Aches and pains, whether they result indirectly from a condition like arthritis or cancer, or directly due to injury, can be destructive. However, research is beginning to discover the power of diet–such as Mediterranean-style eating patterns–to help manage pain.
Inflammation and Pain
When you injure yourself or get an infection, acute inflammation is your body’s natural defense response. Redness, swelling, and pain are the telltale signs as immune cells flood the area to target infectious organisms or push out debris from the site. But chronic inflammation occurs when the inflammatory process is triggered with no real threat at hand; this slow simmer of inflammation may underlie the pathogenesis of many diseases, such as cancer and arthritis–which cause pain.
Anti-inflammatory drugs have been used to treat pain and inflammation for more than 40 years, and now scientists are turning their attention to foods that can act as anti-inflammatory agents.
Diet and Inflammation
Studies show that your daily food choices can either reduce or increase levels of inflammation in your body. A 2006 review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that a dietary pattern high in refined starches, sugar, saturated fats and trans fats and low in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and omega-3 fatty acids increased inflammation.
Mediterranean diet patterns, characterized by high fruit, vegetable, whole grain, healthy plant fats, and fish intake and low intake of processed foods, refined grains, and red meat are linked with lower inflammation.
“Making poor food choices like high-fat, high-sodium foods, can increase inflammation levels in our bodies that can trigger flareups and cause further problems,” says Jessica Crandall, R.D., C.D.E., Wellness Director at Sodexo Health Care and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Chicago, Ill.
“Foods that contain high amounts of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, such as berries, beans, broccoli, spinach, kale, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, grapes and fish will help reduce inflammation throughout the body,” Crandall notes.
Meet Your Nutrient Needs
Beyond just taming inflammation, consuming a balanced diet with adequate intake of essential protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals and fluids should be your first goal in addressing pain. Many nutrient deficiencies present themselves with symptoms of pain, such as low levels of vitamin D manifesting with muscle and back pain.
Conversely, vitamin D supplementation can reduce levels of pain and magnesium supplementation helps treat migraines.
“Drinking inadequate amounts of fluids can cause additional joint pain and headaches,” Crandall adds. Water is used by your body as a natural lubricant around joints and as a shock absorber for your eyes, brain and spinal cord.
If you have sensitivity to a particular food, it can also cause pain, says Crandall. Food allergies are an abnormal immunologic response following the ingestion of a certain food, and food intolerances are an adverse reaction to a specific food produced by a non-immunologic mechanism. For example, both peanut allergies and red wine sensitivities can trigger painful symptoms, such as stomach cramps or headaches in some individuals.
A 2010 study published in Cephalagia found that a diet that restricted foods that produced an immunologic response significantly reduced migraines. If you suspect food sensitivities may be triggering your pain, you may want to keep a food diary to track symptoms and consult your health care provider to discuss testing for food allergies.
Foods That Fight Pain
While science supports the benefits of an overall anti-inflammatory diet–high in minimally processed plant foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, and spices–to reduce chronic inflammation, certain foods and supplements are linked with managing pain, including:
1. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and fish oil, produce arthritic pain-reducing effects equivalent to ibuprofen.
2. Green tea, rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, appears to reduce inflammation and pain in arthritis.
3. Pomegranate and cherries are both linked with reducing muscle soreness after intense physical activity.
4. Red grapes or wine, rich in the compound resveratrol, are associated with reducing pain.
5. Olive oil contains the compound oleocanthal, which possesses anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen.
6. Coffee has been shown to reduce muscle pain during and after exercise.
7. Curcumin, the anti-inflammatory spice that gives curry its golden hue, relieves pain in osteoarthritis, according to research.
8. Ginger has been linked with reducing pain associated with muscle injury after exercise.
9. Glucosamine and chondroitin, supplements often taken together, have shown improvements in pain related to osteoarthritis–although not all studies have found such benefits.
– Sharon Palmer R.D.
As a registered dietitian with 16 years of health care experience, she focuses on writing features covering health, wellness, nutrition, cooking, wine, restaurant reviews, and entertainment. Over 750 of Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications. Her recent book The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today can be ordered here.