Food to Manage and Heal Chronic Pain: Reduce Inflammation, Increase Quality of Life
Mar 04, 2016 04:32PM
By Jessica Moon
When we are living with chronic pain or illness, energy and resources can be very limited. While we would probably do just about anything to heal, the very act of getting out of bed can be all consuming. It is easy to see how considering the role of food in the management of chronic pain and illness can fall down on the list of priorities. In some cases, though, food and diet could literally end up being the most effective medicine.
Using specific diets to manage chronic conditions is not new. Traditional cultures relied on food as medicine and within the past 100 years, more modern science has seen effective diet protocols developed to treat ailments such as epilepsy, schizophrenia and autoimmune conditions, to name a few.
For example, the ketogenic diet was introduced in 1921 by Russel Wilder of the Mayo Clinic as a dietary treatment for managing epilepsy. While indeed restrictive, the diet alone has been shown to reduce number of seizures by 50-90 percent in patients.
The GAPS (gut and psychology syndrome) diet and SCD (specific carbohydrate diet) are two protocols developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride and Elaine Gottschall, respectively. These diets target the role of gut health in the prevention, management and recovery of conditions such as autism spectrum disorders, psychiatric disorders, allergies, asthma and Crohn’s disease. They have had much success to date.
As it pertains to autoimmune conditions that are often intensely painful, former medical researcher Sarah Ballantyne, Ph.D., developed the Paleo autoimmune (AI) protocol diet. While perhaps not yet widely recognized by the conventional medical community, there are numerous anecdotes and testimonies in her book, The Paleo Approach. Her protocol is gaining more of a mainstream following likely because an increasing number of people are finding relief. Based on the Paleo diet—no grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar or processed food allowed—this AI protocol takes it a step further and eliminates food groups that tend to cause a bad reaction in autoimmune patients.
Inflammation at the Root
While the specifics of various diets differ depending on the condition or symptoms they are meant to manage, they share an important commonality: they all assume that inflammation is the culprit in the onset and progression of disease. Anyone that suffers from arthritis can tell you about inflammation. What is less acknowledged, however, is the role of inflammation in most other chronic illnesses including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, mental illness, epilepsy and autoimmune conditions. “More diseases have inflammation at their root than we think. Inflammation, as it turns out, is the culprit behind many of the life-threatening conditions we thought were closed cases…Even conditions that that aren’t strictly categorized as inflammatory diseases frequently have a significant inflammatory component, which is often the root of chronic pain and deforming tissue damage,” according to Floyd H. Chilton, Ph.D., the author of Inflammation Nation.
Understanding the role that food can play in helping to manage and even heal a chronic condition can be daunting at first. With “information overload”, it is sometimes hard to know where to start.
An important first step is to commit to the process. When getting started, it’s necessary to realize that it may take some time to identify where the dietary adjustments need to be made. There will be breakthroughs and setbacks and, at times, it may seem like a futile effort. While palliative medications may be helpful and necessary, true healing can only begin when the underlying cause of the disease is identified and addressed.
Next, try to identify any food allergies or sensitivities. Seek the help of a nutritionist, conventional doctor, naturopath or all of the above. There is a great deal of divergent opinion on the validity and value of allergy tests, as well as how to interpret and apply the results. The process of identifying “offending foods” is far from a perfect science and it’s best to get different perspectives. The effort could be well worth it. By eliminating foods that cause the body to react, the underlying inflammation can begin to cool and the body can begin to heal to the best of its ability.
Whether or not allergies or sensitivities have been identified, there are some dietary habits that are generally health promoting for most. For those with chronic pain and illness, it is especially important to make sure the diet is extremely rich in nutrients. For many reasons—such as physical and mental stress, effects on cellular metabolism and the inability to shop or cook—people with chronic pain and illness are at a higher risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Focusing on very nutrient-dense foods like high-quality vegetables, bone broth, fruit and meat is essential. Avoid foods that are considered “inflammatory”, such as sugar, alcohol, processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and anything that causes a bad reaction.
Luckily, there are lots of resources available now to help you on your journey of healing through food. Fascinating new culinary techniques are making even the most restrictive diets interesting and delicious. Cookbooks, consultants, online groups, magazines and meal delivery services are making it easier than ever for people to enjoy a diet that, at one time, may have seemed unrealistic. As Thomas Edison said, “The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.”
Jessica Moon, MS, is a clinical nutritionist practicing in Stamford and specializing in helping individuals and families manage food allergies/intolerances and special dietary needs. Connect with her at [email protected] or 203-979-6181. See Community Resource Guide listing, page 68.