The Smart Patient's Guide to
Chronic Pain Management

Got Pain? Here’s What to Eat to Help You Feel Better

Inflammation causes pain and healthier eating can reduce it. Following an anti-inflammatory diet can be an effective way to fight pain and even ease symptoms of some chronic conditions.

Medical professionals and researchers are trying to figure out the best ways to prevent and treat chronic pain. If your pain is due to inflammation, one thing is clear: what and how much you eat is an important piece of the puzzle.

Get to the Source

Many conditions are associated with inflammation, including injury or infection, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, pelvic inflammatory disorder, Crohn’s disease, colitis, atherosclerosis, diabetes, hepatitis, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, vasculitis, autoimmune disorders, some cancers, sinusitis, and chronic periodontitis. While some types of pain can only be relieved by medical treatments, chronic pain due to inflammation can be improved by following a healthier diet.1,2,3

“Good nutrition is an important part of wellbeing,” says Robert J. Gatchel, PhD, professor in the department of psychology, College of Science, at the University of Texas at Arlington.  “A reasonably healthy diet allows your body to better manage pain.”

Why Weight Matters

If you have back pain, joint pain, or any type of musculoskeletal pain, you know how much it hurts to pick up and carry something heavy. For the same reason, when you’re overweight you are carrying extra pounds that are putting excess weight on your muscles, bones, and joints. You have to pick up that extra weight when you try to get out of bed in the morning and you carry it with you throughout the entire day. Any existing pain from disease or damage to your body can only worsen with added weight.

If you are overweight, you are actually “overfat.” Although the connection is still unclear, studies suggest that people who carry excess fat, particularly in the abdominal area, are at higher risk of developing low-grade inflammation throughout their bodies. 4,5,6,7,8 That extra body fat plays a role in painful health problems such as fibromyalgia, chronic headaches, abdominal pain, pelvic pain, arthritis, and lower back pain.

Fatty Foods and Red Meat

Eating a high-fat diet activates cells that promote inflammation in your body’s fatty tissue. That inflammation contributes to obesity and medical conditions associated with being overweight, including insulin resistance, diabetes, and heart disease. Red meat, especially processed red meat—cold cuts, sausages, and bacon—is high in saturated fat and, when regularly consumed as part of a traditional American diet, has been linked to low-grade chronic inflammation. Meat is also high in protein and, long-term, too much protein can also increase inflammation in your body. One study from Viterbo University and Mayo Clinic found that vegetarians have significantly less inflammation in their fatty tissue, even when they are overweight or obese.9

How Seafood and Omega-3 Fats Can Help

Many of the studies linking omega-3 fatty acids—consumed from fatty fish like salmon and herring, fish oils, flaxseeds, and other sources—to the reduction of inflammation and chronic pain have involved patients with arthritis and cardiovascular heart disease. At least one study also found that even when inflammation was controlled by medication, omega-3s helped reduce residual pain that was due to factors other than inflammation.10 These findings led researchers to conclude that omega-3 fatty acids may be beneficial in the early stages of rheumatoid arthritis, before inflammation intensifies.

However, not all fatty acids are created equal—the ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids (from palm, soybean, rapeseed, and sunflower) also matters. A study of people with knee osteoarthritis whose diet was higher in omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats had more pain and more physical limitations than those who had a higher ratio of omega-3 fats to omega 6.11 This supports the theory that the balance of different fats in your diet from different sources is as important as the types and amount of fat you eat.

The Value of a Plant-Based Diet

Eating a plant-based diet may hold the key to fighting inflammation, obesity, and conditions that lead to painful chronic disease. A traditional Mediterranean-style diet, when used to replace a traditional American diet, has been shown to reduce markers of chronic inflammation as well as lowering the risk of developing or dying from chronic diseases associated with inflammation.3,9 To help reduce inflammation, increase fiber in your diet, and improve your overall health, substitute high-protein plant foods such as legumes, nuts, and whole grains (as long as you’re not sensitive or allergic to any of these foods) for some or all of the meat in your daily diet.

The Role of Medicinal Herbs and Spices

For centuries, practitioners of Chinese herbal medicine, Ayurvedic medicine, and other alternative and complementary forms of health care have long known the value of medical herbs and spices, including those that reduce pain and inflammation. More recently, scientists have confirmed the anti-inflammatory effects of herbs and spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, cayenne, sage, and rosemary and continue to study their role in fighting pain. For instance, compounds in ginger are particularly effective in the gastro-intestinal tract.12 Cinnamon has been shown to reduce the severity and duration of menstrual pain.13 Turmeric can reduce joint pain in rheumatoid arthritis, inhibit cancer cells, and slow the progression of diabetes-related disorders.14 Substances in rosemary have the potential to fight a variety of inflammatory diseases, bronchial asthma, peptic ulcer, and liver toxicity, and protect against cancer.15

Before Changing Your Diet, Check First

Some dietary changes may not be appropriate for some medical conditions. In order to get a sense of what is best for you, speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian before making any drastic changes. And since nutrients, herbs, and other substances in supplemental form can sometimes interfere with medical treatments, or cause problems of their own, it is also important to tell your health care providers what vitamins or supplements you are taking.

“To feel your best, your body needs to be in a state of homeostasis, or balance, when it comes to nutrition, exercise, and sleep,” Dr Gatchel asserts. “When that balance is off, there are going to be consequences in the form of symptoms.”

Updated on: 10/24/17
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