Magazines and newspapers love to run stories on the top 10 foods that fight pain. But can particular foods really spell relief?
Don’t bet on it. Now and then, findings come along suggesting that one food or another might help. In a 2014 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, for instance, researchers reported that the spice turmeric, in combination with two other supplements—Devil’s claw and bromelain—provided some relief from arthritis pain. Findings from an older study at Michigan State University hinted that cherries might help, because they contain antioxidants that reduce inflammation, which is associated with some forms of chronic pain. And scientists at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have examined whether resveratrol, a substance in red grapes that's also been studied for its anti-aging properties, might ease arthritis pain.
But such studies are almost always very small. Their findings need confirmation by higher quality research. The bottom line: There’s little evidence that eating a lot of any single food will help reduce pain.
Healthier food choices
What about following an overall healthy diet? Here, the evidence may be a little more persuasive. In another study from Michigan State University, published in 2015, a group of 19 arthritis pain sufferers followed a strict whole-food, plant-based diet—fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains, with no animal products and very little refined (processed) food. Another group of followed their usual diet. Within two weeks, people on the whole-food, plant-based diet reported significantly lower levels of pain.
This study was also very small, however. And its findings were based on what the participants reported. Because the experience of pain is very subjective, it’s hard to draw firm conclusions. Still, there are reasons to think a plant-based diet might be helpful.
Fruits and vegetables contain a variety of substances that can reduce inflammation, which is thought to be a factor in many kinds of chronic pain, from arthritis to lower back pain. What’s more, a plant-based diet tends to be lower in calories than the typical American diet. It’s no surprise that people on the whole-food, plant-based diet reduced their body mass index (BMI). Since being overweight or obese exacerbates many forms of chronic pain, a diet that helps people maintain a healthy weight is also likely to reduce pain.
One step at a time
Eating more fruits and vegetable and cutting back on processed foods is hardly guaranteed to ease chronic pain. But there are other benefits. A diet abundant in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains may reduce the risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes, for instance.
Changing your diet isn’t easy, of course. One approach is to make one change at a time. Add fruit to your breakfast. Switch to a whole grain bread for lunch. Add a vegetable side dish at dinner. Reach for nuts instead of processed snacks. To help make the changes easier, search out new and tasty ways to add fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes to your menu.
Talk to your doctor
If you suffer from severe chronic pain, it’s important to talk to your doctor before making any big dietary changes. Some causes of chronic pain, such as celiac disease, may be best managed by specifically prescribed diets.
Also see 10 Habits for Managing Chronic Pain.