Can Chronic Pain Be Linked To Your Diet? |

Can Chronic Pain Be Linked To Your Diet?

You are probably familiar with the phrase: “You are what you eat.” But just how much of a role does nutrition play in chronic pain, and could changing your eating plan reduce the level of pain you feel?

It’s well known that a balanced diet provides essential vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients that are necessary for proper functioning. Your diet also can influence your energy levels, mood, and immune system. But it can even help manage chronic pain — which is physical pain that persists for longer than three months.

“Your diet actually has the power to help reduce systemic inflammation — a key component of chronic pain — and also influence chronic conditions like diabetes, blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, [and] even autoimmune conditions,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, a registered dietitian, owner of Ginger Hultin Nutrition, and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep.

In fact, research has shown that a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods can improve overall well-being, reduce stress and pain, and increase sleep quality. If you’re curious about which foods and specific diets can reduce chronic pain and what you can do for your own pain management, three registered dietitians share their best advice.

How Diet Influences Chronic Pain

Chronic pain affects roughly one in five adults in the United States. Research has shown that individuals with chronic pain have elevated cytokines, which are small proteins that are crucial in controlling the growth and activity of other immune system cells and blood cells. When these are elevated or high, your body has a stronger-than-normal immune response, which can lead to inflammation and pain.

What does all this have to do with your diet? Well, certain ingredients can increase or decrease pain, depending on whether they cause or prevent inflammation in the body, says Jordan Hill, MCD, RD, CSSD, the lead registered dietitian at Top Nutrition Coaching. Diets high in processed foods, sugar, trans fat, and excessive omega-6 fatty acids, for example, are more likely to promote inflammation and exacerbate pain, Hill explains. Chronic pain can also intensify if you’re consuming smoked and fried foods or eating foods you’re sensitive or allergic to.

On the other hand, staying well hydrated and consuming foods with anti-inflammatory properties, such as turmeric and fatty fish that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, can help reduce inflammation in the body, says Hill. And some studies have found that following a vegetarian, vegan, or Mediterranean diet can lead to a significant reduction in chronic pain symptoms.

“The foods we eat can also affect our perception of pain,” Hill says. “For example, certain foods may release endorphins, which are natural painkillers, while others can trigger pain receptors or worsen nerve-related pain. Other examples of the connection between diet and chronic pain include weight management, nutrient deficiencies, and food sensitivities or allergies. If we’re eating in excess over time, weight gain is possible, leading to stress on our joints,” she adds.

Dietary Changes for Managing Chronic Pain

While it’s best to avoid foods that are associated with inflammation, implementing those changes can be difficult. That’s why Kristen Carli, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and owner of Camelback Nutrition & Wellness, suggests starting slow and seeking out anti-inflammatory foods you enjoy.

“My personal favorite is the delicious and versatile avocado,” says Carli. “Including a variety of antioxidant-containing foods in your diet can help protect your cells and promote overall health. A diverse and balanced diet is the most effective way to benefit from the wide range of antioxidants found in different foods.”

Top Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Some of the top anti-inflammatory foods you may want to include in your diet include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Cherries
  • Broccoli
  • Red cabbage
  • Red bell peppers
  • Onions
  • Pomegranate
  • Kale
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Whole grains
  • Green tea
  • Fatty fish

You could also try an elimination diet. While dietitians advise that it should not be an immediate “go-to,” it can work for some. Hultin says that the process begins by assessing your diet and making minimal changes. From there, a dietitian will monitor your body’s response and create a personalized modified elimination diet. 

“[An elimination diet] requires an in-depth partnership and constant support from your registered dietitian,” Hutlin says, “but taking out a few specific foods we believe could be triggers for a set period of time can be quite effective at identifying foods that are causing problems. I would never recommend someone do it on their own without a personalized plan and support from a qualified healthcare provider.”

You also can boost your nutrient intake with vitamins and supplements. Some well-known supplements that may help chronic pain include vitamin Cvitamin Dcurcumin, and melatonin. It’s also possible that gingerturmericginseng, and omega 3s could be helpful too.

Make sure you talk with a healthcare provider before starting a supplement, though. You want to ensure it is right for you and will not interfere with any medications or supplements you are already taking.

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Lifestyle Modifications to Support Pain Management

While diet plays a key role in managing chronic pain, more and more research shows it’s a lifestyle-related disease as well. Exercise, sleep hygiene, and managing stress have all been shown to help alleviate pain.

For individuals with chronic pain caused by conditions like osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, or rheumatoid arthritis, specific exercises can improve joint function and reduce pain. Low-impact training like walking, biking, using an elliptical, or working out in a pool are all great ways to improve joint flexibility and strength by promoting blood flow — and can help alleviate pain and stiffness.

“It’s important to note that the type and intensity of exercise should be tailored to the individual and their specific chronic pain condition,” says Carli. “Before starting an exercise program — especially if you have chronic pain — it’s essential to consult with a healthcare provider, physical therapist, or pain specialist. They can help design an exercise plan that is safe and appropriate for your condition and can provide guidance on proper techniques and progression.”

You also should address sleep hygiene and keep stress levels low. Poor sleep can worsen pain perception as well as raise stress hormone levels. To combat this, maintain a proper sleep schedule, create a comfortable sleep environment, and practice good sleep hygiene. Doing so can complement dietary changes in managing chronic pain.

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“There also are pain management specialists, support groups, acupuncturists, physical or occupational therapists, sleep specialists, and counselors or mental health providers who can help with the stress that surrounds living with chronic pain,” says Hultin. “It truly is best to take a team-care approach to chronic pain.”

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