We underestimate the effects of diet and exercise on something as acute as pain. While it’s common knowledge at this point that a healthier lifestyle usually correlates with a longer life, and greater quality of life, the effects of a healthier diet can be much more tangible and immediate than the promise of simply prolonging life.
Choosing healthier foods doesn’t just give you more time on the clock or trim some unnecessary weight off the waist. It can and does influence how your body perceives pain, and depending on the origin of your pain, a better diet can alleviate your symptoms greatly. But putting the right foods on your plate to help with pain is not as easy as cutting out saturated fats and eating more fruits and vegetables.
The way nutrition affects nerve pain may depend on the nature of the pain and its associated condition, as well as individual preferences that might not be immediately obvious. Deficiencies and malnutrition, food allergies, and the cause behind your pain all play a role in how food affects your nerves.
You Are What You Eat
We are still largely more comfortable with pills than food when it comes to treating illness – and while the oft-quoted Greek philosopher Hippocrates did order that “food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” several millennia ago, not all ancient wisdom is heeded, even when it may be relevant.
Despite campaigns to raise awareness on the topics of obesity and nutrition, and growing interest in movements related to conscious and healthful eating (including the Slow Foods movement and the rising popularity of plant-based nutrition), there is still a lack of useful information and education in matters of food preparation, ingredient selection, and nutrition, and a healthier diet is often considered neither convenient nor affordable even when it can be.
Obesity and severe obesity rates remain alarmingly high and continue to grow among children and adults alike. The effect that excess body weight and metabolic illness can have on existing and co-occurring neuropathy is undeniable. Diabetes remains one of the most common causes of nerve pain by way of metabolic neuropathy, caused by high blood sugar. The result is nerve damage beginning in the extremities and growing inwards.
Aside from metabolic neuropathy, obesity is further associated with chronic inflammation, which has a direct link to hyperalgesia, worsening not only existing neuropathy but other sources of chronic pain as well, such as rheumatoid arthritis. While inflammation itself is neither a good nor bad thing, but rather a critical part of the body’s countless metabolic activities, excess and chronic inflammation plays a role in the development and perception of nerve pain.
Diet does not only play a role in preventing (or causing) metabolic nerve pain but plays a critical role in managing it. Dietary changes have proven effective time and time again in the management of type II diabetes, and certain foods prove effective in reducing low-grade inflammation and thereby eliciting minor pain relief. Losing weight, staying active, and paying attention to the nutritional value of your meals can work to keep chronic inflammation in check, and reduce all sources of pain, including nerve pain.
Foods That Fight Nerve Pain
Whenever chronic inflammation plays a role in increasing nerve pain, it helps to focus on foods that provide the body with nutrients that help ease the inflammation. Polyphenols, special plant compounds that act as a class of antioxidants particularly potent as anti-inflammatories, are a good thing to look for in your diet. Common and useful sources of polyphenols include:
- Seasonal fruits
- Darker leafy vegetables
- Legumes of all kinds
Another important general dietary recommendation is an increase in omega-3 fatty acids, especially in comparison to omega-6 fatty acids. A growing body of research shows that an increased ratio of omega-3 fatty acids to omega-6 fatty acids correlates with lower inflammation, and that omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. Examples of omega-3 sources include:
- Microalgae supplements
Individual recommendations are critical. There are certain foods that will generally help fight inflammation, help control diabetes, and thereby affect pain levels – including nerve pain. But when pain is causally related to an allergy to certain foods and compounds, or a deficiency in a crucial vitamin or mineral, general recommendations don’t help much. Consider speaking to your pain professional about working with a registered dietitian to ensure that your diet is tailored to your budget and nutritional needs.
Foods to Avoid
It’s not just about what you eat, but about what you don’t eat as well. Certain foods pose a risk of increasing inflammation and triggering nerve pain. Some of them are straightforward in the way they increase inflammation, including excessive omega-3 fatty acids, trans fats and sodium nitrates, while others directly increase the risk of exacerbating or causing neuropathy, including alcohol, artificial sweeteners, and foods with a high glycemic index (i.e. easily digestible sources of simple and complex sugars, from white carbs to dried fruits).
A few things to keep in mind include:
- Limit corn, seed oils and trans fats. These include sunflower seed oil, grapeseed oil, canola oil, margarine, other types of vegetable shortening, and most other vegetable and cooking oils. Extra virgin olive oil and extra virgin coconut oil are exceptions. Cut fried foods by association.
- Don’t be too afraid of saturated fats – they don’t clog arteries. It’s better to cook with lard than lots of commercial vegetable oil or shortening, and butter is healthier than margarine. But limit your intake, nonetheless. Fat has more calories per gram than other nutrients, and the excess calories can lead to weight gain that exacerbates and increases inflammation, and by association, pain.
- Avoid most processed meats. Nitrites are the primary concern here, but even nitrite-free cured meats will have a remarkably high sodium content, so treat it as a delicacy (or stay away altogether).
- Even “healthier” sweeteners such as agave or honey, or zero calorie sweeteners like aspartame may increase nerve pain. Animal studies have shown that sweeteners may lead to nerve degeneration, and some people are sensitive to them. High-glycemic foods, on the other hand, can increase neuropathy in patients with diabetes.
A Factor, Not a Panacea
Nerve pain is a multifactorial symptom for a large number of illnesses, ranging from viral infection to diabetes, trauma, and more. While certain foods can help address the causes of your nerve pain or provide a mild analgesic affect, the role that diet plays depends entirely on how the nerve pain came to be, to begin with. Speak with a pain professional and a dietitian if you want to learn more about how your nutrition might affect your pain levels.