Dear Mark: Grains and Joints, Cardamom, and The Cause of Aging Muscle

Joint PainFor today’s Dear Mark, we’ve got a three-parter. First: a question about grains and joint health from a reader who gets achy and creaky every time she veers off schedule and eats grains. Is this common? Is it supported by any real evidence? Yes and yes. Next is a short overview of cardamom, that other Indian spice that you never hear much about. Turns out it’s got some potential. And finally, I (try to) assuage the existential fears of a young guy who will eventually be an old guy freaking out about the impending and inevitable loss and dearth of his muscle mass.

Let’s go:

Dear Mark,

I have been going paleo off and on since the new year. (I’m working on getting to 100%.) I have noticed that when I go off track, I start to feel aching in my joints within hours, and they even seem to pop more. Is this just in my head, or can the grains really be responsible for this?

Thanks for your thoughts,


That’s actually a common experience throughout the ancestral community. You’ve got folks reporting rheumatoid arthritis remission upon adopting a strict paleo approach. You’ve got people overcoming osteoarthritis following the Perfect Health Diet. And you’ve got people in the MDA forums overcoming or improving their psoriatic arthritis symptoms.

I’ve noticed the same thing. I used to assume that my joint pains and various types of “-itis” were caused primarily by my heavy chronic cardio habit back in the day, but I’m not so sure anymore. Anytime a significant portion of grains enter my diet, which is a rare occurrence (think a piece of crusty bread at a restaurant, a slice of cake politely accepted at a birthday party, that kind of thing), the first negative effect I notice is joint pain, crepitus (popping), and general creakiness. My old finger arthritis comes back consistently after grain indulgence, and that wasn’t caused by wear and tear. I mean, who gets finger arthritis just from running marathons?

And know, we’re not just “making it up” nor are we suffering one of those collective delusions that are supposedly so common these days. While there’s no smoking gun, there’s a decent amount of evidence suggesting a connection between grains and arthritis.

As you probably already know, going Primal eliminates several potent sources of lectins – grains and legumes. Well, Cordain has an entire paper (PDF) reviewing the potential mechanisms of dietary lectin-induced rheumatoid arthritis. It’s an old story. Grain-heavy diet leads to poor gut health and a permeable intestinal lining. Intestinal permeability allows passage of dietary lectins into circulation, where they have peripheral effects on tissues, including our connective tissue. Obviously, this doesn’t affect everyone who eats grains, nor does it explain every case of rheumatoid arthritis, but in the genetically susceptible grain intake can be an environmental input with epigenetic effects.

And gluten-containing grains, especially wheat, may be especially bad. Rheumatoid arthritis patients are more likely to display anti-gliadin (a protein fragment that makes up gluten) antibodies than people without it. Some researchers even consider arthritis to be a “celiac of the joints,” with antibodies generated by the initial inflammatory insult (gluten exposure) targeting connective tissues.

One dietary intervention for rheumatoid arthritis that seems to be effective in the literature is the vegan/vegetarian diet. Only it’s not your garden variety pastatarian diet. It’s almost always a gluten-free vegan/vegetarian diet. And sure enough:

It’s likely that a gluten-free Primal or paleo intervention (with meat and vegetables, of course) would also help arthritis patients. Hopefully some studies are in the pipeline.

The important part of this entire story is that grains affect your joints and you should probably heed the lesson. You didn’t need me for that. But at least now you have some evidence that you’re not imagining it all.

Forgive me, Mark, as I may have missed it – when searching this website for info FROM YOU about cardamom, there seems to be very little. But, if I’m wrong, please ignore this question:

Is cardamom something special in the “Primal” sense?

I just bought some and am about to combine it with Turmeric (which I use 3-5 times a week), and was just curious.

Hope you’re enjoying the warm weather in So Cal thus far.


If you go by its capacity to scavenge free radicals, cardamom ranks low in the pantheon of spices commonly used on the Indian subcontinent. Cumin, ginger, coriander, garlic, and both types of cinnamon all rank more highly than cardamom. So no, cardamom’s probably not as “beneficial” as turmeric, but few spices can compete with the orange rhizome’s pharmacological prowess. We shouldn’t hold it against cardamom. Besides, several studies show that cardamom is helpful in its own right.

For instance:

If standalone cardamom doesn’t impress you, it appears to have synergistic effects when combined with other spices (which is the traditional mode of cardamom consumption, of course – as a spice rub or curry mixture). A black tea fortified with cardamom, ginger, holy basil, licorice, and ashwagandha enhanced natural killer cell activity (a marker of immune function and an important part of the initial immune response to infections) compared to control black tea without spices.

Cardamom alone isn’t likely to extend your life, prevent and/or cure cancer, or otherwise make a massive, noticeable difference to your health. But that’s true for almost anything, let alone a “superfood” spice. The real power lies in its everyday usage and its consumption with complementary spices. How to use it other than powering through a teaspoon of powder?

  • It’s great in Indian cooking.
  • When you make ghee, try adding a few cardamom pods for flavor and protection (of the lipids and cholesterol).
  • I’ll sometimes add a dash or two of cardamom right at the end when making this chili. Totally changes the dish in a good way.
  • Or if you make creamy turmeric tea, try some cardamom, either pod or powder.

And yes, I’m enjoying the warm weather. It’s why I live here!

Hi Mark,

As a fit younger guy who’s scared to death of getting old and weak, I always wonder if it’s inevitable? Obviously we all turn old, but I don’t want to be weak and decrepit. It seems like muscles just age and there’s not a lot we can do. Please tell me I’m wrong.



I’ve got good news for you, Spencer.

A new study suggests that “muscle aging” isn’t due to the passage of time itself but rather inactivity. Researchers looked at the telomere length (a marker of cellular aging, with shorter lengths indicating greater cellular age) in the skeletal muscle on the arms and legs of young adults, elderly immobile adults, and elderly mobile adults. In all three groups, arm muscle telomere length was unchanged. Everyone uses their arms to grab stuff and hold things and eat dinner and use the phone. That’s just everyday usage. The legs told a different story. In the young adults who used their legs all the time, telomere length was normal. In the older adults who still walked but not as much as the youngsters, telomere length was a little shorter. But in the immobile older adults, their leg muscle telomere length was the shortest of all. Decreases in telomere length seemed to be linked to free radical levels in the muscles, with higher free radicals leading to shorter telomeres.

Use it or lose it applies here. But don’t use it too much. While regular strength training maintains telomere length, exercising to the point of exercise-associated chronic fatigue causes shorter telomeres in the skeletal muscle of endurance athletes. Exercise-associated chronic fatigue isn’t your garden variety “flop down on the floor after a tough workout” type of fatigue, but a serious, established clinical entity.

It boils down to a simple prescription: don’t give your body the impression that you’ve given up. If you stay active and vibrant, walk a lot, lift some heavy things occasionally, remain engaged with life, exercise your mind, stay in touch with friends, take your lady (or fellow) out to dinner and dancing regularly, play as much as possible, you’re letting the cells of your body know that they’ve still got work to do and they can’t throw in the towel. You need this skeletal muscle. You need this libido. You need this lower body mobilityWorks for me.

Your cells will respond. Chronological age ain’t nothing but a number.

Thanks for reading, everyone.

TAGS:  Aging, gluten

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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