Can what you eat have an impact on your pain? Research indicates that it might, and many people with chronic pain report an improvement in pain level, function and sleep when they make changes in their diet. Dietary changes are not likely to cause immediate improvement, especially in conditions that have been present for a long time. This includes most chronic pain conditions, which result from a long history of cumulative changes. At the very least, dietary changes can prevent or slow the progression of a number of chronic conditions. At best, dietary changes may result in improvement in symptoms, but it may take several weeks to see improvement.
There is a growing understanding in the scientific and medical communities that “food is medicine.” Food is a pretty complicated subject though, so it’s hard to make the claim that “if you eat (or don’t eat) this particular food, you will have this particular effect.” We do know that certain types of foods seem to be more likely to affect processes like inflammation, which has been linked with chronic pain as well as a number of other chronic conditions. By “inflammation,” I don’t mean the redness and swelling you get when you have an infected cut. I’m referring to the response that the body has on the cellular level to daily stress and wear-and-tear that can sensitize nerve endings and cause increased pain when it is out of control.
Changing your diet to include more anti-inflammatory foods and limit pro-inflammatory foods is not necessarily difficult, but may take a little more planning than you are used to. Anti-inflammatory foods are high in anti-oxidants, omega-3 fats, and fiber. Vegetables and fruits that are dark or brightly colored are high in anti-oxidants – think red peppers, carrots, beets, spinach, Romaine lettuce, berries, oranges – as well as onions and garlic. Cold-water fish like salmon, sardines, herring, and mackerel are high in omega-3 fat, as are walnuts and ground flax seed or flax oil. Several spices contain anti-inflammatory compounds, including turmeric, ginger, oregano, cayenne, nutmeg, and others. Avocado oil and olive oil also have anti-inflammatory properties.
Pro-inflammatory foods include foods high in omega-6 and trans fats, and foods with a high glycemic index. It’s a little harder to avoid pro-inflammatory foods than it is to add anti-inflammatory foods, because pro-inflammatory foods are added to so many commercially available foods. The best bet is to avoid processed and pre-packaged foods as much as possible, and read nutrition and ingredient labels. High omega-6 foods include red meat and most dairy products, as well as most common oils (corn, peanut, safflower, soy, sunflower, grapeseed, cottonseed). Soybean oil, in particular, is very common in many kinds of processed and pre-packaged foods. “Glycemic index” refers to the rate at which blood sugar rises after eating the food. Foods with a high glycemic index cause a rapid rate in blood sugar, and include white breads, white rice, white potatoes, pasta, rice and corn cereals, snack foods like chips and pretzels, and sugary or sweet foods.
For some people, avoiding wheat, eggs, and artificial colors and flavors, including sweeteners, makes a difference as well. This might be worth a try, at least for a few weeks.
Another factor in anti-inflammatory eating is how fast and how much you eat. The digestion and utilization of food creates a class of chemicals called free radicals, which can damage cells and increase inflammation. Normally, the body takes care of free radicals very quickly, using another class of chemicals called anti-oxidants. However, when you eat a large meal rapidly, you temporarily overwhelm your body’s ability to handle free radicals. Eating smaller amounts more slowly is a healthier pattern.
A hamburger from your local fast food take-out embodies pro-inflammatory: beef, a slice of highly processed cheese, pale lettuce, pale tomato, mayonnaise made from partially hydrogenated oils, salty ketchup, and a white roll loaded with preservatives, gulped down on the run, washed down with a sugary or artificially sweetened beverage. Instead, plan ahead for a colorful dish with fish or lean chicken, sautéed in a little olive oil, lots of fresh vegetables and brown rice, flavored with a little lemon juice and spices, eaten slowly and restfully, while sipping a glass of green tea or water. Your body and your brain will thank you.
For more information:
- Anti-inflammatory diet guidelines from University of Wisconsin Integrative Medicine and from Harvard Medical School and one more.
- Omega 3 vs omega 6
- Dr Weil on omega 3 vs omega 6
- Anti-inflammatory recipes from Healthline and Epicurious
At North Shore Pain Management we provide advanced, evidence based, multidisciplinary and cost effective pain management. Our goal is to improve your ability to return to the activities you have been missing as well as provide a meaningful reduction in pain.