Can we eat to relieve our pain?
Actually, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” More and more research is finding a connection between what we eat and how our bodies experience pain.
That’s why I was so thrilled to attend a lecture on how nutrition can help us manage our pain at the IPPS Conference in Chicago last month. The lecture titled “Nutritional Considerations in Treating Patients with Pain,” was delivered by the brilliant Dr. Geeta Maker-Clark.
The nutrition advice that Dr. Maker-Clark gave focused mainly on tackling the body’s inflammatory responses. For many chronic pain patients, inflammation plays a major role in their pain.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to acute injury, and chronic inflammation significantly contributes to persistent pain. At the cellular level, pro-inflammatory cytokines produced at the site of injury increase the sensitivity to pain. (“Cytokines” are proteins that interact with cells of the immune system to regulate the body’s response to disease and infection.)
The good news is that these pro-inflammatory cytokines can be reduced by proper diet. In fact, Dr. Maker-Clark is adamant that proper nutrition must be a part of our treatment for pain and is also an important part of the healing process.
So what sort of diet can help us manage our pain?
Well, the guidelines and rules of eating to help manage pain and promote healing or what I like to call an “anti-inflammatory diet” are not all complicated. In fact, there are only two basic rules of thumb to follow.
The first rule has to do with how quickly our bodies process sugar. You see, the slower your body processes sugar, the better it can tackle inflammation.
In fact, one important study found that inflammation markers were higher in women who ate foods with a high glycemic index. (The glycemic index is a measurement of how quickly your body can process the glucose or sugars in a food.) The study showed that pain tends to follow the glycemic index, meaning that foods that are higher on the index are associated with more inflammation and more pain.
Examples of foods that are high on the glycemic index include: white bread, potatoes, beer, cereal, and rice, white flour, and processed foods.
So foods that are lower on the glycemic index are a better choice for folks dealing with pain. And conversely, foods that are higher on the index are not a good choice for pain management.
A little tip: foods that are higher in fiber are going to be lower on the glycemic index, so better for anti-inflammatory purposes.
Rule number two focuses on essential fatty acids–specifically how we balance our intake of omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids.
Essential fatty acids are called “essential” because we can’t make them on our own, but must get them from our diet. It turns out that when it comes to essential fatty acids, it’s not a matter of more is better, but a matter of balance is the key.
Let me explain: Nutritionists believe that in the past, humans ate just as much omega-3s as omega-6s, but since the advent of the modern diet, there has been a huge shift in the ratio. And for optimal health, it’s important for us to get a balanced amount of omega-3s to omega-6s.
In our modern diet there are actually not many sources of omega-3s. The main source is the fat of cold water fish, other sources include walnuts and flaxseeds, olive oil, avocado, and enriched eggs.
On the flip side, our modern diet is full to overflowing with omega-6s. Omega-6s are found in seeds and nuts as well as the oils extracted from them. Most processed foods contain refined oils. On top of that, the majority of the protein we eat–even farmed fish–are fed grains. And not only are you what you eat, you are what you eat eats.
So because omega-3s are so hard to come by and omega-6s are all too easy to come by on the modern menu, there’s a huge imbalance between the omega-3s and omega-6s we eat.
Many researchers believe that it is this dietary imbalance that is behind the rise of such diseases as asthma, coronary heart disease, many forms of cancer, and the slew of autoimmunity and neurodegenerative diseases, all of which are believed to stem from inflammation in the body.
For our purposes, it is this imbalance that can cause problems when it comes to inflammation. That’s because, in general when it comes to inflammation, omega-6s and omega-3 have different effects. Omega-6s tend to increase inflammation (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because inflammation plays an important role in the body’s immune response), while omega-3s decrease inflammation.
For the purposes of following an anti-inflammatory diet, what you’re striving to do is to get a healthy ratio of omega-3s and omega-6s. The best way to do that in today’s Western diet is to make it a point to eat more foods with omega-3 fatty acids and less with omega-6 fatty acids. One tip that Dr. Maker-Clark gave for upping your intake of omega-3s is to buy eggs that are fortified with omega-3.
In addition to the two hard and fast rules Dr. Maker-Clark gave she also listed a handful of specific foods that, according to research, have anti-inflammatory properties.
Here are a few:
- Tart Cherry juice:
- Green Tea
- Red Wine
So to summarize, a solid anti-inflammatory diet consists of:
- Low glycemic index foods
- Limited amount of processed foods
- A reduction of hydrogenated fats
- Plenty of omega 3-rich foods
Other tips include:
- Less meat and dairy
- More fresh fruits and vegetables
- Fewer chemical additives
Not only will I be recommending Dr. Maker-Clark’s dietary tips to my patients, I’m going to be implementing a few of them into my own diet. If you would like more info on Dr. Maker-Clark’s pain management diet advice, just click here.
I hope this blog will get you thinking about the role nutrition can pay in managing your pain. This is an issue I plan to continue to cover, so I’ll keep you posted on any updates!
In the meantime, do any of you have any tried and true nutrition tips to share with our readers when it comes to eating to manage pain?
All my best,