring to in this instance. It smells like mothballs and is banned in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Europe. In the US, you'll find it in crackers, cereal, lunch meat, salami, bacon, and even face cream.


On chemical safety sheets, they list how much of that chemical is needed to kill 50% of mice. I started wondering what these chemicals do to us at the cellular level. Sure, they don't put that amount in 1 package of food, but what if you buy that food every week for the next 70 years? What if you buy that chemical mixed with all of the other chemicals and eat them for the rest of your life? If I were to conduct a study where I'd feed you random chemicals for the next 70-80 years, would you want to participate? Most people would say no, yet this is what our food system has become. It's also when I became an avid reader of ingredients.


Beginning The Primal Lifestyle

Despite my years of reading ingredients, I had always been stiff. I'm sorry I don't have an official diagnosis to name it. Medical professionals always suggested that I drink more water, but I knew that wasn't it. In my late 30's the stiffness grew worse. If I sat in a chair for 15-20 minutes, I'd hobble like someone twice my age until I took enough steps to work out the kinks. My feet ached so badly that it hurt to walk barefoot. When I'd reach down and touch my forearm, leg, or really any body part, it felt tight, like I was flexing even when I wasn't. Trying to wash a pan at the sink, it felt like my elbow would explode.


In 2014, a Facebook post mentioned that August was "Whole 30" month. Of course, in the post, it noted that Whole 30 is an anti-inflammatory diet. My first thought was that it definitely couldn't hurt. Rather than pop anti-inflammatories, why not start with an anti-inflammatory diet? You can read my Whole 30-week diary here. When I tried to add back the things I had cut out of my diet, I couldn't. Dairy made me nauseous, dizzy and gave me a headache after about 20 minutes. I discovered that all grains gave me joint pain, headaches, a puffy face, and a sour mood. Legumes caused intense abdominal pain. While my overall stiffness was better, the joint pain had me thinking.


Best Autoimmune Diet For Rheumatoid Arthritis

See, I had been a massage therapist for over a decade, and I attributed the joint pain in my hands to practicing massage. When I first discovered that food affected my joint pain, I began to suspect it was autoimmune. I had all of the signs of rheumatoid arthritis: family history, symmetric joint pain, pain in the extremities, and my joints would hurt with or without physical activity.


I began poking around the web, and I discovered autoimmune paleo. Autoimmunity starts with gut health, and as a child of the '80s, I grew up with yearly antibiotics, everything cooked in Crisco, pizza, soda, and an overly clean mom. All of these things negatively affect gut health. The premise of an autoimmune diet is that it removes any foods that can promote or cross a leaky gut barrier. I felt lucky because, after only a few days, I no longer had joint pain. After a week, the pain in my feet went away, and I could walk barefoot again. As I became a believer in how much food affected my joint pain and stiffness, I knew I had to share it with the world, so in 2016 I became a Primal Health Coach.


After a few food reintroductions, I stuck pretty close to my version of autoimmune paleo. Over the years, I've worked out foods that can cause joint pain, not just for me but for others as well. However, despite eating a more limited version of paleo, I had a week-long autoimmune flare after a day of skiing, and it sent me back into the research. I knew that lectins were no friend to gut health, but then I learned that vegetables, fruits, and even some meat could contain lectins. Plus, I began to wonder if dietary fiber is too irritating for some of us.


I went from trying to eat 9 cups of vegetables a day to the carnivore diet. There are countless other stories online about people who have had great success with the carnivore diet for rheumatoid arthritis. Following a strict animal-based diet, I never realized how vibrant I could feel. It was more than just an absence of joint pain. My mind was laser-focused and clear. For the first time in my life, my abdomen felt relaxed rather than tense. I also had an insane amount of energy.


What Is The Best Autoimmune Diet For Joint Pain?

I think it depends on the person. We all have different levels of insulin resistance, gut health, and genetics. What works for one person may or may not work for another. When you go down the rabbit hole, you'll find that some have success with a low FODMAP diet. People are sometimes sensitive to oxalates, nightshades, and high histamine foods, in addition to the usual suspects of grains, dairy, soy, peanuts, and vegetable oil.


This is why working with a health coach like Dana can help you figure out the best autoimmune diet for your current health issues. Rather than figuring it all out on your own, a Primal Health Coach can help you get a jump start on your primal lifestyle. Most health coaches I know read all the books, listen to health podcasts, and talk to other medical professionals. We have a bit more flexibility than traditional medicine because we can pass along information that you won't likely hear in a doctor's office. Seriously, when was the last time someone went to the doctor for joint pain, and they suggested they remove nightshades from their diet?


To this day, I still think nightshades were a huge contributing factor to my stiffness. I know without a doubt they give me joint pain. What are nightshades? Tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, goji berries, ashwagandha, and most ingredients listed as "spices" contain a nightshade. Think about how many dishes include potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers. Weston A Price has an excellent article on how nightshades can cause calcification of soft tissues. So far, it's the best explanation I have for my chronic stiffness.


The Primal Lifestyle

While it's true that food choices will play a massive role in your health, it's not the only factor. Working with a health coach, we leave no stone unturned. The primal lifestyle encompasses food, fitness, sleep, stress, and mindset. If you're a person who's struggling with joint pain, rheumatoid arthritis, or another autoimmune condition, a Primal Health Coach can help you dial in the best autoimmune diet and lifestyle practices for your unique situation.


Today I can still walk barefoot; I even prefer barefoot shoes. My forearms and body no longer feel like they're permanently flexed and stiff. I've learned that what I eat dramatically affects whether or not I'll have rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. I sleep like the dead, my head is clearer, and I feel better at 46 than I did at 25. Every cellular process in your body relies on nutrition; feed it well. Stress, poor sleep, and fitness add another layer. Dialing these things in isn't likely an overnight process for most people, but if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you'll get there. As I write this, I have a blue belt in Taekwondo, and I hope to have my black belt in 2022. In 2020 I helped pack an elk out over a mountain at 8,000 ft. Coming from a place where I was stiff with joint pain, I'm proof that better health is possible through the primal lifestyle.


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Dana Johnson

Wife, mom, believer in Christ, California native, certified primal health coach & doTERRA wellness advocate.

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