Pain is a complex experience with multiple components, including those from the physical interpretation of sensory signals to the brains perceptions of the signals. Sensory signals are transmitted electrically and chemically throughout the body. The chemical nature of the body is significantly affected by our activities, including exercise, nutrition and diet. What we put into our bodies affects how we feel, including our perception of pain. Diet and nutrition can certainly impact pain.
In the most basic sense, obesity and being overweight can contribute to pain. Recent studies have shown that the extra fat of obesity is pro-inflammatory, causing the body to feel more pain. Extra weight also mechanically stresses all components of the body. The extra forces placed across them stresses the joints. The muscles, ligaments and tendons are forced to use extra power to move normal amounts. Often people in pain find that eating is one of few pleasurable activities, and then they eat more and move less.
Food can be broken down into two general categories: pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory groups. The pro-inflammatory foods and nutrients have the effect of promoting inflammation in the body directly or by how they are metabolized and broken down. The anti-inflammatory foods do the opposite and reduce inflammation in the body either directly or indirectly. Not surprisingly, eating a healthy diet tends to be high in anti-inflammatory compounds. Diets rich in pro-inflammatory compounds tend to be rich in things that are considered not so healthy.
Diets that are pro-inflammatory are very common in our culture. The foods typically have a high glycemic load, raise blood sugars, contain “empty” calories, are highly processed and contain red meat, fat and oils that are not healthy. The American diet is rich in refined grains, sweets, and sugar. Pasta, white rice, bread and potatoes are all mostly carbohydrates and just add to our glycemic load and produce inflammation. Topping it off, many processed foods contain sugar or corn syrup, which are just empty calories. Animal fat (and human fat) are high in omega-6 essential fatty acids, and these are broken down into pro-inflammatory compounds including arachidonic acid thromboxane and leukotrienes. Vegetable oils including sunflower, peanut and corn oil also are high in omega-6 fatty acid and tend to be pro-inflammatory.
Diets that tend to be healthier are rich in compounds that are anti-inflammatory in nature. Foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants and phytochemicals are anti-inflammatory. These include a variety of fruits and vegetables, spices and cold water fish. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, olive and canola oils and are anti-inflammatory. Healthy fish to eat include tuna, herring, salmon, cod and bluefish. Beans and lentils also provide high quality protein without bad fats. Some intake of omega-6 is necessary in the body, but controlling the amount and thus the amount of fatty red meat is essential.
Diets that have more fresh vegetables and fruits also tend to provide good sources for vitamins and minerals that act as antioxidants. Compounds that are antioxidants rid the body of free radicals that can lead to inflammation and breakdown of many structures like vessels and joints in the body. Vegetables and fruits also provide the body with phytochemicals, nutrients that protect cells, fight bacteria and help regulate the body’s hormones. Many spices and herbs also provide essential antioxidants and phytochemicals, and some even tend to mimic the actions of compounds like Ibuprofen.
Improving diet and nutrition can be a healthier way to control pain. What we eat can have a direct effect on our pain in many different ways. The typical American diet is rich in the compounds that promote obesity and inflammation. A dietitian can be extremely helpful in changing a person’s intake to change your health. It will take a bit of work, but eating better will help you lose weight and may decrease pain and inflammation in the body.
Thomas Cohn, MD
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