How what you eat can ease your pain – or make it worse

Everyone experiences pain sometimes, but most of us – thankfully – not on a regular basis. For the occasional headache, period pain or injury, pharmaceutical painkillers are an easy and quick way to make it go away. However, they do have quite serious drawbacks if taken over a longer period of time. For around one in five of us, pain is a regular occurrence, which can bring with it additional problems of insomnia, frequent colds and infections, depression and anxiety.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are known to damage the lining of the gut. Aspirin facilitates the formation of stomach ulcers, whereas ibuprofen damages the intestinal lining, causing it to become permeable, which may then cause food sensitivities. Paracetamol does not have affect the digestive system, but puts an extra load on the liver. Painkillers are also known to accelerate joint damage in arthritic patients, so while symptoms are being masked, the damage gets worse.

Natural painkillers work in similar ways, but usually more slowly than pharmaceutical ones. In fact, drugs are often modelled after a known natural remedy. Aspirin, for instance, is the isolated compound salicylic acid, which is found in white willow, and tea of white willow leaves has been used to ease pain for thousands of years. Natural painkillers act more slowly than pharmaceutical ones, but they do not have the same severe side effects.

If you are in pain, your food or drink can help ease it but it can also make it worse. What you are not eating is just as important, if not more, than what you are eating. Most pain comes down to inflammation, and in fact the names for many painful conditions end in “-itis”, a suffix that indicates an inflammatory condition.

Foods to avoid:

Sugar and refined starch act like fuel to the fire, so are best avoided. Apart from the obvious sources such as sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolate and fizzy drinks, sugar is hidden in many more products, e.g. ketchup, salad dressings, breakfast cereals, and even shop-bough guacamole! White flour products – white bread, pasta, pizza, and white rice – are quickly broken down into sugar, too. Dried fruit are almost pure sugar. Make sure to read labels carefully and cut out as much sugar as you can. Note that while honey, date and coconut sugar contain some beneficial nutrients, they are still essentially sugar and promote inflammation. A blog about sugar is coming soon.

Alcohol does not have very many redeeming features, and indeed does not help the inflammatory process. When recovering from an injury and suffering pain, you are best advised to avoid it. Drink water – still or fizzy -, kombucha or green tea instead to speed up recovery.

Certain vegetable oils can also make inflammation worse.  Some unsaturated fats that are frequently promoted as healthy are the building blocks of hormone-like substances called prostaglandins (PGE). PGE1 and PGE3 are anti-inflammatory and desirable, but PGE2 has the opposite effect: it causes inflammation and thus pain. Unsaturated omega-6 fats can be converted into PGE1 or PGE2, and it is processing, heat and sugar (!) that tip the scale into the direction of PGE2. Unfortunately, omega-6 fats – most of them processed – are now abundant in our diet. Avoid cooking with sunflower, soya and rapeseed oil. Use olive oil instead. Note that frying, too, results in pro-inflammatory compounds, but if you must fry at high temperatures use coconut oil or lard as these saturated fats are more resilient to heat.

Consider these fats if you eat meat or dairy: factory farmed cattle is fed on grains and soya, fodder that cattle wouldn’t choose to eat naturally. Grains and soya are high in omega-6 fats (see above), and the fatty acid composition of the resulting meat or dairy may promote inflammation more than organic products from grass-fed cattle, which would be higher in omega-3.

Foods to enjoy:

Omega-3 fats, found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, and seaweed, are the basis of the anti-inflammatory PGE3. The omega-3 fats in fish oil, eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), also block the formation of pain-causing chemicals called cytokines and leukotrienes. These fats are very sensitive to heat and light, so always keep them in cupboards rather than on the counter and do not use them for frying.

Besides the omega-3 rich foods already mentioned above, there are others that can help reduce inflammation: The spice turmeric – a staple in Indian cuisine – has excellent anti-inflammatory properties, as
have garlic and ginger. Make sure to use all three liberally in cooking. Turmeric doesn’t need to be confined to Asian dishes either. Try adding it to brightly coloured dishes such as tomato soups or sauces or perhaps a carrot soup.

Inflammation causes the formation of Free Radicals. Antioxidant nutrients can fight those. The best known antioxidants are the vitamins A, C and E as well as the minerals zinc and selenium, but there are many, many more. The body makes some itself, but a wide range of antioxidants is provided by phytonutrients – plant nutrients -, many of those are what gives plants their colour. To ensure you get the biggest variety of antioxidants, eat a wide variety of different coloured fruit and vegetables. Eat the rainbow! Green leafy vegetables, too, are rich in antioxidants and magnesium. Magnesium is particularly helpful when the pain is cramp-related , such as period pains.

Pineapple and papaya contain two similar enzymes: bromelain (pineapple) and papain (papaya). These are proteases, i.e. enzymes which break down proteins. They are useful in “cleaning up” proteins from tissue damage, thus decreasing inflammation. If you consider taking a bromelain supplement, make sure to take it away from meals or it will start breaking down the protein you have just eaten.

All culinary herbs, such as parsley, rosemary, thyme, and coriander, also have anti-inflammatory properties.

These are just a few examples of how you can influence inflammation through diet. There are many more foods and herbs that can help modulate pain, some of which may be more specific to certain conditions, e.g. arthritis or fibromyalgia. Also, with chronic conditions, you may need nutritional supplements for extra support. However, supplements are powerful products and can interact with prescription medication or may be counter-indicated with certain conditions, so make sure to get professional advice before taking any.

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