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Is Your Chronic Pain Connected to What You Eat?

Looks like Hippocrates of Kos, the Greek physician, was on to something when he proclaimed, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

A study published in the Journal of Pain highlights the direct connection between a poor diet and chronic pain. The researchers can’t say for certain whether increased pain is caused by the extra weight itself, the crummy diet that leads to obesity, or both. But what we do know is that extra pounds force our backs, bones, joints, muscles, ligaments and soft tissues to carry a much heavier load than nature intended.

Almost 50 million American adults suffer from significant daily chronic pain. What many of these people have in common is a low-quality diet, one that’s high in calories, fat and sugar, and low in nutrition. This unhealthy eating pattern is commonly referred to as the “western diet.”

Not surprisingly, an autoimmunity series by Current Allergy and Asthma Reports identified the western diet as a “possible promoter” of inflammatory autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease, to name a couple.

How the Western Diet Is Hurting Us

I call it the Standard American Diet or SAD — think soda, breakfast cereals, pasta, packaged and fast foods,” said Dr. Sara Hopkins, a licensed acupuncturist and naturopathic doctor in Portland, Oregon.

“SAD is low in fiber, fruits and vegetables, and high in simple carbohydrates, saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids,” she added. “Increasingly, research supports the link between this type of diet and the release of chemicals in the body that create inflammation and increase pain signaling.” In other words, says Hopkins, when it comes to your health, you are what you eat. Does that mean you’re doomed to live a life of chronic pain if you’ve been a long-term consumer of the western diet? Not at all.

“Just as some foods promote inflammation, other foods reduce it and have far-reaching healing effects,” explained Hopkins. “A balanced diet — one that’s rich in whole foods, fruit, healthy fats and fiber — can not only reduce the pain from osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis, but can actually help prevent further degradation within the joints.”

That’s called a Mediterranean diet. Alison Massey, a Registered Dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator and Director of Diabetes Education at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland, is a big fan.

“Research suggests that certain foods can help control inflammation, and the health-eating plan that seems most beneficial is the Mediterranean diet,” said Massey.

“The Mediterranean diet includes plenty of fish, vegetables, fruit, olive oil, beans and legumes, and limits foods traditionally associated with inflammation, such as added sugars and desserts that contain saturated and trans fats.”

How to Shift to an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Adjusting your diet patterns is easier than you might think.

“I help patients shift from a pro-inflammatory western diet to an anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean-style diet with a technique I call ‘crowding out,'” explained Hopkins.

“Rather than focusing on foods to avoid, I emphasize increasing attention on healthy foods, with a specific goal of eating seven to ten servings of fruits and vegetables daily,” she added. “When your plate is full of brightly colored anti-inflammatory foods, there’s little room left for pain-inducing foods.”

Massey notes that grocery shopping, chopping and cooking healthy food can be especially challenging if you live with chronic pain. However, she emphasizes that healthy eating doesn’t need to be complicated or require a lot of preparation. “Take advantage of a local grocery delivery service, then prepare and freeze meals on days when you feel your best,” she explained. “Or purchase pre-sliced and chopped fruits and vegetables, or bulk-bin nuts, like walnuts, for a healthy snack.”

Hopkins also recommends spicing things up. “Our culture is accustomed to the richness and sweetness of high-fat, added-sugar convenience foods and some people complain that plant-based foods aren’t as satisfying,” she said. “This is especially a problem for older adults, whose senses of taste and smell may have declined with age. To offset this, take a cue from cultures that promote a liberal use of spices.

Spices like nutmeg, cinnamon and cumin are all loaded with bold flavor and anti-inflammatory nutrients.”

Hopkins is convinced that changing what you eat reduces pain. “Last year I started seeing a 65-year-old woman for support with weight loss, joint pain and depression,” she said. “She was taking over-the-counter pain relievers every day and worried about their long-term impact on her health.

“We applied the concept of ‘crowding out’ to increase her fruit and vegetable intake,” she added. “Six weeks later, she’d lost five pounds. On a one-to-ten pain scale, her pain reduced from seven to two, and she stopped taking pain medications all together. It’s empowering for patients to realize how much control they can have over their health through food.”

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