Step 4: Taking control of your pain through diet
In these days of modern medicine, we seek out the newest pill or procedure to magically cure our ailments. Too frequently we fail to recognize our own abilities to affect our health and wellness. We all know that a healthy diet, moderate exercise and eliminating smoking lessen our risk of heart disease and cancer. Did you know these same lifestyle choices affect pain as well? Yes, the cheeseburger and fries you ate yesterday did contribute to the exacerbation of your pain that ruined your sleep last night.
Most people, including doctors, don’t recognize the connection between diet and pain. Although Eastern medicine nutritional strategies have not been rigorously tested by governmental agencies, many ancient anti-pain nutritional strategies have helped individuals for thousands of years. Several generic strategies can help individuals with all types of pain problems including headache, back pain, or arthritis. The following are nutritional strategies recommended by Dr. Dharma Singh Khalsa, author of The Pain Cure:
1. Eat foods or nutrients that relieve inflammation.
Eating too much fat, especially the wrong types of fat such as animal fat, promote inflammation in the body. This is especially troublesome for individuals with chronic pain who eat a typical American diet high in poor quality fats.
Let’s examine why eating the right types of fat can control inflammation and pain in the body. Inflammation is controlled by several chemicals in your body, the most important of which are called prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are made from the fats we eat. In regards to pain, there are “bad” prostaglandins that promote inflammation and “good” prostaglandins that turn off inflammation in the body. Therefore, eating the right types of fat can help control inflammation and pain.
EPA or eicosapentaenoic acid is a “good” type of fat that comes from cold water fish, such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel, and sardines. It is also found in whole flaxseed or flaxseed oil. Eating two to five servings of fish per week or adding EPA supplements of fish oils or flaxseed oil helps with any pain control regimen.
Two other types of fats that help relieve inflammation are alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and gamma-linolenic acid (GLA). ALA is found in vegetables, beans, fruits, and fish oils (salmon, tuna, and herring). It is also can be found in concentrated forms in flaxseed oil, canola, wheat-germ, and walnut oils. GLA is much rarer and can be found in borage oil, evening primrose oil, black currant oil, and hemp oil.
In addition to fats affecting inflammation in the body, several nutritional supplements are helpful with controlling inflammation as well. Turmeric, Boswellin, and Ginger are ancient botanicals that have been shown to reduce pain and inflammation in a similar manner to prescription anti-inflammatory medications.
Protein digesting enzymes including protease, bromelain, trypsin, lipase, pancreatin, and amylase have also shown been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Several controlled studies have shown that these protein digesting enzymes provide pain relief from arthritic conditions.
Several antioxidant vitamins may also play a role in the management of pain and inflammation. Although vitamins A, C, E, and the mineral selenium don’t directly reduce inflammation, they serve to protect tissues that are overrun by inflammation.
Avoid animal fats and common cooking oils such as corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and sesame oil. Also, you should avoid processed and prepared foods that contain these fats and oils. You should also eat nonfat dairy products, such as fat free cheese, yogurt, milk, and sour cream. Make sure to check the labels! For a person with chronic pain, eating these fats is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
2. Increase serotonin to raise your pain threshold
Serotonin, one of the brain’s calming neurotransmitters, plays a key role in an individual’s ability to control their pain experience. Raising serotonin has the following effects:
- Reduction of the pain promoting substance P. Substance P is secreted in your spinal column in response to pain signals from nerves and then carries pain signals to the brain. Serotonin decreases the release of substance P, thus helping to close pain gates.
- Blocks the perception of pain by modulating the intensity of pain signals within the brain.
- Improves mood, reduces fear, and relieves depression.
- Helps you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
You can raise serotonin levels by practicing relaxation techniques, eating foods rich in the amino acid tryptophan (poultry, halibut, eggs, peanuts, cheddar cheese), taking the supplement 5-HTP (or 5-hydroxy L-tryptophan), or taking antidepressant medications such as Prozac or Zoloft.
3. Promote a healthy nervous system
Most of us were amazed to see Lance Armstrong battle back from testicular cancer and win the Tour de France. How did he overcome almost insurmountable odds? Was it luck? Was it divine intervention?
One thing that is certain is that his focus and determination guided him through his comeback. His journey required incredible “brain power” to overcome many obstacles.
You too use brain power in order to battle your chronic pain. The more powerful your brain gets, the better it will fight your pain. Improving brain power is accomplished in a variety of ways including utilizing physical and mental exercise, natural and pharmaceutical medicines, decreasing stress, and with nutritional therapy. This section will focus on nutritional methods of boosting brain power.
You already know that eating a diet high in animal fat and cooking oils increases inflammation. Did you know that eating a high fat diet literally rots your brain? Eating too much dietary fat, loaded with free radicals, speeds up oxidation in brain cells, causing them to die off. Every time you lose brain cells, you lessen your ability to fight off pain.
In addition to speeding up oxidation in the brain, excess dietary fat can clog small blood vessels in the brain. Impaired blood circulation, in turn, reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients getting to the brain and lessens the brains ability to clear toxins. Eventually cell death occurs.
Eating a low fat, nutrient dense, balanced diet not only can boost mental energy, it can help you fight pain. Don’t eat empty calories of sugar and highly refined starches. You should eat foods that supply your brain and nervous system with the nutrients they need such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, high-protein soy protein products, nonfat dairy products, and a variety of beans. Those of you who are not vegetarians, should eat only small portions of meat and several servings of cold water fish (like salmon and tuna) every week.
In addition to wholesome diet, several supplemented nutrients may be helpful in keeping your brain and nerves healthy. Pain fighting nutrients include:
- Vitamin A (10,000-20,000 IU daily), antioxidant properties protect brain cells
- Vitamin B Complex (50-100 mg daily), most important vitamin for nerves
- Vitamin C (3,000-6,000 mg daily), antioxidant for brain, needed to make neurotransmitters
- Vitamin E (400-800 IU daily), antioxidant that help protect the brain
- Magnesium (200-300mg), important for nerve function, deficiencies in migraine sufferers and fibromyalgia
- Selenium (50-100 mcg), antioxidant that can help some to feel more relaxed.
4. Avoid classic dietary pitfalls:
- Allowing yourself to overeat.
Although eating may become one pleasure a pain sufferer can still enjoy, excessive eating may undermine your anti-pain program. Not only does overeating disturb your hormonal balance and disrupt blood sugar levels, it worsens pain by placing more stress on muscles and joints of the body.
- Allowing yourself to eat too little.
Under eating can starve your brain, nerves, and muscles of vital nutrients they need to fight pain. Eating too little can also trigger low blood sugar which can result in becoming more pain sensitive.
- Allowing yourself to eat foods that trigger allergies and food sensitivities.
Certain foods may trigger pain responses in an individual by increasing levels of inflammatory other hormone-like substances called prostaglandins. Milk and dairy products commonly provoke pain reactions in many individuals with chronic pain conditions. As mentioned earlier, too much fat whether from dairy, meat or common cooking oils can elevate levels of inflammatory substances in the body. Cured meats such as bacon, hot dogs, ham, bologna, and cold cuts have preservatives and a myriad of other chemicals that can trigger allergic reactions. If you suspect food allergies or sensitivities you may need to see a nutritional health care professional and begin an allergy elimination diet.
- Allowing yourself to eat foods that alter hormonal balance.
Hormones have a large impact on your thoughts, feelings, energy level, and perception of pain. The endocrine glands that have the most effect on your brain are your adrenal glands, your gonads, your pineal gland, and your pituitary. These glands produce the hormones adrenaline, cortisol, testosterone, estrogen, DHEA, and melatonin which affect your mind and mood. When you are healthy, they exist in a delicate balance.
After a period of illness, stress, and chronic pain, the balance is lost between your hormones resulting in depression, anxiety, lethargy, fatigue, diminished sex drive, and increased sensitivity to stress and pain.
Even though you may have chronic pain, you can still rebalance your hormones. The first step is to limit daily dietary fat. Eating too much fat stresses your liver, an important organ involved in maintaining you balance of hormones. Other foods which also stress the liver include sugar, chocolate, and alcohol.
To help promote liver heath, take abundant amounts of B vitamins and consider taking the herb milk thistle (or silymarin) 500mg-1000mg a day.
5. Stop Smoking
Several studies have linked smoking and a number of chronic pain conditions. A recent survey of 13,000 Britons found that smokers were significantly more likely to develop discomforting or disabling musculoskeletal pain than individuals that never smoked.
They found that, compared with those who had never smoked, current smokers had about a 50% higher incidence of reporting “pain in the past year preventing activity,” meaning pain so severe it precluded the individual from going to work or performing housework or hobby activities. Pain at all sites–lower back, shoulders, elbows, hands, neck and knees–was higher in smokers than non- smokers. What’s more, this association held even among respondents who had white-collar or other jobs that did not require heavy lifting or moving.
Why might smoking raise pain levels? Studies have suggested several explanations. First, the stimulant nicotine may affect the manner in which the brain processes sensory stimuli and heighten the perception of pain.
Second, smoking might cause damage to musculoskeletal tissues by reducing blood supply, raising clotting risks, or by reducing the flow of nutrients to muscles or joints.