Tackling the Complexity of Pain – Part I: What Do Diet & Nutrition Have to Do With Pain?

By Dr. Caroline Coombs BSc, ND
Naturopathic Physician

Chronic pain is a complex and often frustrating condition. Those who have suffered with chronic pain know that there is no one size fits all ‘quick fix’ solution that works for everyone. For that reason, it is important to take a multi-pronged approach to pain management that addresses the root cause and minimizes the many risk factors for persistent pain. While there is not one specific diet that has been shown to reduce pain across the board, it is well established that inflammation, obesity and deficiencies of certain nutrients can increase ones risk of chronic pain, and all of these factors are readily influenced by the foods we eat.

It follows that a diet that minimizes inflammation, helps to maintain a healthy body weight and ensures adequate intake of crucial nutrients would provide an optimal environment for recovery from pain.

Inflammation and diet

Inflammation is the immune system’s protective response. Following injury or infection, inflammation occurs and primes the nervous system to be more responsive to pain. In this context, pain serves as reminder to rest the body so that it can heal. When inflammation becomes chronic, however, it can cause central sensitization of the nervous system which means that the pain sensation can become exaggerated or inappropriate. This strong link between pain and inflammation explains why anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen are so effective at managing pain.

The typical North American diet tends to be very pro-inflammatory, and much of this effect is due to the predominance of omega-6 fatty acids and sugar. The most inflammatory omega-6 oils include soy, corn, safflower, sunflower, and cottonseed oil. These oils are used extensively in packaged, processed, and restaurant foods because they are cheap. Added sugars and refined carbohydrates are the main ingredient in most packaged foods and beverages. These rapidly absorbable carbohydrates spike blood sugar and insulin, setting off an inflammatory cascade. This is bad news, and not only for those in pain: Chronic inflammation has also been linked to most of the predominate chronic illnesses of the modern era such as depression, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and certain cancers.

What to do about it:

Tackling the Complexity of Pain – Part I: What Do Diet & Nutrition Have to Do With Pain?

  • Eliminate processed and packaged foods, fast foods, refined carbohydrates and added sugars
  • Limit restaurant food and ask your server which oils are being used
  • Eat a nutrient-dense whole-foods diet heavily centred around plants and rich in healthy fats: cold-water fish, coconuts, avocados and olive oil are all great examples.
  • Eating more colourful berries and vegetables will help ensure that your diet is rich in antioxidants which neutralize free radicals and oxidative stress.

If pain persists following these recommendations, mediator-release food sensitivity testing (MRT) can identify which foods in particular are provoking inflammation in your body and thereby contributing to pain. MRT is a sophisticated blood test that provides a personalized profile of foods that stimulate the release of inflammatory mediators (messengers in the body that cause inflammation). MRT is available at Port Moody Health.

Nutrients and Pain

Ensuring that the body has adequate nutrients to function and heal optimally can also be an important factor in pain management. Some of the more common deficiencies associated with chronic pain include Vitamin D, Magnesium and Vitamin B12.

Vitamin D: Many people are unaware that in the Northern hemisphere, we do not get enough sunlight during the winter months to synthesize Vitamin D, even on a bluebird day. This means that many Canadians are deficient in this important vitamin. If blood vitamin D levels are low, vitamin D supplementation may result in significant improvements in pain. The optimal range for vitamin D in the blood is 150-250 nmol/L. We can test your Vitamin D levels on site at Port Moody Health to see if you might benefit from supplementation and determine the dose that is appropriate for you.

Magnesium: Magnesium is necessary to relax smooth muscles and plays an important function in blocking pain transmitting receptors called NMDA receptors. Low magnesium can thus contribute to muscle cramping and pain. Magnesium is used up under stress and has been depleted in our soils from industrial farming techniques. Foods high in magnesium include: Dark Leafy Greens, Nuts and Seeds, Fish, Avocado and Bananas.

Tackling the Complexity of Pain – Part I: What Do Diet & Nutrition Have to Do With Pain?Vitamin B12: Having adequate levels of B12 is important for a healthy nervous system and deficiency can cause or worsen some cases of nerve pain. Blood levels of Vitamin B12 can be tested and the most adequate way to identify a deficiency is to test methymalonic acid levels in the blood. We offer methymalonic acid testing at Port Moody Health. If a deficiency is identified, vitamin B12 can be administered via injection to replete levels more quickly and overcome any issues with absorption.

At Port Moody Health, we know how pain affects YOU. It is often a limiting factor in many aspects of life – from work, to exercise, to daily activities of living – and can lead to fatigue, depression, weight gain and side effects of drug dependency.

There IS a way to break the cycle of pain and live the life you want.

To learn more, call (604) 949-0077 and ask to book an appointment with Dr. Coombs.

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Verma, V, Zeeshan, S, Ahad, A. Nociception and Role of Immune System in Pain. Acta Neurol Belg. 2014

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