It’s been said, you are what you eat. That’s definitely true when it comes to chronic pain. Diet can have a real impact- good and bad. Chronic pain is frequently the result of chronic inflammation, and evidence strongly suggests that diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation plays a good guy/bad guy role in your health. When you’re injured or get infected, your body signals the immune system to send white blood cells to the affected areas to repair the injury or fight the infection. When the injury or infection is healed, inflammation should normally go away too. But sometimes your immune system is activated, and stays on, even after the crisis has passed. Over time, this can damage healthy cells and organs and cause constant pain in muscles, tissues and joints.
How does diet help?
Diet can help support your immune system by having it respond at the appropriate times. A poor diet can alter your immune system, causing it to respond abnormally, contributing to persistent low-grade inflammation.
In fact, some studies have found that the immune system reacts to an unhealthy diet in much the same way it would respond to a bacterial infection. How a healthy diet directly helps the immune system is not quite understood. However, some evidence suggests that deficiencies in various micronutrients – like zinc, selenium, iron, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E – may alter immune system function.
The strongest scientific evidence suggests foods rich in a group of antioxidants known as polyphenols can have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps soothe and prevent painful flare-ups. These foods include many of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, such as whole fruits (especially all types of berries), dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains.
Many of these also are rich in the micronutrients your immune system requires to function at a high level. Some research has suggested that omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in olive oil, flaxseed oil, and fatty fish (like salmon, sardines, and mackerel), also may help control inflammation.
Why is Protein Critical?
Our Own Internal 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 diet. 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 could 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, it’s doubtful most are eating enough. Just make sure it’s cleared with your healthcare provider first since some disease processes require protein restriction.
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.
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.
Protein Decreases Inflammation
Many foods that contain protein, such as fish and green vegetables, also have agents integral to decreasing inflammation. Aim for variety.
The best dietary approach to help your immune system, and thus help reduce chronic inflammation, is to cut out the bad inflammatory foods and adopt more of the good anti-inflammatory kinds.
Many of the bad foods are processed “junk” foods with low nutritional value, including soda and other foods that contain simple sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, processed meat, white bread, white pasta, and other foods high in refined carbohydrates.
Try to vary the assortment of anti-inflammatory foods so that you get many of the vital nutrients your immune system needs.
For example, break down your regular meals like this:
- Half your plate should be filled with whole grains like whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta, and brown rice, along with healthy proteins, such as fish, poultry, beans, and nuts.
- The other half should be vegetables and fruit.
- Always use healthy oils like olive and canola oils instead of butter or other flavorings.
Keep in mind that you have to make lasting change in order for your diet to work for you.
Diet is not a quick-fix pill, but it has tremendous potential to help manage and even prevent inflammation, which can then soothe and relieve chronic pain.