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Foods for Pain Relief: How An Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Help Manage Chronic Pain Conditions
By Rosemary Black | Updated on August 7, 2020
Medically reviewed by Yili Huang, Do, DABA , Amy L. Drescher, PhD, RDN
Inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis, as well as fibromyalgia, wreak havoc on your joints – and a lot of this inflammation can stem from eating the wrong foods. Here’s how to rethink and reshape what you eat.
You’ve probably tried everything you can think of to manage your pain. You’ve taken medications, signed up for virtual yoga, and been on point with getting enough exercise. But have you ever taken a long, hard look at your diet?
If you’re eating foods that are considered “inflammatory,” such as fried foods, sugary foods, and processed foods, these could be the reason why you’re not feeling 100%. The good news? An anti-inflammatory diet may help reduce your pain.
“An anti-inflammatory diet is helpful for osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, fibromyalgia, and gout,” says Jessica Hehmeyer, MS, DC, LDN, CNS, owner of Well Empowered, a data-driven natural medicine consulting service.
When you eat inflammatory foods, your microbiome or gut becomes inflamed and starts sending signals to your central nervous system that can promote chronic pain. (Image: iStock: IG Photography)
The Microbiome: How Anti-Inflammatory Foods Reduce Pain
But how does what you eat affect chronic pain conditions? There is a good amount of scientific and anecdotal data behind nutrition and acute as well as chronic pain – and a healthy diet is part of nearly every chronic pain management program.
A 2019 study out of Europe found that flavonoids, for instance, which are found in red wine, berries, and green tea, are effective at reducing pain – with the key factor being reducing inflammation in the body. Strawberries, in particular, the researchers reported, were found to help with osteoarthritis-related knee pain.¹
In another study, an anti-inflammatory diet was deemed helpful in reducing pain levels in women who live with fibromyalgia.² And there are many more studies out there corroborating the association between diet and pain, including for rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
In fact, 75% of our immune system is housed in the gut³ and scientists are discovering that your microbiome may play an important role in pain sensation. The microbiome is the ecosystem in your gut that lines your large intestine; it contains all kinds of beneficial organisms that help your immune system.
When you eat inflammatory foods, your microbiome becomes inflamed and starts sending signals to your central nervous system (CNS) that can promote chronic pain, explains Yili Huang, DO, MBA, director of the Pain Management Center at Northwell Health’s Phelps Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, NY. In addition to pain, imbalances in the microbiome can also lead to cardiovascular disease and depression.⁴
However, an anti-inflammatory diet can help to combat those signals by both preventing and reducing pain, says Chris D’Adamo, PhD, MD, director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. “Chronic inflammation in the body signifies that there is generally a problem somewhere, and you can develop chronic inflammation from eating the wrong foods.”
What Foods Work to Fight Off Pain
If you’d like to follow an anti-inflammatory diet, there are many foods to choose from, including:
• leafy greens
• kefir or Greek yogurt
• fatty fish
• cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli
• nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains
• healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados
These foods provide important anti-inflammatory nutrients such as antioxidants, omega 3 fatty acids, polyphenols, prebiotics, and probiotics, says Amy A. Drescher, PhD, RDN, assistant professor of practice in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona.
Choose by Color
One way to switch food gears is to plan your meals around a rainbow of colors so that you will get plenty of antioxidants, which are found in richly colored fruits and vegetables. Dr. Drescher provides a few examples:
• Carotenoids reduce inflammation in the CNS – you can find these in yellow, orange, and red fruits and veggies like carrots, squash, tomatoes, cantaloupe, watermelon, and peaches.
• Flavonoids inhibit enzymes that promote inflammation – you can get these in a hefty scoop of berries, onions, cocoa, coffee, tea and in apples.
• Prebiotics and Probiotics_promote good bacteria in the microbiome –get a dose of these by eating fiber-rich foods such as yogurt and kefir and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and kimchee.
• Omega-3 fatty acids are known to reduce inflammation, particularly in people with rheumatoid arthritis and non-rheumatoid arthritis joint pain and stiffness – find them in oily fish such as salmon, herring, and mackerel). If fish isn’t your flavor, you can help your body naturally produce omega-3 fatty acids by consuming oil found in flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts, and in small amounts in some vegetables.
Looking for an overall solution? Many recommend the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates all of the known anti-inflammatory foods, including fresh vegetables and fruits. The Mediterranean diet also offers a natural balance of healthful fats from nuts, monounsaturated olive oil, and omega-3 fatty acid-rich seafood.
Research shows that switching from a typical American diet to a Mediterranean-style diet may help reduce chronic inflammation. Magnesium deficiency has been linked to systemic inflammation, and many Americans don’t get enough of this mineral, which is found in nuts, dark leafy greens, whole grains, beans, and yogurt.⁵⁻⁸
More on gut health. More on how to tweak your diet for rheumatoid arthritis specifically.
But Wait, How Can I Realistically Tweak My Diet?
It’s probably not as hard as you think. Start by cutting down on simple, refined carbohydrates such as sweets and sugary foods, and replace them with fiber-rich whole grains and fresh fruits, advises Dr. Drescher.
Rather than overhauling your entire shopping list, you can make small changes, like grabbing an apple with nut butter for an afternoon snack. “Gradually incorporate more fruits and veggies with your usual meals and begin experimenting with foods you are less familiar with to find some new favorites,” adds Dr. Drescher.
Consistency is also key. Try these tactics:
-When you cook, switch over to olive, avocado, or canola oil. Add ginger, turmeric, fresh herbs, and garlic to your spicing routine.
-Swap red meat for beans and lentils – if you don’t like to eat beans and legumes alone, toss in some corn, onion, avocado, and cilantro for bolder flavor.
-Try to eat fish twice a week.
-Incorporate nuts and nut butters into your breakfasts or snacks.
-Focus on plant-based foods rather than processed foods. For instance, have a fruit cup rather than a piece of cake for dessert.
• When you cook, switch over to olive, avocado, or canola oil. Add ginger, turmeric, fresh herbs, and garlic to your spicing routine.
• Swap red meat for beans and lentils – if you don’t like to eat beans and legumes alone, toss in some corn, onion, avocado, and cilantro for bolder flavor.
• Try to eat fish twice a week
• Incorporate nuts and nut butters into your breakfasts or snacks.
• Focus on plant-based foods rather than processed foods. For instance, have a fruit cup rather than a piece of cake for dessert.
Aim to reduce the amount of:
• Aim to reduce the amount of:
• sweets such as candy, ice cream, pastries, cakes, and cookies
• sweetened drinks, such as fruit drinks, shakes, lattes, energy drinks, and sodas
• refined grains such as pancakes, white breads, buns, crackers, white rice, and sweetened cereals
• trans and saturated fat sources such as fried foods, commercial baked goods, processed meats, full fat dairy products, and tropical oils
• ultra-processed foods that have a long list of additives, colors and preservatives such as: gelatin, instant noodles, cookies, chips, boxed cake mix, hot dogs, fast food burgers, and chicken nuggets.
Remember to keep portion size in mind, too. Dr. Huang suggests using a smaller plate for your meals and making sure that vegetables make up half the plate. (See a few recipe ideas below.)
If you drink alcohol, limit yourself to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men. “Beyond this amount, alcohol is no longer beneficial to health and promotes inflammation,” says Dr. Drescher. It can be fun to experiment with mocktails if or when you get a craving.
Be Sure to Run Your New Diet by Your Doctor
When it comes to making small changes in your diet, it’s not crucial to alert your healthcare provider but if you are going to redo your food regimen or add nutritional supplements, you should definitely run these modifications by your doctor, says Hehmeyer.
“Ideally, you should be working with an expert who has a specialty in nutrition and who can provide targeted guidance,” she says. “Consult with someone who is well-trained in supplements and be in communication with your prescribing physician to get their agreement that this is safe and appropriate.”
Monster Mash (Carrot & Onion Puree)
Ingredients (Makes 4 servings)
• ½ sweet onion, sliced into ¼-inch wide pieces and then cut in half lengthwise
• 1 fresh hot pepper of choice, optional, for heat if desired
• 4 whole cloves garlic, peeled
• 2 cups baby carrots
• Coconut oil for the pan
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon sea salt or pink Himalayan salt
• ¼ cup vegetable or chicken broth
• 1 tablespoon chopped or grated fresh ginger
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
1. Chop the onion and the hot pepper.
2. Peel the garlic.
3. Place the baby carrots, onion, garlic cloves, and hot pepper on a baking sheet lightly greased with coconut oil.
4. Lightly coat the vegetables with olive oil.
5. Season with cinnamon and salt.
6. Roast for 45 to 50 minutes, or until the onions are slightly browned and the carrots are fork-tender.
7. Transfer the vegetables to a pot; add broth and ginger.
8. Use a hand-held immersion blender, food processor, or blender to puree your Monster Mash.
Chocolate Chia Pudding
Ingredients (Makes 5 servings)
• ¼ ripe banana
• ¼ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
• 5 medium dates
• 1 (13.5-ounce) can light coconut milk
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
• 1 teaspoon 100% Stevia
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• ½ teaspoon sea salt
• ½ cup chia seeds
• Fresh berries for garnish, optional
Combine all ingredients except chia seeds and berries in blender. Blend until smooth. Stir in chia seeds. Pour into glass container, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving. Top with fresh berries for extra antioxidants. Store, tightly covered, for up to 1 week.
More Ways to Round Out Your Self-Care Plan
An anti-inflammatory diet is important to reducing joint and other types of pain, but other factors are at play as well when it comes to reducing inflammation.
Weight Loss Can Mean Pain Loss
If you are overweight or obese and have a chronic and degenerative disease, you can experience more pain than someone with the same condition who is a healthier weight. This is because inflammation is strongly linked to body fat and can cause or worsen the pain of chronic and degenerative diseases. Modifying your diet by adding anti-inflammatory foods is a more natural way to help reduce that pain. Another good goal is to avoid further weight gain if weight loss proves to be difficult.
Remember that exercise can counter inflammation in the body as well, says Dr. Drescher. “Exercise increases the relaxing brain chemicals such as endorphins and even gentle forms of yoga play a positive role in helping you feel less pain.”
Adds Hehmeyer, when you exercise, your blood vessels expand, which increases blood flow and clears out inflammation that causes pain.
Drinking plenty of water can help decrease inflammation. “Water is part of the cleansing process and it can be very helpful with inflammation…. It helps organs stressed by inflammatory conditions to function,” Dr. Drescher explains. “If a person has inflammation and they are dehydrated, this will impact organ function negatively and further stress the organ that’s already impacted by the inflammation.”
Check Your Mental Health
Mental health can play a major role in chronic pain, shares Dr. D’Adamo. “Conditions such as anxiety and depression have been associated with chronic pain, due to the persistent concern and rumination about pain that these conditions can cause,” he says. “Mind-body stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and yoga have been shown to help reduce chronic pain by inducing the relaxation response, deeper breathing, and therapeutic postures.”
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