More than 2,000 years ago Hippocrates said, ‚ÄúLet food be thy medicine and let medicine be thy food.‚ÄĚ¬† This idea has never been more important than today.¬† This is because of the growing pain medication crisis we have in our country.¬† Millions of Americans are addicted to prescription pain medication.¬† A more holistic and long-term way to manage your pain is through lifestyle changes.¬† Your diet is an extremely important, and often neglected, factor that helps manage chronic pain.
The Typical North American Diet
Highly processed foods are the foundation of most North American diets.¬† This includes processed meats, breakfast cereals, bread, pastries, cookies, margarine, energy drinks, and ready-made meals.¬† This list goes on and on.
These foods are high in empty calories and full of unhealthy fat, refined carbohydrates, and preservatives. ¬†Such a diet is low in fiber and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).¬† It is also deficient in antioxidants and promotes inflammation throughout your body.
Unhealthy Eating Damages Your Digestive Tract & Promotes Inflammation
Your digestive tract contains ‚Äúgood‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúbad‚ÄĚ bacteria.¬† A healthy digestive system is loaded with helpful bacteria that aid in food digestion and absorption.¬† This allows your body to utilize the nutrients it needs to promote optimal health throughout your body.
The typical foods in the American diet provide an environment for the ‚Äúbad‚ÄĚ bacteria to thrive.¬† These bacteria destroy the lining of your intestines and digestive system.¬† Disruption of your digestive tract lining allows harmful molecules and chemicals to pass through into your bloodstream.¬† This leads to widespread inflammation throughout your body.¬† And we know inflammation is associated with pain.
Your Diet, The Gut-Brain Connection, and Pain
Your brain has a direct effect on your stomach and intestines. For example, the very thought of eating releases your stomach’s juices before you even eat. This connection goes both ways. When your intestines are distressed (from a poor diet) it relays signals to your brain.
Your brain‚Äôs primary role is protection and survival.¬† When your brain recognizes trouble in your gut it produces a widespread stress response throughout your body.¬† This includes changes in your immune system.¬† Your body releases pro-inflammatory hormones like cortisol.¬† A habitually unhealthy diet then leads to chronic stress, inflammation, and susceptibility to pain throughout your body.
4 Diet Tips to Help Chronic Pain
Cleaning up your diet reverses the pro-inflammatory state in your body.¬† Here are 4 types of foods that promote a healthy gut-brain connection.¬† These foods are your best medicine against pain.¬† Consume them regularly and a reduction in your pain will follow.
1. Fruits and Vegetables as the Staple of Your Diet
Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that combat chronic inflammation in your body.¬† Also, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables promote a healthy gut-brain connection.¬† Consume at least 6 servings per day.
Just about any fruit or vegetable is better than none.¬† However, some have stronger anti-inflammatory effects than others.¬† Here are some of the most beneficial for combating chronic pain and inflammation: arugula, kale, cabbage, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, apples, pineapple, and blueberries.
2. Foods Rich in Vitamin D
The best source of vitamin D is exposure to sunlight.¬† However, most people living in North America are deficient in vitamin D. ¬†Also, people with chronic pain show even greater deficiencies in this important micronutrient.¬† Deficiencies are also linked with inflammation and susceptibility to illness.¬† Sufficient levels of vitamin D are necessary for a healthy immune system.
Consume whole food sources over supplements.¬† Your body more easily absorbs vitamins and minerals from whole food sources.¬† Consume any of these foods rich in vitamin D: fatty fish (salmon, cod, mackerel, etc.), green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale), mushrooms, and eggs.
3. A Diet of Healthy Fats
Omega-3 and omega-6 polyunsaturated fats are essential nutrients that must be obtained from your diet. The North American diet is generally too high in omega-6 fats and deficient in omega-3 fats.
One of the important omega-3 fats is alpha-linolenic acid, which comes from plants such as flax.¬† Consume this as flaxseeds or flaxseed oil.¬† Another is docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which come from fish, organic free-range eggs, and grass-fed beef.
The same fatty fish that are high in vitamin D are also high in healthy fats. Avocado and olive oils are 2 other great sources. ¬†These healthy fats promote anti-inflammatory pathways throughout your body.
4. Anti-Inflammatory Cooking Spices
Turmeric and ginger are tubers with known anti-inflammatory effects.¬† Both of these natural spices help sufferers of chronic pain including people with arthritis.¬† Some studies show the effects are equal to or better than prescription drugs and without the side effects.
Other spices that may have anti-inflammatory effects and help with chronic pain include cinnamon and garlic.¬† Explore these natural spices by using a variety of them when cooking.¬† Along with the health benefits, it makes meal preparation more enjoyable and adds some great flavor.
The Best Medicine for Pain: Diet and Exercise
A wholesome diet low in processed or refined foods has widespread benefits.¬† It promotes a healthy gut-brain connection.¬† This reduces stress throughout your body.¬† The downstream effects are improvements in your mood, sleep, energy levels, and overall health.¬† If you are unsure where to start with your diet, see a registered dietician.
Combining a healthy diet with the right exercise program is your best defense against pain.¬† This approach is sustainable and without the side effects of prescription drugs.¬† See your physical therapist if you want some help getting started.