The month of March marks a time of change: There’s the coming of spring, the start of daylight saving time, and even a chance to change your luck on St. Patrick’s Day. But March is also National Nutrition Month® — which presents an opportunity to change your eating habits, too.
Turns out, paying attention to what you’re putting into your body isn’t simply good for your general health and well-being. Studies suggest that our diets can also help with chronic pain.
“A lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation,” says Dr. Fred Tabung, in a 2018 article from Harvard Health Publishing, “and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation. But your diet is also one of the best ways to reduce it.”
Several sources can help point you in the right direction when it comes to identifying foods that either promote or prevent inflammation. The Fit Institute of Chicago, for example, recommends avoiding red meat, refined carbohydrates (in most cases: products made with processed white flour), soda, and fried foods to aid in inflammation reduction. Harvard Women’s Health Watch agrees, and adds margarine to the mix.
Margarine (rather than butter) is on that list for a reason, as excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids (not to be confused with their cousins, omega-3 fatty acids), may also contribute to inflammation, according to The Arthritis Foundation. This means check the ingredients on your salad dressings, and moderate your intake of safflower, corn, grapeseed, peanut, sunflower, and vegetable oil. Mayonnaise may be a place where omega-6 fatty acids lurk, as well.
“To reduce levels of inflammation, aim for an overall healthy diet,” Harvard Health Publishing recommends. Several studies suggest the Mediterranean Diet, with its focus on plant-based foods and whole grains, but the Mayo Clinic also breaks down their advice fairly simply when they suggest “eat more plants” and “cut the processed stuff,” among their five “simple rules of thumb for anti-inflammatory eating.”
Anti-inflammatory eating doesn’t just help with chronic and arthritic pain, either. Several sources, including The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy and The Neuropathic Therapy Center at Loma Linda University Health suggest it can benefit those suffering from peripheral neuropathy, too.
Following the Mediterranean Diet and keeping omega-6 fatty acids low could also help with migraine headaches a 2020 study in Nutrients suggests, though the authors also encourage a willingness to experiment with solutions. Because of the more complex causes and contributing factors of migraines, one single diet plan may not be a fix-all. An elimination diet to identify more specific food triggers is recommended. Researchers also find ketogenic, modified Atkins, or an epigenetic diet may provide relief.
More reason to be flexible, and willing to experiment? The American Migraine Foundation says a variety of different foods may trigger migraine, including alcohol (especially red wine and beer), chocolate, aged cheese, cured meats, smoked fish, yeast extract, and artificial sweeteners. But even making sure you’re eating regularly is something the Foundation suggests may relieve this specific kind of pain.
While alcohol shows up as a specific potential trigger for migraine, it has a variety of dangers for those in chronic pain.
It may be tempting, for instance, to numb chronic pain with a cocktail or glass of wine, but the National Institute of Health warns that mixing alcohol with pain medications could cause dangerous problems. They also note that, as tolerance to alcohol’s effects develops, more alcohol is needed to reach the same analgesic effect. This can create alcohol dependence, and the consequential string of health risks associated with it, as listed by the CDC, including stroke, heart disease, and the risk of several cancers.
Keep in mind, whether you’re in chronic pain or not, alcohol is a well-established cancer-causing agent (among other health problems), and moderating your alcohol consumption is good practice for anyone concerned about their longevity.
Alcohol may be a clear thing to avoid, but advice about caffeine is a little less consistent. Though the American Migraine Foundation suggests limited caffeine might help treat migraine headaches (and acknowledges that caffeine is a common ingredient in many over-the-counter headache medicines), The Global Pain Initiative recommends caution with it: “Caffeine actively causes pain by decreasing the pain threshold and making the nervous system more alert to pain.”
Tracking your consumption of and sensitivity to caffeine (as well as other specific foods) in a food diary may be the best way to help you narrow down the cause of (or solution to) the pain that ails you in this regard.
Navigating the effects of chronic pain is complicated enough, without also having to sort out the best way to stock your fridge and pantry at the same time. Even when the relationship between what we eat and how we feel seems clear, the exact solutions aren’t always so easy to find. It’s why we recommend reaching out to a pain specialist for help crafting an individualized plan to address the whole experience of your chronic pain. Contact us any time to schedule an appointment and craft a comprehensive strategy (including what you eat) just for you.