Can Food Be Medicine? Understanding How Your Diet Impacts Your Pain

Table of contents

Can Food Be Medicine? Understanding How Your Diet Impacts Your Pain

What’s the best diet for chronic pain? Well… I wish I could provide you with a fail-safe plan but current research on chronic pain and fibromyalgia does not recommend one specific diet at this time1.

What we do know is that what you eat can make a difference. In this article, we explore foods that are good for reducing chronic pain and those that are likely to be dialing it up. But remember: as with most of this pain stuff, everyone is different, so consult your healthcare team before making any significant changes to your diet.

This article is based on my years as a registered dietitian nutritionist as well as my own experience of nutrition therapy in managing my chronic pain, brain fog, and gut symptoms. While my health is not perfectly managed every day, nor am I a “perfect” dietitian all the time (a girl’s gotta have ice cream once in a while), I do notice the dramatic difference in my symptoms when I stick to what foods make me feel best.

No one really tells you why you should eat, do they? As a baby, food is gratefully shoveled into your awaiting open mouth and it just becomes a thing you do three (or more!) times a day. It's rarely even questioned until you are older and have the ability to make independent choices. Or until a health condition makes you wonder if food is the culprit.

Nutrition is all about how our bodies obtain and use nutrients. Whether they come from the chicken dinner you had the other night or that zesty orange juice in the morning, think of nutrients as the VIP guest at your body’s daily party. They’re the ones giving you energy, supporting digestion, promoting growth and healing, and boosting your immune system.

Getting a variety of nutrients is essential for maintaining health, preventing diseases, and promoting overall wellbeing, and can also be a key player in helping to manage symptoms.

Can changing my diet help ease my pain and symptoms?

Yes! There are a few ways that what you eat can help with pain and we will focus on two of the big ones – inflammation and mood. Let's delve a little into each one separately.

How does lowering inflammation reduce pain?

The anti-inflammatory diet is not just another fad. It's rooted in science and can help with not only pain, but a number of other chronic conditions2. This diet focuses on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods that possess anti-inflammatory properties, and avoiding foods that trigger inflammation.

Inflammation regulates the sensitivity of our nerves, healing and other processes related to the health of our body’s tissues. And there are two main types: acute and chronic.

Acute inflammation is your body’s short-term superhero response when there is injury or infection. Cut your finger? Boom! Your body dispatches a squad of white blood cells to the scene to protect you.

But, chronic inflammation can last for years and continue to activate, even when there’s no apparent injury or threat to fight off.

Most people living with chronic pain have chronic low-grade inflammation. It can be triggered by a number of factors including excess body fat, poor diet, low activity levels, chronic stress, exposure to environmental toxins, and certain underlying health conditions, such as fibromyalgia. And when our inflammation processes are out of whack, our physical health is impacted and it can lead to an increase in pain and pain-related conditions such as fibromyalgia3.

This can be a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Because chronic inflammation over time can lead to various health issues including chronic pain. Either way, managing and reducing inflammation through healthy lifestyle choices and balanced nutrition, can help decrease or even stop the negative effects of this chronic inflammatory state4.

What are the best foods for lower inflammation?

1. Fruits and veggies! Ever notice how berries, tomatoes, and leafy greens are bursting with color? That's nature's way of saying, "I'm full of good stuff!"

Eat a variety of fruits and veggies covering all the colors of the rainbow to get a bigger variety of nutrients. Naturally colorful foods with interesting flavor profiles are the ones that are most anti-inflammatory. So bring on the beets baby! As a plus, these foods are also the most nutrient-dense for the lowest concentration of calories making them a win for weight control.

2. Protein and fats. Think lean and clean. Fish, poultry, beans, and lentils are your go-to. And don’t shy away from healthy fats such as avocado, salmon, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Not only are they delicious, but they are also packed with omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation and promote heart health.

3. Go whole grain! Ditch the white bread for some hearty quinoa or oats. Whole grains are a great source of fiber and vitamins, plus they keep our blood sugar in check, therefore reducing inflammation caused by spikes and crashes in glucose levels.

And a bonus tip: If you’re looking for some guilt free treats that are packed with anti-inflammatory properties, grab some dark chocolate, or carob if you want a caffeine-free alternative.

Gluten, Alcohol, Red Meat - should these be avoided to reduce symptoms?

  • Red meat, processed meat, and organ meat
  • Refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta
  • Sugars, like many desserts and candies
  • Sweetened beverages, like soft drinks and sports drinks
  • Fried and overly processed foods

Food like these may reduce the body’s anti-inflammatory defenses and lead to an increase of symptoms. Some of these foods are considered pro-inflammatory and can lead to tissue inflammation.

What foods are included in an anti-inflammatory diet?

The illustrations compares foods that fight inflammation and those that cause inflammation and are avoided in an anti-inflammatory diet. More details are int he text above.e
The foods that help fight inflammation and the foods that cause inflammation as a part of an anti-inflammatory diet

What are the best foods for improving my mood?

Ever noticed how your mood changes after eating something? In addition to sometimes sparking a nice memory and sense of comfort or culture, what happens in our gut can affect our mental health. So, making changes in our diet is important for our bodies and our minds, and what benefits one is likely to help the other.

Luckily the anti-inflammatory diet can be helpful here too. Eating fruit and vegetables (and a moderate amount of fish) has been shown to improve mental health5.

To help with mood, foods that help restore gut health, such as probiotics are recommended. Think of probiotics as the MVP (most valuable players!) of Team Tummy. They're champions made up of friendly bacteria and yeasts, always ready to defend the home turf against sneaky invaders. Together, they master the art of digestion, break down our meals into powerhouse nutrients, and even rally our body's defense squad – the immune system.

Examples of probiotic foods are:

  • yoghurts that say “contains live active cultures” on the label
  • fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir.

While I'm in favor of eating a balanced diet over taking supplements, there are probiotic supplements available and these can definitely help some people. However, they’re not always good for people with severely compromised immune systems, on certain medications, or who just had surgery – so make sure you chat with your doctor or pharmacist and find an option that’s a good fit for you.

Now, what keeps these probiotics strong? That's where prebiotics come in. They provide the essential food that the probiotics need to carry out their activities effectively.

Prebiotics are a type of fiber our bodies can’t digest and are found in foods including garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, whole grains, bananas, greens, soybeans and artichokes.

If you have a digestive issue such as irritable bowel syndrome, or an intolerance to some of these foods, they may increase your symptoms, so again, please take care and seek support from a qualified clinician regarding your dietary needs.

And always make sure to drink enough fluids to stay well hydrated. Good hydration is so important for our minds and bodies.

What foods should I avoid that impact my mood?

Processed foods, food additives, added sugar, and fried foods can have a negative impact on mental health, and aim to minimize the foods that you cannot tolerate well.

And finally…

Certain restrictive diets, such as low calorie and raw vegan diets, can put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies. So work closely with a professional if you want to experiment. Restrictive diets are not easy to continue long term, which means any benefits you experience will be temporary too.

The best approach is one that you can live with, using small healthy changes that then become your lifestyle. These small changes grow over time and will stick around for the long term.

We are soon to release a new program focusing specifically on diet for pain which will cover all of these topics in detail as well as delving into some of the more complicated diet approaches such as elimination and low FODMAP diets. For more information, get in touch with us today at hello@moregooddays.com.

Food and diets are often a topic that comes up in our ‘Living well with Fibromyalgia’ Facebook Community so feel free to join us there to hear from people about what's been working for them.

  1. Maddox, E.K., Massoni, S.C., Hoffart, C.M. & Takata Y. (2023) Dietary Effects on Pain Symptoms in Patients with Fibromyalgia Syndrome: Systematic Review and Future Directions. Nutrients. 2023 Jan 31;15(3):716.
  2. Sala-Climent, M., López de Coca, T., Guerrero, M.D., Muñoz, F.J., López-Ruíz, M.A., Moreno, L., Alacreu, M. & Dea-Ayuela, M.A. (2023) The effect of an anti-inflammatory diet on chronic pain: a pilot study. Frontiers in Nutrition 10.    
  3. Ji, R.R., Nackley, A., Huh, Y., Terrando, N. & Maixner, W. (2018) Neuroinflammation and Central Sensitization in Chronic and Widespread Pain. Anesthesiology. Aug;129(2):343-366.
  4. Kaushik, A.S., Strath, L.J. & Sorge, R.E. (2020) Dietary Interventions for Treatment of Chronic Pain: Oxidative Stress and Inflammation. Pain Ther. 2020 Dec;9(2):487-498.
  5. Ruiz-Cabello, P., Soriano-Maldonado, A., Delgado-Fernandez, M., Alvarez-Gallardo, I.C., Segura-Jimenez, V., Estevez-Lopez, F., Camiletti-Moirón, D. & Aparicio, V.A. (2017) Association of Dietary Habits with Psychosocial Outcomes in Women with Fibromyalgia: The al-Ándalus Project. J Acad Nutr Diet. Mar;117(3):pgs 422-432.e1.

Can Food Be Medicine? Understanding How Your Diet Impacts Your Pain

Table of contents

Can Food Be Medicine? Understanding How Your Diet Impacts Your Pain

What’s the best diet for chronic pain? Well… I wish I could provide you with a fail-safe plan but current research on chronic pain and fibromyalgia does not recommend one specific diet at this time1.

What we do know is that what you eat can make a difference. In this article, we explore foods that are good for reducing chronic pain and those that are likely to be dialing it up. But remember: as with most of this pain stuff, everyone is different, so consult your healthcare team before making any significant changes to your diet.

This article is based on my years as a registered dietitian nutritionist as well as my own experience of nutrition therapy in managing my chronic pain, brain fog, and gut symptoms. While my health is not perfectly managed every day, nor am I a “perfect” dietitian all the time (a girl’s gotta have ice cream once in a while), I do notice the dramatic difference in my symptoms when I stick to what foods make me feel best.

No one really tells you why you should eat, do they? As a baby, food is gratefully shoveled into your awaiting open mouth and it just becomes a thing you do three (or more!) times a day. It's rarely even questioned until you are older and have the ability to make independent choices. Or until a health condition makes you wonder if food is the culprit.

Nutrition is all about how our bodies obtain and use nutrients. Whether they come from the chicken dinner you had the other night or that zesty orange juice in the morning, think of nutrients as the VIP guest at your body’s daily party. They’re the ones giving you energy, supporting digestion, promoting growth and healing, and boosting your immune system.

Getting a variety of nutrients is essential for maintaining health, preventing diseases, and promoting overall wellbeing, and can also be a key player in helping to manage symptoms.

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Can changing my diet help ease my pain and symptoms?

Yes! There are a few ways that what you eat can help with pain and we will focus on two of the big ones – inflammation and mood. Let's delve a little into each one separately.

How does lowering inflammation reduce pain?

The anti-inflammatory diet is not just another fad. It's rooted in science and can help with not only pain, but a number of other chronic conditions2. This diet focuses on eating whole, nutrient-dense foods that possess anti-inflammatory properties, and avoiding foods that trigger inflammation.

Inflammation regulates the sensitivity of our nerves, healing and other processes related to the health of our body’s tissues. And there are two main types: acute and chronic.

Acute inflammation is your body’s short-term superhero response when there is injury or infection. Cut your finger? Boom! Your body dispatches a squad of white blood cells to the scene to protect you.

But, chronic inflammation can last for years and continue to activate, even when there’s no apparent injury or threat to fight off.

Most people living with chronic pain have chronic low-grade inflammation. It can be triggered by a number of factors including excess body fat, poor diet, low activity levels, chronic stress, exposure to environmental toxins, and certain underlying health conditions, such as fibromyalgia. And when our inflammation processes are out of whack, our physical health is impacted and it can lead to an increase in pain and pain-related conditions such as fibromyalgia3.

This can be a case of which came first, the chicken or the egg? Because chronic inflammation over time can lead to various health issues including chronic pain. Either way, managing and reducing inflammation through healthy lifestyle choices and balanced nutrition, can help decrease or even stop the negative effects of this chronic inflammatory state4.

What are the best foods for lower inflammation?

1. Fruits and veggies! Ever notice how berries, tomatoes, and leafy greens are bursting with color? That's nature's way of saying, "I'm full of good stuff!"

Eat a variety of fruits and veggies covering all the colors of the rainbow to get a bigger variety of nutrients. Naturally colorful foods with interesting flavor profiles are the ones that are most anti-inflammatory. So bring on the beets baby! As a plus, these foods are also the most nutrient-dense for the lowest concentration of calories making them a win for weight control.

2. Protein and fats. Think lean and clean. Fish, poultry, beans, and lentils are your go-to. And don’t shy away from healthy fats such as avocado, salmon, olive oil, nuts and seeds. Not only are they delicious, but they are also packed with omega-3 fatty acids that reduce inflammation and promote heart health.

3. Go whole grain! Ditch the white bread for some hearty quinoa or oats. Whole grains are a great source of fiber and vitamins, plus they keep our blood sugar in check, therefore reducing inflammation caused by spikes and crashes in glucose levels.

And a bonus tip: If you’re looking for some guilt free treats that are packed with anti-inflammatory properties, grab some dark chocolate, or carob if you want a caffeine-free alternative.

Gluten, Alcohol, Red Meat - should these be avoided to reduce symptoms?

  • Red meat, processed meat, and organ meat
  • Refined grains, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta
  • Sugars, like many desserts and candies
  • Sweetened beverages, like soft drinks and sports drinks
  • Fried and overly processed foods

Food like these may reduce the body’s anti-inflammatory defenses and lead to an increase of symptoms. Some of these foods are considered pro-inflammatory and can lead to tissue inflammation.

What foods are included in an anti-inflammatory diet?

The illustrations compares foods that fight inflammation and those that cause inflammation and are avoided in an anti-inflammatory diet. More details are int he text above.e
The foods that help fight inflammation and the foods that cause inflammation as a part of an anti-inflammatory diet

What are the best foods for improving my mood?

Ever noticed how your mood changes after eating something? In addition to sometimes sparking a nice memory and sense of comfort or culture, what happens in our gut can affect our mental health. So, making changes in our diet is important for our bodies and our minds, and what benefits one is likely to help the other.

Luckily the anti-inflammatory diet can be helpful here too. Eating fruit and vegetables (and a moderate amount of fish) has been shown to improve mental health5.

To help with mood, foods that help restore gut health, such as probiotics are recommended. Think of probiotics as the MVP (most valuable players!) of Team Tummy. They're champions made up of friendly bacteria and yeasts, always ready to defend the home turf against sneaky invaders. Together, they master the art of digestion, break down our meals into powerhouse nutrients, and even rally our body's defense squad – the immune system.

Examples of probiotic foods are:

  • yoghurts that say “contains live active cultures” on the label
  • fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir.

While I'm in favor of eating a balanced diet over taking supplements, there are probiotic supplements available and these can definitely help some people. However, they’re not always good for people with severely compromised immune systems, on certain medications, or who just had surgery – so make sure you chat with your doctor or pharmacist and find an option that’s a good fit for you.

Now, what keeps these probiotics strong? That's where prebiotics come in. They provide the essential food that the probiotics need to carry out their activities effectively.

Prebiotics are a type of fiber our bodies can’t digest and are found in foods including garlic, onions, asparagus, bananas, whole grains, bananas, greens, soybeans and artichokes.

If you have a digestive issue such as irritable bowel syndrome, or an intolerance to some of these foods, they may increase your symptoms, so again, please take care and seek support from a qualified clinician regarding your dietary needs.

And always make sure to drink enough fluids to stay well hydrated. Good hydration is so important for our minds and bodies.

What foods should I avoid that impact my mood?

Processed foods, food additives, added sugar, and fried foods can have a negative impact on mental health, and aim to minimize the foods that you cannot tolerate well.

And finally…

Certain restrictive diets, such as low calorie and raw vegan diets, can put you at risk for nutrient deficiencies. So work closely with a professional if you want to experiment. Restrictive diets are not easy to continue long term, which means any benefits you experience will be temporary too.

The best approach is one that you can live with, using small healthy changes that then become your lifestyle. These small changes grow over time and will stick around for the long term.

We are soon to release a new program focusing specifically on diet for pain which will cover all of these topics in detail as well as delving into some of the more complicated diet approaches such as elimination and low FODMAP diets. For more information, get in touch with us today at hello@moregooddays.com.

Food and diets are often a topic that comes up in our ‘Living well with Fibromyalgia’ Facebook Community so feel free to join us there to hear from people about what's been working for them.