6 Steps to Reduce Pain Using Nutrition & Precision Medicine
Written by: Dora Chan, PharmD, MS (Nutrition)
One of my first nutrition clients was a friend looking for help with a sugar “detox”. I hadn’t coached anyone through this process before, but I came up with a detailed 1-month plan to help her cut back on sugar. Much to my delight, I soon had my first taste of the power of food as medicine, or in this case, the power of less food. Although it wasn’t an intended outcome, within days of being on the plan, her joints were less painful, and she didn’t need as much medication.
In this article, I’d like to share with you what I’ve since learned about relieving pain from a nutritional standpoint, as well as the importance of choosing the right medications if you do end up needing them.
However, before I continue, I do want to mention that pain is generally a beneficial sensation. It helps to signal damage in the body so that we can go do something about it. However, it’s when pain persists beyond when the damage should have healed, that it becomes a problem. As anyone living with it can attest, chronic pain can negatively impact pretty much every aspect of life.
Step 1: Minimize sugars and high-glycemic foods1
I often do pain medication consultations in my job as a pharmacist on a family health team. The main purpose of these visits is to optimize and ideally, minimize the need for pain medicines, especially opioids. My patients are always surprised when I inevitably end up talking about food.
At first, they don’t really get why I tell them to cut back on soda, since they see my role only as a prescription gatekeeper. So, I explain that there are foods that can increase overall inflammation in the body2, which in turn makes pain persistently worse. One of these foods is sugar.
There is clear data to show that high-glycemic index foods such as sugar, sweets, juice, soda, and packaged crunchy carbs, cause oxidative stress and low-grade chronic inflammation.3 As a result, sweetened drinks are usually the first things I start with: cut back or cut out juice, sodas, or sugar added to coffee or tea. Desserts and sweets should ideally only be enjoyed occasionally.
Step 2: Minimize other inflammatory foods
This includes processed meats (e.g., bacon, hot dogs, sausages), fast foods, fried foods, shortening, trans fats, and industrial seed oils (e.g., canola, soy, corn, safflower, and sunflower oils). These should only be enjoyed once or twice a week, if at all. If using oils, choose less inflammatory oils like avocado, coconut, walnut, or olive oil, and ghee.
Some people may also have sensitivities to specific foods that could be triggering pain. You’ll want to work with a nutrition professional, since identifying these can sometimes be tricky.
Step 3: Eat foods rich in anti-inflammatory polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids
Polyphenols: these are natural chemicals found in plants which protect against inflammation and can even activate the same pain-relieving pathways as certain pain medications. Polyphenols are what give plants their color. Focus on eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, teas, legumes, and other plant foods in a variety of colors to get the most benefit. Even dark chocolate contains polyphenols – just make sure it contains at least 70% cocoa.
Omega-3 fatty acids: these are fats that support healthy cell membranes, particularly in the brain and nerves. They reduce inflammation and have been found to improve pain in many conditions including migraines, arthritis, and a variety of autoimmune diseases.4 You can find omega-3 fats in cold-water fatty fish (e.g., salmon, mackerel, sardines), nuts, and seeds (eg., flaxseed, hemp seeds, chia seeds).
Step 4: Feed a healthy gut microbiome by eating foods high in fiber and probiotics
The trillions of microbes living in your intestinal tract are responsible for creating compounds which also help to reduce inflammation and pain. Bacteria thrive on dietary fiber, so eat foods high in fiber such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. You can also directly ingest beneficial bacteria by consuming fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha.
Step 5: Supplement as needed
Pain can result from nutrient insufficiencies, including vitamins D, E, B1, B3, B6 and B12, magnesium, zinc, and omega-3 fats.4 Check with your doctor or a nutritional professional to see if you might benefit from supplementation and how much to take.
There are also herbal supplements that might help to alleviate pain. These include turmeric, ginger, Devil’s claw, Boswellia, and willow bark. Since these can have potential medication interactions, be sure to check with a health professional knowledgeable about these supplements before trying them.
Step 6: Consider taking medication
If you’ve tried all the things and are still suffering, then it’s time to speak to your doctor about medication. It’s okay if you need them, especially if pain is negatively affecting your sleep.
There are many effective and safe analgesics. However, the one that is best for you depends on many factors. These include: the type of pain, when the injury occurred, concurrent medications or conditions, your lifestyle, and prior experience. Your pharmacist would be the best person to guide you through the choices.
Getting a pharmacogenetic profile done would also be of great help, since your genes can have a dramatic impact on how your body processes and responds to drugs. By looking at DNA that code for proteins related to the function of medications, it is possible to predict which drugs might be more effective, while avoiding others that could cause more side effects. Check out this article by Pillcheck to learn more about pharmacogenetic testing for pain medicines.
Don’t let pain stop you from doing all the things you want.
There are many things that you can do for relief. I’ve discussed food and medication here, but in a future article I will share other things you can do to reduce chronic pain.
- Chronic pain can be reduced by reducing consumption of inflammatory foods
- Eat foods which are rich in anti-inflammatory plant polyphenols, omega-3 fatty acids, and dietary fiber
- Nutritional and natural supplements can be helpful
- Use medications that are appropriate for you based on your genetics, type of pain, concomitant medications, and other factors.
Looking for comprehensive support to improve your pain? Book a free call: www.thrivenutritionist.com
The information contained in this article is intended for educational and entertainment purposes only. It is not to be construed as personalized nutritional advice nor intended to be a substitute for proper health and medical care. Please consult your physician or a qualified health care professional for support with your chronic pain.
Endnotes & References:
- The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how quickly a food causes a rise in blood sugar (on an empty stomach). It’s measured on a scale of zero to 100, with 100 being associated with pure glucose and causing a big spike in blood sugar. Higher GI foods include sweetened drinks and fruit juice, sweets, and white carbs (like pasta, white rice, white potatoes, white bread). More info here: https://www.eatright.org/food/nutrition/dietary-guidelines-and-myplate/what-is-glycemic-index
- Inflammation refers to the process by which the body fights and resolves injury, whether it be physical, infectious, or psychological. A classic example of the effect of inflammation is the redness, pain, and warmth of your skin at the site of a cut.
- Rondanelli M, Faliva MA, Miccono A, et al. Food pyramid for subjects with chronic pain: foods and dietary constituents as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents. Nutrition Research Reviews. 2018;31(1):131-151. doi:10.1017/S0954422417000270
- Dragan S, Șerban MC, Damian G, Buleu F, Valcovici M, Christodorescu R. Dietary Patterns and Interventions to Alleviate Chronic Pain.Nutrients. 2020;12(9):2510. Published 2020 Aug 19. doi:10.3390/nu12092510