As a health coach, I see the concept of food as medicine in action every single day—especially when it comes to chronic pain. If you’ve been living with pain, I’d encourage you to consider that the foods you put into your body are just as important in managing your pain as what type of medications you may take. It’s true that we can change our body chemistry every time we eat.
When approaching pain management from a nutrition perspective, you don’t have to be a doctor or pharmacist to know what to do for yourself. You can take your health into your own hands by discovering what foods or supplements do and don’t support your health and modify your behavior accordingly to reduce pain.
Dietary changes for chronic pain.
Inflammation is a natural process in the body that defends against disease; however, chronic inflammation can lead to heart disease, strokes, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and even depression. Knowing this, it comes as no surprise that an anti-inflammatory diet is often considered an integrative approach to pain management—along with exercise, stress management, and alternative therapies like acupuncture.
You can find information about the anti-inflammatory diet in numerous books and websites—including mbg’s Functional Nutrition Program—but in general, it involves avoiding all processed foods and meats and increasing nutrient-dense plant-based foods. The idea is to replace sugary, refined foods with whole, nutrient-rich foods. The specifics of the diet will vary depending on the severity of your pain and your overall health, but in its strictest form, the diet may involve eliminating the following: simple carbs like sugars and most grains (including rice, corn, and wheat), dairy, and red meat. Instead, you focus on whole fruits, vegetables, and animal proteins like fish and chicken in moderation.
Supplements for chronic pain.
In addition to the food you eat, supplements may also help with pain. Here are a few foundational supplements I often recommend to my clients who suffer from chronic pain of some sort:
Turmeric is a root that’s part of the ginger family and is famous for reducing inflammation. I recommend taking a minimum of 500 mg daily for back and joint pain. You can find this as a powder, a tea, a liquid, or in capsule form.
2. Glucosamine and Chondroitin
Glucosamine and chondroitin are part of what makes up the cartilage in your body. These supplements are also helpful for joint pain and are often sold together as a supplement. Though evidence is conflicting, many of my clients have found pain relief by taking these daily.
3. Vitamin D
Recent studies have shown that vitamin D in high doses can help reduce pain. But how does this work? According to a 2011 studyfocused on breast cancer patients, vitamin D helps chronic pain because it puts a lid on how much inflammation can take place. This is because vitamin D is a key nutrient that prevents the immune system from responding excessively, leading to chronic inflammation, which is an underlying cause of pain.
I recommend taking at least 5,000 IUs of vitamin D per day for pain; however, it’s important to work with a doctor and get regular blood draws if taking vitamin D in high doses for long periods of time.
4. DHA/EPA Fish Oil
New research shows that essential fatty acids like DHA and EPA promote a class of compounds called resolvins, which restore nerve and immune cell function to normal in a more timely manner, thus getting rid of excess pain. I recommend taking high, therapeutic doses (2 to 3 grams) of fish oil daily. A 2012 study on 380 arthritis patientsconcluded that taking this dose for more than three months reduced patients’ need for NSAID drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen.
5. CBD Oil
If you have chronic pain and you’ve tried the above with no relief, I also recommend researching the benefits of CBD oil. Cannabidiol (CBD) is one of the many chemical compounds, called cannabinoids, found in the Cannabis sativa plant. Most CBD oil is sold without tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive cannabinoid found in cannabis that causes the psychoactive effects of smoking marijuana. Unlike THC, CBD doesn’t get you high, but it does have some pretty exciting healing benefits. The research in this area is developing quickly, and we should know more about how CBD oil might be able to fend off chronic pain soon.
Kratom, or Mitragyna speciosa, is a tropical evergreen tree native to Southeast Asia. It contains a chemical called mitragynine, which works like opioid drugs such as codeine and morphine to relieve pain. Due to its association with opioids, many people are nervous about its use; however, I have known many people to benefit from it without side effects. This is one you should ask your doctor about before you try.
Finally, it’s important to understand what’s causing your pain in the first place. Then you can narrow down the supplements or alternative medicines that may work for you. I recommend working with an integrative or functional doctor in tandem with an acupuncturist and/or chiropractor to diagnose the root cause of your pain and create a treatment plan. In addition, always check with your doctor before starting any supplements if you’re taking prescription medications.
Almost anyone with chronic pain can benefit from taking a more holistic approach. No single one of the above recommendations will be a “fix all” for you, but if you blend several of them—in addition to an anti-inflammatory diet, regular exercise, stress relieving techniques, medications, and other alternative therapies—you might find just the combo you need.