Managing Pain with Food (Yes it’s possible!)
If asked to describe “pain,” most individuals would have varying definitions and experiences, and likely all valid.
We can experience pain in different areas of the body, in varying degrees, and for various reasons.
One common factor amongst different types and degrees of physical pain is inflammation. And when pain becomes chronic — it lasts longer than three months (1) — there is often underlying inflammation.
Inflammation is a Defense Mechanism that Helps the Body Heal
Inflammation is the body’s innate defense response. When the immune system recognizes a problem like damaged tissue or pathogens (foreign substances that can cause illness), it initiates an inflammatory response to help the body heal.
Inflammation is not inherently bad. In fact, it’s protective. For example, when you cut your finger, and you feel pain and start bleeding — that’s the inflammatory response. A similar process occurs when inflammation happens internally (although we don’t necessarily see or feel all of the symptoms). In most scenarios, inflammation is meant to occur quickly, do its job, and then subside.
When Inflammation is Prolonged, it becomes Chronic and Can Cause or Exacerbate Pain.
When healing doesn’t occur, and inflammation persists for a long time, it becomes chronic. This is especially common with internal inflammation. Although there may be no outward signs of chronic internal inflammation, it still negatively affects our overall health and can be a major driver of pain. And if pain is already present, any form of chronic inflammation — such as through stress or poor diet — can worsen it. When the body is inflamed, it releases chemicals that stimulate nerves, which make us much more sensitive to pain.
Depending on the Kinds of Foods You Eat, your Diet can Either Worsen or Reduce Inflammation
Many people aren’t aware of the critical role diet plays in inflammation, and therefore pain. Eating highly processed, calorie-dense, and nutrient-poor foods can start a vicious cycle. These foods can worsen inflammation and pain, which can negatively impact one’s energy, mood, motivation, and quality of life. It then becomes easier to choose foods out of convenience or comfort, and these are the same kinds of foods that cause inflammation in the first place. Chronic pain has also been found to lead to emotional and binge eating, which can then spur negative responses like guilt (2). On the other hand, sticking to real foods can help reduce and even eliminate inflammation and pain.
Highly Processed Foods, like Grains and Baked Goods, often Contribute to Inflammation
Research consistently shows that diets low in fresh vegetables and fruits and high in refined, processed foods (especially grains and desserts) contribute to a pro-inflammatory state in the body, which can make pain worse (3).
A good start to an anti-inflammatory diet is to remove all highly processed foods. That includes:
- Refined sugars
- Artificial sweeteners (like white sugar, corn syrup, and sucralose)
- Refined grain products (like white bread, pasta, and baked goods)
- Vegetable and seed oils (especially partially-hydrogenated forms like canola, corn, peanut, and soybean oil)
- Food colorings
If you come across an ingredient list with any of the above, or if the list is long and filled with words you can’t pronounce, it’s probably best to avoid that food.
An Elimination Diet can be Helpful in Figuring out Whether Certain Proteins, like Gluten, are Inflammatory for Your Body
The next step is eliminating — or at least reducing — intake of inflammatory proteins. These include:
- Gluten (found in wheat, barley, and rye)
- Casein (a main protein found in dairy)
These proteins are complex and difficult to digest. Unfortunately, they’re a major part of our food system because our bodies have likely been exposed to them since we began eating solid food. These proteins can lead to digestive distress and intestinal permeability, increasing the inflammatory response.
To find out if these proteins are causing your body digestive distress, try an elimination diet. Eliminate the above foods for 4-6 weeks and then reintroduce them, one at a time, to see how your body responds, and more specifically, how your pain levels vary.
Base Your Diet on Complete Proteins, Complex Carbohydrates, and Healthy, Natural Fats
The best diet for your body is a diet of real food. If that sounds simple, it’s because it is. The body needs nutrients for fuel and to maintain health. When you choose primarily whole foods, you support healthy gut function, which is directly connected to the immune system and the body’s inflammatory response, as well as balanced blood sugar, which translates to better energy and mood.
A whole foods diet includes:
- Complete protein from quality sources: poultry and eggs, meat, fish and seafood
- Complex carbohydrates: colorful vegetables and fruits as well as starches like brown rice, quinoa, oats, beans, and legumes
- Healthy, natural fats: nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, coconuts, and animal fats like grass-fed butter
Pair proteins with complex carbs — especially veggies — and healthy fats at each meal to get a variety of nutrients, vitamins, and minerals.
The Mediterranean Diet and the Paleo Diet have been Found to be Helpful in Fighting Inflammation
For those looking for a more structured approach, there are specific diets that have been found to fight inflammation. One is the Mediterranean Diet, which emphasizes the intake of monounsaturated fats, such as those in olive oil and nuts, whole grains, lean proteins like fish, and fresh vegetables and fruits. This way of eating has been shown to reduce inflammation markers in the body and increase physical function (4, 5).
The Paleo Diet is similar to the Mediterranean Diet, but it avoids all grains and dairy and instead promotes the intake of all fat sources — including saturated fat. Hundreds of thousands of people have adopted this way of eating to not only control pain and inflammation, but also manage symptoms of many other health conditions such as autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and digestive disorders. Research also shows that the Paleo Diet can reduce inflammation and levels of oxidative stress (6).
Studies have Shown that Specific Foods like Ginger and Turmeric, as well as Foods High in Omega 3 Fatty Acids, can Reduce Inflammation
Turmeric and ginger contain compounds in their roots that have anti-inflammatory properties, which is why these two powerful plant-based foods have been shown to reduce inflammation and pain (7, 8, 9)
Certain fats are also anti-inflammatory, particularly omega 3 fatty acids. These serve as building blocks of anti-inflammatory hormones in the body. Foods rich in omega 3 fats include wild fatty fish like salmon, tuna, and sardines, chia and flaxseeds, walnuts, grass-fed meat and butter, and pastured eggs.
A Diet of Whole, Nutrient-Rich Foods, as Well as Anti-Inflammatory Foods, have the Power to Decrease Inflammation and Therefore Help Mitigate Pain
Pain is a complex condition, but inflammation, especially chronic, often plays a significant role. Diet has immense power to either prolong inflammation, or decrease it, and therefore help with mitigating pain. A balanced, varied, whole foods diet rich in nutrients is a great place to begin, but experimentation with the elimination of certain pro-inflammatory foods can be even more helpful.
Following a specific diet such as the Mediterranean or Paleo Diet may be beneficial, as well as adding specific anti-inflammatory foods into the rotation and/or using supplements. If you’re experiencing chronic inflammation or pain, it’s best to work with a qualified healthcare provider to evaluate your pain, discuss dietary therapies, create a plan, and have someone to monitor any changes you make to improve your pain and ultimately, your life.
Consider Asking Your Healthcare Provider about Adding Supplements to Your Diet
Some nutritional and herbal supplements can also be helpful additions to a nutrient-dense diet aimed at managing inflammation and pain. These include curcumin, magnesium, glucosamine chondroitin, and fish oil.
Keep in mind that as their name suggests, these should be purely supplemental and should be consumed in addition to a well-balanced diet. Overall, working with a qualified professional is recommended when it comes to specific dietary changes, especially to manage pain. Research has shown that those with chronic pain who receive personalized dietary advice reduce their pain and improve their quality of life (10).
We highly recommend consulting with your doctor to help you navigate any changes to your diet or supplements.
SteadyMD pairs you with a doctor based on your diet, lifestyle and medical concerns, not just someone who happens to be local. Click here to take our 90 second quiz to get matched with a doctor based on your medical needs, dietary preferences and lifestyle.
This article was written by SteadyMD partner, Kim Perez, ia Certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner who practices an integrative approach to nutrition and wellness. She works as a nutritionist for Kettlebell Kitchen, a healthy meal delivery service. She is passionate about the health-promoting benefits of an individualized, whole foods-based diet. Kim specializes in women’s health, hormones, digestion, and stress. For more nutrition advice from Kim, check out Kettlebell Kitchen’s blog, The Leaderboard.
- Merskey, H. (Ed.). (1986). Classification of chronic pain: Descriptions of chronic pain syndromes and definitions of pain terms. Pain, Suppl 3, 226.
- Janke, E. Amy & Kozak, Andrea. (2012). “The More Pain I Have, the More I Want to Eat”: Obesity in the Context of Chronic Pain. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.). 20. 2027-34. 10.1038/oby.2012.39.
- Seaman, D. (2002). The diet-induced proinflammatory state: A cause of chronic pain and other degenerative diseases? Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics,25(3), 168-79.
- Chrysohoou, C., Panagiotakos, D., Pitsavos, C., Das, U., & Stefanadis, C. (2004). Adherence to the mediterranean diet attenuates inflammation and coagulation process in healthy adults. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 44(1), 152-8. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2004.03.039
- Sköldstam, L., Hagfors, L., & Johansson, G. (2003). An experimental study of a Mediterranean diet intervention for patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Annals of the rheumatic diseases, 62(3), 208–214. doi:10.1136/ard.62.3.208
- Whalen, K. A., McCullough, M. L., Flanders, W. D., Hartman, T. J., Judd, S., & Bostick, R. M. (2016). Paleolithic and Mediterranean Diet Pattern Scores Are Inversely Associated with Biomarkers of Inflammation and Oxidative Balance in Adults. The Journal of nutrition, 146(6), 1217–1226. doi:10.3945/jn.115.224048
- Brain, K., Burrows, T. L., Rollo, M. E., Hayes, C., Hodson, F. J., & Collins, C. E. (2019). The Effect of a Pilot Dietary Intervention on Pain Outcomes in Patients Attending a Tertiary Pain Service. Nutrients, 11(1), 181. doi:10.3390/nu11010181
- Funk, J., Frye, J., Oyarzo, J., Kuscuoglu, N., Wilson, J., McCaffrey, G., . . . Timmermann, B. (2006). Efficacy and mechanism of action of turmeric supplements in the treatment of experimental arthritis. Arthritis and Rheumatism, 54(11), 3452-64.
- Arshad, L., Haque, Md., A., Bukhari, N.A., S., and Jantan, I. (2017). An overview of structure-activity relationship studies of curcumin analogs as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents. Future Medicinal Chemistry, 9(6), 605-626.
- Terry, R., Posadzki, P., Watson, K., Ernst, E., (2011). The use of ginger (zingiber officinale) for the treatment of pain: A systematic review of clinical trials, Pain Medicine, 12(12),1808–1818.
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