Unhealthy Western Diet May be Linked to Pain

Take a long, hard look at what you’re putting into your mouth! What you eat could actually be causing your aches and pains.

Eating a healthy diet doesn’t just help you feel and look your best. A healthy diet also may help prevent you from being in pain, according to a recent study from the University of Alabama that found that individuals with chronic pain are more likely than others to experience prolonged health issues if they follow a less than stellar diet.

The study, published by University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher Robert Sorge, PhD, and his team, appeared online in the Journal of Pain in October.

For the study, researchers focused on the effects of the Total Western Diet (TWD). Foods in the TWD tend to be lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates as well as both saturated and monounsaturated fats.1

In the study, mice were given the TWD, which allowed researchers to examine both the physiological and the functional consequences of an unhealthy diet. The mice who ate the TWD demonstrated an increase in fat mass as well as a decrease in lean mass. And there were more ill effects. In the mice who consumed the TWD, the levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, which promote systemic inflammation, increased, as did levels of serum leptin, a hormone in the body that regulates long-term appetite as well as energy expenditure.2

"For 13 weeks on the commercially available TWD, based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, thresholds of TWD-fed mice significantly increased in both thermal and mechanical tests," the authors wrote. "Quantitative magnetic resonance imaging revealed a significant increase in fat mass with a concomitant decrease in lean mass in the TWD-fed mice. In addition, there were significant increases in levels of serum leptin and inflammatory cytokines."

Diet, Obesity, and Pain

As we know, a poor diet can predispose a person to obesity, and there’s a clear correlation between extra weight and pain, said Shaheda Quraishi, MD, attending physiatrist at North Shore-LIJ’s Cushing Neuroscience Institute in Manhasset, New York. "People who are overweight tend to eat a lot of processed foods," she said. "And these can contribute to being overweight."

Carrying around extra weight can put a lot of stress on the spine, she explained. In addition to back pain, being overweight may be related to fibromyalgia and other chronic pain syndromes.  

A poor diet could also increase the odds that an individual will develop pain, said David Seaman, DC, MS, DABCN, a Professor of Clinical Sciences at National University's Florida Campus in Pinellas Park, Florida. He described a poor diet as one that promotes inflammation. "In other words, a poor diet that [one that] is restricted in vegetation and heavily burdened by refined sugars, flours, and omega-6 oils that enhance inflammatory chemistry."

Pain is the result of inflammation, Dr. Seaman said, and inflammation occurs when a person consumes refined sugars, refined flour, and omega-6 oils. (Omega-6 oils come primarily from corn oil, soybean oil, safflower and sunfllower oil. Corn oil is found in everything from farm-raised fish to chickens to salad oil.)

And while a poor diet does not necessarily mean that one will develop chronic pain, over time it always increases inflammation in the body. "This in turn can lead to pain for some and to heart attacks in someone else," Dr. Seaman said. "It likely depends on one's genetic disposition."

 The takeaway message? "Avoid processed foods and stay away from refined sugar," Dr. Quraishi said. "Your goal should be to eat healthy, which is always a good idea for multiple reasons. There may be some relationship between maintaining a healthy diet and avoiding the development of a chronic pain syndrome."


Updated on: 02/26/16
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