Could Your Diet Be Causing You Pain?

Maureen Robb's picture
By Maureen Robb on January 28, 2019

Did you know that what you eat can affect how much pain you feel?

It’s because many foods can increase inflammation in your body—and your chances of experiencing arthritic, joint or other pain. 

“Typically the cause of pain is some type of inflammation,” explained Troy Mueller, a registered dietitian at Carilion Clinic. “Any type of pain can be increased by foods that increase inflammation.”

Other factors related to your diet can also contribute to pain, like how much trunk and belly weight you have.

“Body fat is an endocrine organ that releases pro-inflammatory chemicals,” Mueller said. “Our overweight and obesity epidemic is increasing the inflammatory load in our population.”

Foods Linked to Inflammation

Which foods can increase inflammation? They include:

  • Fast foods
  • Processed meats (e.g., bologna, hot dogs, bacon, sausage)
  • Corn syrup
  • Refined carbohydrates
  • Trans fats (hydrogenated oils)
  • MSG
  • Artificial sweeteners
  • Refined sugar (e.g., soda, sweet tea)

Thankfully, there are other foods that can reduce the chance of inflammation, such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Raw nuts (e.g., almonds, macadamia nuts)
  • Seeds
  • Fish and shellfish
  • Healthy oils like extra-virgin olive oil
  • Avocados

Herbs and Spices

Herbs and spices can also play a role in preventing pain. Turmeric, for instance, has strong anti-inflammatory properties.

“Turmeric is almost as effective as over-the-counter pain medication,” Mueller said. “We encourage people to cook with it and to take a supplement.”

Other herbs and spices that can reduce inflammation are:

  • Ginger
  • Cinnamon
  • Rosemary
  • Oregano
  • Thyme

What else?

“Green tea has a mild anti-inflammatory impact, as do ground flax seed and omega-3 fatty acids,” Mueller said.

In addition, Mueller recommends vitamin D and magnesium as dietary supplements that can ease pain sensitivity.

“Most people are vitamin D deficient and don’t notice it, while our crop soils have been greatly depleted of magnesium,” he said.

Exercise Helps Too

Mueller’s work in nutritional pain prevention is part of a broader pain management program at Carilion that aims to reduce patient reliance on addictive opioid medications.

When Mueller works with patients, he also emphasizes the role of exercise in pain prevention. 

“Exercise reduces stress, and stress plays a role in pain,” he said. “Exercise is also the number one treatment for depression, which enhances your pain perception."

Patients are advised to combine cardiovascular exercise with some resistance training. Exercise in turn helps with weight loss for those who need it.

“It’s amazing what losing some weight and changing your diet can do,” said Mueller.

Sleep, including how much rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep you get, is yet another factor in managing pain.

“Sometimes we recommend melatonin to help you sleep,” Mueller said.

Carilion’s pain management program, launched last year, also uses non-traditional approaches to help lessen pain and pain perception. These include: acupuncture, art therapy, aroma therapy, relaxation techniques and psychology.

“Fifty-eight percent of people using this type of integrative therapy report a great deal of benefit,” said Mueller. “Eighty-one percent say it is at least helpful.”

Better Habits

So if you are trying to cope with pain—or prevent it in the first place—you might want to take a closer look at what you eat.

It is possible for French fry lovers to acquire a taste for healthier foods like fruits and vegetables! Many have.

You also don’t have to permanently abstain from fatty or sugary foods you crave. Just cutting back or allowing yourself to have them occasionally can help.   

The upshot? More and more people are recognizing that you become what you eat. You can be one of them too.

Carilion offers a free community meeting once a month to discuss the role of lifestyle in managing chronic pain. It also offers personalized lifestyle intervention plans (with referral from a physician). For more information on either program, call 540-224-5170.