A Diet for Patients With Chronic Pain

Patients with chronic pain need a high-protein-intake diet, with avoidance of carbohydrate-induced episodes of hypoglycemia and weight gain.
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Many serious conditions and diseases, including hyperlipidemia, obesity, congestive heart failure, and renal failure, have their own recommended diet. Considerable scientific information and clinical observation have accumulated in recent years that chronic pain, particularly the debilitating, severe form that requires opioid treatment, needs a “chronic pain” diet.1-6 To date, however, no chronic pain diet has been officially recommended. Therefore, the goal of this article is to provide pain practitioners with a pain diet.

The fundamental principle of the diet is that patients with chronic pain need a high-protein–intake diet with avoidance of carbohydrate (sugars and starches)-induced episodes of hypoglycemia and weight gain. It also is intended to promote strength, movement, energy, and mental function. The dietary supplements also recommended are intended to assist regeneration of tissue and prevent osteopenia and osteoporosis.

Background

Chronic, severe pain causes excess adrenal secretion of cortisol and catecholamine, which makes glucose serum levels unstable.7 Levels may vary from hyper- to hypoglycemia. Pituitary–adrenal exhaustion may occur if severe pain goes uncontrolled for an extended period of time. The net endocrine–nutrition effect of uncontrolled pain is loss of appetite, deficient protein intake, and food intake consisting almost solely of carbohydrates (sugars and starches). This catabolic state will manifest clinically as weight loss, muscle wasting, weakness, and poor mentation (see Table 1).

Table 1. Nutritional Effects of Uncontrolled Chronic Pain

Opioid treatment also has a profound effect on the endocrine–nutrition system, compounding the necessity of a pain diet.1-4 Patients on opioids commonly gain weight and prefer sweet foods (see Table 2). Weight gain may be profound, with some patients doubling their weight within a few years. Opioid use may cause blood sugar levels to be very unstable and may cause hypoglycemia.5-7 Opioids also cause a “sugar desire effect” on opioid receptors.8,9 Consequently, the combination of severe chronic pain and opioid treatment can cause deranged glucose metabolism in patients and a potent desire to ingest primarily sugars and starches, with little protein or fat intake.

Table 2. Opioid Effects on Nutritional Status

Patient Observations

Clinical observations of patients with chronic pain who require opioid treatment support the scientific research and the adverse effects of pain and opioids on the endocrine–nutrition systems.1-9 In order to evaluate a patient’s nutritional status, I use a 72-hour “Food and Drink Recall Diary” form with new patients with chronic pain (see Table 3). Over the 3-day period just prior to admission, new patients almost always report a gross deficiency of protein intake. Protein foods, defined here as food with more than 50% protein by weight, such as fish, beef, poultry, lamb, eggs, or cottage cheese, are rarely eaten. Green vegetables such as beans, broccoli, or brussels sprouts, which contain about 30% protein, also are conspicuously absent from their diet. About the only protein some patients ingest is milk.

Table 3. Food and Drink Recall Questionnaire

This recall form is highly recommended because it is not designed to calculate calories, but simply to determine if the patient with pain is eating any protein. Prior to good pain control, most patients report their appetites to be so poor that they seldom eat much of anything except sweets and some starches. Physical examination of these patients often shows loss of muscle mass with weakness, so much so that listing “malnutrition” is warranted as a secondary diagnosis in the patient’s chart.

It is highly suggested that pain practitioners take a dietary history for protein intake and examine the patient for muscle loss and weakness. Patients with pain may drink large amounts of sugar drinks and milk. Although milk is about one-third protein, the remaining two-thirds are about evenly divided between fats and carbohydrates.

Some patients with pain give a history that about 2 hours after eating a carbohydrate load, such as a doughnut, bagel, or glass of fruit juice, their pain will flare. Although I’ve never tested blood sugar levels during these reported flares, I highly suspect that hypoglycemia causes pain flares in some patients. A major element of the diet recommended here is stabilization of blood sugars.

Why Is Protein So Critical?

There are four sound, theoretical reasons why a chronic pain diet should be based on high-protein intake.

1. Endogenous Pain Relievers Are Protein Derivatives

In the intestine, all proteins break down into their component parts, which include about two dozen different amino acids. There are eight essential amino acids that the body cannot make, and therefore must be supplied through one’s diet. In alphabetical order, these are isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine. With adequate nutrition, the body can make the other amino acids, with the possible exception of carnitine. Amino acids enter the blood from the intestine and travel to locations in the liver, glands, and brain, where they are building blocks for compounds critical to pain relief. These include endorphin, dopamine, serotonin, and γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA). Insulin and thyroid hormones are derived from amino acids.

The universal complaint of weakness by patients with severe pain may have many causes, but a lack of protein has to be one of them. Even the receptors to which pain-modulating neurotransmitters (endorphin, serotonin, and GABA) attach are protein moieties. Although no one knows how much protein a patient with pain must take in to provide enough amino acid substrate for the production of these pain-controlling compounds, my dietary histories intuitively tell me it’s often not enough.

2. Protein Builds Muscle-Cartilage

A number of amino acids are required to build muscle. The amino acid proline is the major building block of collegen, essential for the development of cartilage and intervertebral discs.

3. Protein Activates Glucagon

Glucagon is secreted by the liver in response to protein ingestion. Glucagon increases blood glucose levels, and is the only hormone that blocks glucose storage as fat. Eating protein with every meal and every time sugar and starches are eaten will prevent a rapid rise in insulin, storage of any excess glucose as fat, and hypoglycemia that results in carbohydrate cravings and possible pain flares.

4. Protein Decreases Inflammation

Many foods that contain protein, such as fish and green vegetables, contain anti-inflammatory agents.

The Diet

The major dietary recommendation for patients with chronic pain is to eat protein foods with each meal and to not eat or drink carbohydrates without eating protein at the same time. To assist with dietary counseling, I provide a one-page handout (see Table 4). I recommend only diet drinks in an effort to restrict carbohydrates and prevent hypoglycemia and weight gain. Juice, milk, regular sodas, and energy drinks are prohibited, as they are loaded with carbohydrates and may lead to hypoglycemia.

Table 4. Diet for Patients With Chronic Pain

First published on: July 1, 2011