How to tackle chronic non-cancer pain using a functional nutrition approach
One of my very first nutrition clients was a friend of a friend looking for help to do a sugar detox. I hadn’t coached anyone through this type of thing before, but I came up with a detailed 1-month plan to reduce her sugar intake. Much to my delight, I soon had my first taste of the power of food as medicine, or in this case, the power of reducing food. Within a few days of cutting back on sugar, she was feeling less pain in her joints.
In this article, I’d like to share with you what I’ve since learned about relieving pain from a nutritional standpoint.
Before I go on though, I do want to mention that pain is generally a beneficial sensation. It helps to signal damage in the body so that we can go do something about it. However, it’s when pain persists beyond when the damage should have healed, that it becomes a problem. As anyone living with it can attest, chronic pain can negatively impact pretty much every aspect of life.
Step 1: Minimize sugars and high-glycemic foods (1)
I often do pain medication consultations in my job as a pharmacist on a family health team. The main purpose of these visits is to optimize and ideally, minimize the need for pain medicines, especially opioids. At first, patients don’t really get why I tell them to cut back on soda, since they see my role only as a prescription gatekeeper. So, I explain that there are foods that can increase overall inflammation in the body (2), which in turn makes pain persistently worse. One of these foods is sugar.
There is clear data to show that high-glycemic index foods such as sugar, sweets, juice, soda, and packaged crunchy carbs, cause oxidative stress and create low-grade chronic inflammation. (3) As a result, sweetened drinks are usually the first things I start with: cut back or cut out juice, sodas, or sugar added to coffee or tea. Desserts and sweets should ideally only be enjoyed occasionally.
Step 2: Minimize other inflammatory foods
This includes processed meats (e.g., bacon, hot dogs, sausages), fast foods, fried foods, shortening, trans fats, and industrial seed oils (e.g., canola, soy, corn, safflower, and sunflower oils). These should only be enjoyed once or twice a week, if at all. If using oils, choose less inflammatory oils like avocado, coconut, walnut, or olive oil, and ghee.
Some people may also have sensitivities to specific foods that could be triggering pain. You’ll want to work with a nutrition professional, since identifying these can sometimes be tricky.
Step 3: Eat foods rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids
Polyphenols: these are natural chemicals found in plants which protect against inflammation and can even activate the same pain-relieving pathways as certain pain medications. Polyphenols are what give plants their color. Focus on eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, teas, legumes, and other plant foods in a variety of colors to get the most benefit. Even dark chocolate contains polyphenols – just make sure it contains at least 70% cocoa.
Omega-3 (n-3) fatty acids: these are fats that support healthy cell membranes, particularly in the brain and nerves. They reduce inflammation and have been found to improve pain in many conditions including migraines, arthritis, and a variety of autoimmune diseases.(4) You can find omega-3 fats in cold-water fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts, and seeds (eg., flaxseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds).
Step 4: Feed a healthy gut microbiome by eating foods high in fiber and probiotics
The trillions of microbes living in your intestinal tract are responsible for creating compounds which also help to reduce inflammation and pain. Bacteria thrive on dietary fiber, so eat foods high in fiber such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. You can also directly ingest beneficial bacteria by consuming fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
Step 5: Supplement as needed
Pain can result from nutrient insufficiencies, including vitamins D, E, B1, B3, B6 and B12, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fats.(4) Check with your doctor or a nutritional professional to see if you might benefit from supplementation and how much to take.
There are also herbal supplements that might help to alleviate pain. These include turmeric, ginger, Devil’s claw, boswellia, and willow bark. Since these can have potential medication interactions, be sure to check with a health professional knowledgeable about these supplements before trying them.
Check this out!
I love this handy food pyramid by Rondanelli et al (2018) which visually outlines dietary strategies for managing chronic pain.
Has making dietary changes made a difference in your pain?
Be sure to let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear what works for you.
The information contained in this article is intended for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not to be construed as personalized nutritional advice nor intended to be a substitute for proper health and medical care. Please consult your physician or a qualified health care professional for support with your chronic pain.
Endnotes & References:
1. The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food causes a rise in blood sugar (on an empty stomach). It’s measured on a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being associated with pure glucose and causing a big spike in blood sugar. Higher GI foods include sweetened drinks and fruit juice, sweets, and white carbs (like pasta, white rice, white potatoes, white bread). More info here: https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/what-is-glycemic-index
2. Inflammation refers to the process by which the body fights and resolves injury, whether it be physical, infectious, or psychological. A classic example of the effect of inflammation is the redness, pain, and warmth of your skin at the site of a cut.
3. Rondanelli M, Faliva MA, Miccono A, et al. Food pyramid for subjects with chronic pain: foods and dietary constituents as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2018;31(1):131-151. doi:10.1017/S0954422417000270
4. Dragan S, Șerban MC, Damian G, Buleu F, Valcovici M, Christodorescu R. Dietary Patterns and Interventions to Alleviate Chronic Pain. Nutrients. 2020;12(9):2510. Published 2020 Aug 19. doi:10.3390/nu12092510