It’s been said that you are what you eat, and that’s definitely true when it comes to chronic pain.
Often, chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation and there’s clear evidence that diet contributes to increased systemic inflammation. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that diet is one of the best ways to reduce it.
Inflammation plays a good-guy/bad-guy role in our health. When injured or infected, our bodies signal the immune system to send white blood cells to the affected areas to repair the injury or fight the infection.
When the injury heals or the infection goes away, inflammation normally goes away too. Unfortunately, in some cases once the immune system gets turned on, it stays on long after the crisis has resolved.
Over time, this can damage healthy cells and organs, leading to constant pain in muscles, tissues, and joints. Chronic inflammation can also raise your risk for heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Chronic Inflammation Adds to Pain
Chronic, or systemic inflammation, differs from acute inflammation in that you cannot treat it with a bag of ice or an ace bandage. Signs of chronic inflammation are less obvious than acute inflammation, since it evolves over days to months.
This low-level inflammation contributes to the pathogenesis of the most fatal diseases in the United States, including heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and nephritis. Autoimmune diseases have their roots in chronic inflammation, and once triggered, they can linger undetected for years, even decades. Today, 50 million Americans live with an autoimmune condition, while many more are developing inflammation that can lead to autoimmunity. Inflammatory conditions also carry with them the added complications of pain, fatigue, and anxiety.
Diet and the Immune System
How does diet fit in to this process? Diet helps support the immune system so it can turn on and turn off at the appropriate times, but a poor diet can actually alter it, allowing it to act abnormally, creating a 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. Some evidence suggests that deficiencies in various micronutrients – like zinc, selenium, iron, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E – may be the culprits that 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. They are also rich in the micronutrients our immune system requires to function at a high level. 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.
Food is An Inflammation Fighter
There are many ways to conventionally treat and manage pain, such as pharmaceuticals, physical therapy, topicals, or nerve blocks. Effective as they can be, these are not long-term solutions. One of the most exciting ways to manage chronic pain is by adopting an anti-inflammatory or high fiber diet. This natural approach can often eliminate the unpleasant side effects of medications that cause sleepiness, a foggy brain, and memory loss. A high fiber diet can provide powerful therapy to decrease inflammation and control pain. Plus there are so many additional benefits that help manage weight, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Research shows that an anti-inflammatory high fiber diet can ease fibromyalgia and chronic pain symptoms. Rodent studies have shown diets high in sugar and fat, similar to the standard American diet, resulted in changes to neuronal signaling pathways that alter nociceptive responses to pain. This means that the animals eating the SAD diet were less tolerant to pain than those that were fed a healthier diet.
Types of Fiber
Our bodies need two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber mixes with water to form a gel, which slows digestion. It helps the body better absorb nutrients and may also lower total cholesterol and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. This type of fiber is found in foods like nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, oat bran and barley. Insoluble fiber helps our digestive system run more efficiently. It adds bulk to stool, which helps prevent constipation. You can get insoluble fiber from sources like vegetables, whole grains, legumes and wheat bran. But don’t substitute with a fiber supplement. They’re just giving you fiber, not the phytonutrients that can have anti-inflammatory effects in the body. It’s not just about eating foods that are high in fiber but one that also provide other nutrients.
The Link Between Fiber and Inflammation
A few studies have found that people who eat high fiber diets have lower C-reactive protein (CRP) levels in their blood. CRP is a marker of inflammation that’s been linked to diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), heart disease and diabetes. A fiber-rich diet may help reduce inflammation by lowering body weight. High-fiber foods also feed beneficial bacteria living in the gut, which then release substances that help lower levels of inflammation body-wide. Lower inflammation may have to do less with the fiber itself than with healthy plant chemicals called phytonutrients found in fiber-rich fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported 25-54 % lower CRP levels in people who not only ate a high-fiber diet, but who also lost weight and ate more healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. In another study, men who ate more fruits and vegetables, going from two servings to eight per day, lowered their CRP levels by one-third. The researchers say the drop was mainly due to eating foods rich in carotenoids- antioxidants that give carrots and oranges their bright color.
Maximizing Your Daily Fiber Intake
Just how much fiber do you need to get the maximum health benefit? Guidelines recommend 20 to 35 grams per day, including both soluble and insoluble fiber (most Americans get just 14 grams daily).
If you’ve been lax about fiber in the past, increase it gradually in your diet. Going straight from 0 to 35 grams a day could lead to uncomfortable symptoms like gas and bloating. And don’t forget to drink plenty of water, it helps the fiber work more effectively.
A small percentage of people need to watch the type of fiber-rich foods they eat. Gluten- a protein found in wheat and other grains- may actually set off inflammation. If gluten sensitivity is a concern, talk to your provider about getting tested for Celiac disease or a wheat allergy and switch to other high-fiber foods instead.
Aim For Variety
The best dietary approach to help our immune systems function better, and help reduce chronic inflammation, is to cut out the bad inflammatory foods and adopt a high fiber/anti-inflammatory one.
Many of the bad foods are processed “junk” foods with low nutritional value, including soda and those that contain simple sugars like high-fructose corn syrup, processed meat, and white bread, white pasta, and other foods high in refined carbohydrates.
- 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 mostly vegetables along with some fruit.
- Always use healthy oils like olive and canola oils instead of butter or other flavorings.
Diet is not a quick-fix, but over time it has incredible potential to help manage and even prevent inflammation, which can be a life saver for those of us suffering from chronic pain.