Chronic pain may never go away. But that doesn’t mean you can’t take steps to lessen its impact. Yes, you’re following your doctor’s treatment plan. And you’re working in regular, safe physical activity. But have you thought about changing your diet?
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“Diet is one of those things under our control that has a huge impact on our overall health,” says pain management specialist Teresa Dews, MD. “We know it’s one of the major influences on our health status — and that includes pain.”
How does inflammation affect pain?
Inflammation is part of our body’s natural defense mechanism against infection or tissue damage. It is also a major factor affecting our pain symptoms.
“Our bodies have ways to regulate the amount of inflammation and ways to resolve it as part of the healing process,” says Dr. Dews. “The type of inflammation depends on the cause.”
One type is obvious — the other, not so much:
- Acute inflammation. This is the kind of inflammation you’re used to seeing. It follows trauma, like twisting an ankle, and quickly brings swelling, sensitivity and redness to the injured area.
- Chronic inflammation. “Sometimes this is less obvious because it happens as acute inflammation improves, but does not completely resolve. Although outward signs may dissipate, the inflammatory processes are still active at the cellular and chemical levels,” she explains. How does this factor into how you feel pain? Your body releases protective chemicals during the inflammatory process that can also stimulate nerves — making them more sensitive to normal pain signals.
Do food sensitivities worsen pain?
Dr. Dews acknowledges that direct science hasn’t clearly proven that diet impacts pain — or that particular foods do or don’t cause inflammation and pain. “But steering away from certain types of food helps to reduce inflammation for some people,” she says.
Many of us have a friend or family member who feels better when they cut out certain foods. For example, if a family member is allergic to dairy, they’re sure to avoid milk products.
But if they have milder lactose intolerance, they may continue to eat cheese and other dairy foods. “If you have food sensitivities and consume those foods, it just adds fuel to the fire,” she says.
Which foods might lessen your pain?
A nutrient-poor diet will increase inflammation, Dr. Dews says. Although she doesn’t like to label particular foods as “good” or “bad,” she says you’ll feel better if you avoid trans fats entirely, and steer clear of foods with added vegetable oils or lots of added sugar, or that are highly processed.
In other words, enjoy a baked potato instead of a bag of potato chips. Satisfy your sweet cravings with fresh fruit rather than processed sweets.
“The body needs nutrition in order to build itself up,” she says. “If you’re eating a lot of nutrient-depleted foods, the body will do the best it can, but you’re more likely to have a medical condition associated with chronic pain.”
3 ways to tweak your diet
Dr. Dews says you can improve your diet without making major changes. Simply:
- Eat more whole foods.
- Increase your intake of in-season vegetables and fruits.
- Avoid products with a mile-long list of ingredients or too many ingredients you can’t pronounce.
A change in diet won’t necessarily end your chronic pain. But these small changes can help to lessen your symptoms.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed, and making a change is challenging,” she says. “But if you think about it, we’re fortunate to be able to make choices — and we should expect more from the food we bring home from the store.”