December 7, 2021

Does Whole30 Help with Inflammation? A Physical Therapist’s perspective on Whole30 and joint pain.

Does Whole30 Help with Inflammation?

Looking for information on Whole30 helping with inflammation? Please be aware that the information included in this post is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult your healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for your own situation, or if you have any questions regarding your treatment plan.

By: Physical Therapist Laura Black

As a physical therapist, my goal is to offer the very best care to my patients. My average patient presents with chronic disease and pain, mostly related to arthritis and autoimmune conditions. Over time, I found that physical therapy alone could help my patients get better, but only to a certain point. While their chronic issues—especially their joint pain—decreased with therapy, part of it still lingered or came back in “flare ups.”  There was still a missing piece.

That’s where Whole30 came in.

The Food We Eat Matters

Five years ago, I discovered the Whole30 program personally. I completed my first round in 2017 and I was enlightened. If you’ve talked to someone who’s completed a Whole30 before, you’ve likely already heard some version of this phrase, but it changed everything for me. The biggest game-changer was the way I thought and talked about food. Whole30 educates on how to adopt a new language around food and give your thoughts surrounding food, and hence your relationship with food, a 180.

Because I strongly believe in the program, I became a Whole30 Certified Coach in 2020. That was an easy choice, because I made the clear connection that part of the solution to the pain my patients were experiencing was right in front of us all along: what they were putting on their plates was preventing full healing. Offering Whole30 support groups, and encouraging my patients to attend them, has been a great addition to my clinical “tool belt” for combating pain at the source.

How does it work? It seems like virtually all doctors, nutritionists, coaches, scientists, and fitness experts can agree on one premise: the food we eat matters. But what’s the connection between food and pain? The science behind food choices and joint pain is complex, but can be better understood through the lens of inflammation.

Does the Whole30 Help with Inflammation? The connection between food and pain

In short, one of the things that connects food to joint pain is inflammation. More specifically, “a diet that is high in processed, hyperpalatable foods that displace nutrient-dense whole foods” can lead to systemic inflammation and influence pain, according to published research.

Potential Causes of Inflammation

Gut health. Gut health is intimately connected to overall health. Disruption to the gut microbiome (the balance of beneficial and potentially harmful bacteria), inflammation in the gut, or increased intestinal permeability can produce an immune reaction that extends to other areas of your body, including your joints. Increased intestinal permeability has been associated with autoimmune diseases that cause joint pain, including (but not limited to) rheumatoid arthritis. (Learn more about rheumatoid arthritis )

Genetic disposition and food sensitivities. Some people are sensitive to the
complex proteins found in grains like wheat. Their immune systems may respond to gluten as
an enemy. In those people, the immune system jumps into action, causing inflammation in organs as well as tissues outside of the gut. This can contribute to problems including fibromyalgia and joint pain.

Molecular Mimicry. In genetically susceptible individuals, when substances in food look similar to substances found in the body, your body may mistakenly create antibodies that cause tissue damage, which includes damage in your joints. For example, a protein found in gluten looks similar to one in your cartilage.The molecules “mimic” each other and the immune cells may begin attacking the body’s cartilage. Over time, this may lead to osteoarthritis and can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling. A person may not notice external signs of inflammation, such as redness and swelling, but may notice other symptoms, such as joint pain.

Food Is Medicine: Powerful I Am Whole30 Testimonials

While the science is present and growing, it is testimonials from my own Whole30 Certified Coaching experience and physical therapy practice that truly make me a believer: food ismedicine. I’d like to share two of those real-life case studies with you.

Lena, a nurse in her 20s, was suffering from pain in both hands. She was getting some relief from Tylenol and collagen powder, but the pain was still persistent. I Coached Lena through a Whole30 round, and her pain was gone within a few weeks of starting.

She noted to me, “I had complete relief in my hands and the aches were gone.” During the reintroduction phase—when previously-eliminated foods are added back individually to assess their effects, like a personal science experimentLena noticed her symptoms returning after eating dairy and legumes. Armed with that information, she made the informed decision to avoid those foods in her everyday nutrition. Lena noticed the same thing I noticed after my original Whole30: knowing what triggers her symptoms is empowering and makes managing symptoms of inflammatory conditions much more attainable.

Tracy, who is in her 50s, also came to Whole30 seeking improved health and

relief for joint pain. Tracy actually put her own story in writing, and I couldn’t say it any better, so I’ll just share her firsthand description of the effect Whole30 had on her: “I used to leave work and put my hands on my hot steering wheel, even in the summer, just to help with the pain. When I did Whole30, my hands were 100% better. I can tell in my hips and knees, too, when I’m “on plan” or eating more [Whole30] compatible foods. I also lived with this horrible feeling in my abdomen. I remember waking up about 10 days into a Whole30 and I no longer felt it. These are part of the reasons I absolutely love and believe in the Whole30. I wanted my MD to tell me I had some disease to explain how I felt. But medically, I have always been ‘good’ by the numbers. It wasn’t until this program that I actually felt good! I believe it.”

If You (Or Your Clients) Have Joint Pain, Whole30 Could Be the Solution

As you can guess if you’ve read this far, I feel strongly that Whole30 has been a blessing for my own health as well as for my ability to help clients, both in my physical therapy practice and as a Whole30 Certified Coach. It is a highly effective tool for anyone looking to reduce pain or improve performance. If that’s you—if you struggle with joint pain and inflammation or if you have clients who do—I encourage you to consider the following reasons why Whole30 could be your “missing piece,” too.

  1. In excess, refined sugar and refined carbohydrates contribute to inflammation throughout the body and fuel the production of advanced glycation end products, which play a role in the pathogenesis of various diseases. Excessive alcohol also contributes to systemic inflammation by disrupting normal gut function. (And, as discussed earlier, this sustained gut inflammation can extend to other tissues, like those surrounding and supporting your joints.) Not coincidentally, these guidelines are a perfect match for the Whole30 protocol! Sugar, grain, gluten and alcohol are off limits during the 30-day elimination phase of Whole30, so it is tailor-made for those looking to reduce systemic inflammation for pain management. At its core, Whole30 is an elimination diet or “experiment” with the goal of helping people assess their own reactions to the most common food culprits for gut disruption and inflammation. 
  2. The Whole30 protocol allows time for your body to heal. After 30 days of “rest,” the reintroduction phase provides a guided, methodical approach to adding  foods back into your diet, which is essential for revealing which of the foods is the culprit(s) in pain, inflammation, and other symptoms. Participants are then able to tell more clearly which foods “trigger” the pain.
  3. In addition to eliminating “triggers,” people with osteoarthritis or chronic inflammatory or autoimmune conditions should also add specific foods to help their bodies mitigate inflammation. As a Whole30 Certified Coach, I proactively provide a list of these foods to all of my clients suffering from joint pain. These include: 
  • Oily fish for omega-3s
  • Extra-virgin olive oil 
  • Dark, leafy greens 
  • Berries
  • Green tea
  • Nuts and seeds

All of these foods are compatible with the Whole30 program.

Whole30 Resources for You and Your Clients

Whole30 offers an abundance of support! There are books from co-founder Melissa Urban that provide detailed scientific insight into how the program works. There are free lists of the Whole30 Rules and Recommendations, insightful blog posts, and meal planning tools on the Whole30 website. There is great content across the Whole30 social media channels and no shortage of endorsed cookbooks to help you and your clients feel nourished. (This is a good time to remind you that a month on Whole30 doesn’t mean a month without pleasurable food! The amount of food and the degree of nourishing pleasure is often surprising to clients; many are eating more and better than they ever have before.) You and your clients will have no shortage of resources and tools to help you with your nutrition experiment.

This article is intended both for those who are currently experiencing joint pain, as well as care providers who are treating patients with this common complaint. If you’re currently seeing medical treatment for your joint pain and would like to know if the Whole30 program can help you, share a link to this article with your healthcare provider. The footnotes included throughout the article will help them research further, if helpful.

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