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When it comes to joint pain, why aren’t more doctors talking about leaky gut and food sensitivities? Joint pain and arthritis can be crippling conditions. If you have arthritis, certainly you have been told there is no cure and the disease must be managed with medications and exercise. Not so fast. We see autoimmune joint diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and lupus turn around when the root causes are uncovered and addressed. Almost all joint pain can be eased by addressing two key areas.


Leaky gut and food sensitivities can directly cause joint inflammation, pain, swelling, weakness, and even disability. Keep reading to find out how to test for leaky gut and food sensitivities, what foods to avoid, and how to heal leaky gut. Use integrative and functional medicine approaches to reverse your joint pain so you can move with ease and keep doing the things you love to do.

This blog was updated May 19, 2021.

Arthritis Types and Symptoms

There are many types of arthritis. The two major types of arthritis we cover in this blog are (1) osteoarthritis and (2) autoimmune arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and psoriatic arthritis.

Osteoarthritis is the wear and tear of joints with everyday living. It’s the most common type of arthritis. Osteoarthritis is more common as we age, especially when we reach our 50s and on. It happens when the cartilage that cushions our joints wears down. Age, overuse, obesity, weak muscles, female sex, and injury increase the risk of osteoarthritis.

These symptoms of osteoarthritis may appear in hands, knees, hips, lower back, and neck:
  • Pain or aching during an activity, afterward, or at day’s end
  • Joint stiffness first thing in the morning
  • Poor range of motion
  • Clicking or cracking sounds
  • Swelling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Buckling, like when a knee gives out

In autoimmune arthritis, the immune system mistakenly attacks the joints. Inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis can be so serious that it can damage and deform joints. Lupus is another autoimmune disease that causes joint pain and stiffness. There is also psoriatic arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis. Many autoimmune diseases that feature joint pain can be lumped together because the underlying causes of the autoimmune diseases may be the same. If you have autoimmune joint pain, you have a much higher chance of having leaky gut syndrome than someone with age-related osteoarthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis joint symptoms are:
  • Pain, swelling, and tenderness in multiple joints
  • Joint stiffness
  • Deformed joints occur after many years
  • Rheumatoid nodules or lumps near affected joints
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands

Leaky Gut and Joint Pain

Leaky gut and food sensitivities are major players in joint pain, whether we are talking about osteoarthritis or autoimmune arthritis. Leaky gut, also known as intestinal permeability, describes a gut lining that is worn down and leaky. As a result, large molecules can pass through the gut lining and enter the bloodstream.


Normally the gut lining serves as a protective barrier between you and the outside world. The gut lining, your immune system, and friendly bacteria work together in harmony to survey everything that comes into your body through the gastrointestinal tract. This surveillance team makes sure that the immune system is healthy, that bad stuff is kept out of the body, and the good stuff gets into the body.

Every day we eat things that can harm the body: junk food, pesticides, chemicals, plastics, heavy metals, bacteria, fungus, and parasites. A healthy gut lining helps to keep these things out while letting in pure, healthful, water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals.

Watch Cass explain what leaky gut is, how it happens, and how it causes disease in the body.

When leaky gut sets in, the gut lining has been damaged. Suddenly chemicals, bacteria, and other things can get into the body and cause harm. This puts the immune system on “red alert.” Sometimes the immune system becomes hypervigilant, like a father who’s overly concerned that his daughter will sneak out of the house for a party. The immune system can overreact to even harmless things. It can attack a person’s own body, such as her joints, the thyroid gland, the gastrointestinal tract, or the nervous system.

Don't let your gut look like this!

Don’t let your gut look like this!

Leaky gut is believed to be a major factor in the development of autoimmune disease. Because the gut barrier is critical for healthy immune function, damage to the gut lining can be the first step in an immune system breakdown. A leaky gut can confuse the immune system, unsure who is a bad guy and who is a good guy. This leads to a misplaced attack on the person’s own body, instead of on foreign molecules.

While leaky gut is a hallmark of autoimmune joint diseases such as RA or lupus, it can make all kinds of joint pain worse. It stokes the fires of inflammation and causes the immune system to malfunction. Regardless of the kind of joint pain you have, you cannot afford to ignore leaky gut.


Joint Pain, Food Sensitivities, and Diet


Leaky gut and food sensitivities are two sides of the same coin. If you have leaky gut, then you likely have food sensitivities. If you have joint pain, leaky gut, and food sensitivities could be key players causing your symptoms.


There are many different ways people react to foods. There are food allergies, food sensitivities, and food intolerances. Food sensitivities usually refer to a blood antibody response. Food sensitivities indicate that the immune system is attacking foods with IgG, IgA, or IgM blood antibodies. Unlike a true food allergy, which involves IgE antibodies and can be life-threatening, food sensitivities can cause mild, bothersome symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, gas, bloating, heartburn, joint pain, congestion, skin rashes, and more.


Food sensitivities can contribute to arthritis symptoms such as painful, swollen, stiff, and weak joints. Most people have no idea that foods are causing their joint pain. That’s because most people eat the same 20-30 foods every day, all day, all year. Food sensitivities can cause such chronic joint problems that it’s possible to go decades without realizing you could make your joint pain disappear by avoiding a few foods!

Many forms of arthritis can improve with dietary changes.

  • Osteoarthritis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Lupus
  • Spondyloarthritis
  • Psoriatic arthritis
  • Reactive arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Scleroderma
  • Myofascitis
  • Dermatomyositis



What You Can Do About Arthritis Symptoms

Don’t settle with medical advice that says the only things you can do to help joint pain are to lose weight, exercise, and take pain-relieving or immune-suppressing medications. Medications just put a band-aid on the symptoms while allowing joint inflammation to keep raging. If your pain was down, you could get more exercise and lose weight. Since that medical advice doesn’t address the root cause, there is no end in sight for the joint pain.

Find an Integrative and Functional Practitioner To Work With You

It’s no fun and it’s not easy to navigate a chronic health issue like arthritis by yourself. Find an integrative and functional medicine practitioner to help you determine if you have leaky gut or food sensitivities that are adding to your joint pain. If you can’t find a physician in your area who fits the bill, nurses, nutritionists, and dietitians that are highly qualified and experienced can provide a lot of help.

Best Leaky Gut Tests

My favorite leaky gut test might surprise you. It’s a food sensitivities test. How can food sensitivities tell you about leaky gut? It is because people with leaky gut often show many, many food sensitivities. It’s like a two in one test for leaky gut and food reactions. If you struggle with unexplained joint pain, my recommendation is to order a very good foods test (see below) and hit two birds with one stone. Other leaky gut tests are the lactulose/mannitol test and zonulin in serum or stool. You can ask your doctor to order these tests for you or you can order them yourself and share your results with your doctor.


How To Cure Leaky Gut

Many treatments can heal leaky gut and relieve your joint pain. It starts with improving overall gut health. Before taking supplements for leaky gut, your practitioner will want to boost the friendly bacteria in your gut, improve digestion with enzymes, and get rid of any gastrointestinal infections. The GI-MAP is a great test to figure out and improve overall gut health. Once these foundational areas have been addressed, it’s time to heal your gut lining.


Diet plays a big role in healing leaky gut. Avoiding certain foods can give the gut lining a chance to rest and heal. And a healthy, whole food, plant-based diet nourishes a healthy microbiome and gut lining.


There are many nutritional supplements for leaky gut. Examples are GI Benefits from DaVinci Labs, GI Revive from Designs for Health, and Glutagenics from Metagenics. These products and others like them calm down inflammation, soothe the irritated tissue, and seal up holes in the leaky gut.


Once leaky gut is improved, the immune system calms down and starts to behave again. Inflammation decreases so joints start to feel better. Food sensitivities start to fade and eventually disappear. Many symptoms get better and lab results return to normal. Autoimmune joint diseases like RA, lupus, ankylosing spondylitis, and psoriatic arthritis will see big improvements in pain, swelling, and joint stiffness. Medications can be reduced.


Joint Pain: Foods to Avoid


Each person is unique and the foods they should avoid are different. The absolute most common foods to avoid for joint pain are gluten and dairy. Gluten is especially a trigger for autoimmune joint pain such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriatic arthritis, and ankylosing spondylitis. Gluten is a well-established cause of leaky gut. Eating gluten sets off a protein called zonulin, which literally opens up all of the junctions between the cells in the gut lining, triggering leaky gut.

However, gluten and dairy are not the only foods to avoid when you are struggling with chronic joint pain. Other common allergens are soy, corn, grains, egg, and citrus. Nightshades can be a cause of unexplained joint pain, although medical science doesn’t recognize them yet.

Best Tests for Food Sensitivities

Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

If you can afford to test, I recommend an IgG food sensitivity test, IgE food allergy test, and a gluten reactivity test/celiac test. These tests look at your blood antibodies to see if certain foods are causing your joint pain. Once the culprits have been identified, you and your practitioner will know what foods to avoid for at least a few months. If you show many, many food sensitivities, then you can assume you also have leaky gut.

Don’t have the money to test food sensitivities? A standard elimination diet will give you the answers for $0. However, this takes lots of mental discipline. You can work with your practitioner to eliminate all of the usual suspects from your diet. I mentioned them earlier- gluten, dairy, eggs, soy, grains, and citrus. Sugar is usually off limits. Your practitioner might also want to eliminate nightshades. And you can trust that you are using the very best test. “Elimination and challenge” is actually the gold standard in medicine. That’s because no foods test does a complete job of figuring out a person’s sensitivities, allergies, and intolerances.

Usually, an elimination diet lasts 1-3 months. You will feel amazing and chances are good your joint pain will ease. After your body has cleared out those harmful food proteins, you can do a “challenge.” That means you bring back one allergenic food into your diet (one at a time) and monitor your symptoms for a few days. If a certain food is causing your joint pain, you will know pretty quickly. That leads us to the treatment for food sensitivities

How To Heal Food Sensitivities

If you have a food sensitivity, you will need to avoid it- but not forever. For people who have had swollen, red, painful, stiff joints for years, it might take a year of food elimination. Maybe more. Remember that I said food sensitivities and leaky gut are two sides of the same coin? That’s right. Eliminating the problem foods gives your gut a rest. That’s the perfect time to heal leaky gut. If you heal leaky gut syndrome, then there’s a good chance that you can eat those foods again. Once your gut lining is healthy, you can handle foods -even foods that you were sensitive to before- without painful joint symptoms.


Natural Cures for Joint Pain

You don’t have to suffer for years or decades with swollen, stiff, painful joints. Whether you have arthritis of aging or autoimmune arthritis, find a functional and integrative medicine practitioner who knows about leaky gut and food sensitivities. Instead of managing the symptoms with medications, you can get to the root cause to actually reverse joint pain naturally. Change your diet, improve your gut health, heal leaky gut and food sensitivities and you will see a dramatic improvement in joint pain. Do the things you love, exercise, and feel like your old self again.


Cass Nelson-Dooley, M.S.

Cass Nelson-Dooley, M.S.

Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS, is a researcher, author, educator, and laboratory consultant. She studied medicinal plants in the rain forests of Panama as a Fulbright Scholar and then launched a career in science and natural medicine. Early on, she studied ethnobotany, ethnopharmacology, and drug discovery at the University of Georgia and AptoTec, Inc. She joined innovators at Metametrix Clinical Laboratory as a medical education consultant helping clinicians use integrative and functional laboratory results in clinical practice. She owns Health First Consulting, LLC, a medical communications company with the mission to improve human health using the written word. Ms. Nelson-Dooley is an oral microbiome expert and author of Heal Your Oral Microbiome. She was a contributing author in Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine and Case Studies in Integrative and Functional Medicine. She has published case studies, book chapters, and journal articles about the oral microbiome, natural medicine, nutrition, laboratory testing, obesity, and osteoporosis.