It is understood that the foods you eat (and those you don’t) impact how well your body fights pain and inflammation. Much of chronic pain is associated with chronic inflammation and it is evident that your diet can contribute to increased inflammation. However, your diet is also one of the best ways to reduce inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation can do both good things and bad things for your health. When you get injured or have an infection, your body signals the immune system to send white blood cells to the area that is affected to help disarm the pathogen and repair tissue. Once the injury heals or the infection has gone away, inflammation should leave too. However, in some cases, the immune system stays on after the “trauma” has passed. With time, this can have a negative impact on healthy cells and organs and eventually lead to constant pain. This is why it is important to keep inflammation in check.
How does diet affect inflammation?
A healthy diet can support the immune system by having it switch on and off at the appropriate times. A poor diet can change your immune system and cause it to act abnormally which can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation. Studies have found that the immune system responds to a poor diet very similar to how it would a bacterial infection. Although it is not completely understood how a healthy diet directly affects the immune system, evidence suggests that deficiencies in various micronutrients (e.g. zinc, iron, folic acid, vitamins A, C and E) can alter the function of the immune system.
Research has shown that foods rich in a specific anti-oxidant called polyphenols can have an anti-inflammatory effect which can help prevent and moderate persistent inflammation. These types of foods include many which are found in the Mediterranean diet. These include whole fruits (especially berries), dark green leafy vegetables, nuts, legumes and whole grains. Many of these foods are also rich in micronutrients which the immune system needs to function effectively. Some research has also shown that foods rich with Omega-3 fatty acids (olive oil, salmon, sardines, mackerel) also help to control inflammation.
What should I be eating to limit inflammation and help with chronic pain?
The best approach to help immune system function and therefore reduce systemic inflammation and chronic pain is to stop eating the bad inflammatory foods and adopt more of the good, anti-inflammatory foods. Most food in the “inflammatory” category is processed “junk” foods consisting of low nutritional value and containing high amounts of simple sugars (e.g. soft drinks, high-fructose corn syrup, processed meat, white bread, white pasta and other foods high in refined carbohydrates).
When it comes to the anti-inflammatory foods, we shouldn’t only load up on a few of our favourites as this will cause us to miss many vital nutrients that our immune system needs. Instead, it is always best to aim for variety. Half of your diet should consist of whole grains such as whole-wheat bread, whole-grain pasta and brown rice along with healthy proteins such as fish, poultry, beans and nuts. The other half of your diet should include mostly vegetables along with some fruit. Avoid cooking with vegetable oil, industrial seed oils (canola, sunflower) and butter. Instead, use healthy oils such as extra-virgin olive oil along with natural animal fat.
Our diet can be the most important factor in our health. The foods we consume provide our body with the required energy and nutrients it needs to run. If we feed our body unhealthy, inflammatory foods, then our body won’t know any better and will lack the necessary nutrients it needs.
Changing your diet will not be a quick fix and sometimes you will have to make adjustments in order to find what is right for you. However, adopting a healthy diet has a high potential to manage and even prevent chronic inflammation, thus helping to soothe chronic pain.
Written by Nicholas Dimos (Physiotherapist)