In this day and age, it’s common to hear about antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods. Yet while most consumers generally understand that these are good things, they don’t completely understand why. For those suffering with chronic pain, that is a mistake that must be addressed. Any individual who struggles with chronic pain issues must recognize the function that nutrition plays in both relieving pain and amplifying it. What we eat affects how much pain we are in, even when the source of your chronic pain is different than that of the next patient.
From an aggravated GI tract to increased swelling around the joints and brain fog and depression fed by a poor diet, how we provide for ourselves heavily affects our physical and mental well-being. As such, it’s important not only to know what foods are good for us, but what foods we should definitely avoid.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods and Antioxidants
Anti-inflammatory foods have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. This can be a great thing for sufferers of chronic pain, as increased inflammation often means increased pain. Inflammation is a natural process in the body by which the body causes a portion of itself to be ‘inflamed’, increasing circulation and heat. This makes said area more sensitive and prone to pain in an effort to promote healing and cellular activity. In this sense, inflammation is key to healing.
However, in some cases, it just doesn’t get the job done very well, and we’re left feeling more pain without long-term relief. Anti-inflammatory foods can help the body better regulate this inflammation and counteract other foods that might make us more prone to inflammation.
Antioxidants play a similar role as neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, but essential in playing the role they do. While antioxidants are substances that slow oxidation, the process by which oxygen deteriorates organic and inorganic matter, antioxidants in the human body are meant to protect cells from free radicals, which are unstable molecules that react with other molecules and damage them.
Free radicals have their own purpose in biology, and the two keep themselves in balance. Too much of either can lead to problems. Free radicals seem to increase with the increase in cortisol and the presence of environmental pollutants, while certain foods rich in antioxidants help keep them in balance. They also play a role in inflammation.
With these definitions out of the way, it’s important to mention that certain foods can increase needless inflammation in the body, and accelerate the damage done by free radicals.
1. Refined Sugars
There are many reasons refined sugars are not part of a healthy, balanced diet. First, it’s important to define ‘refined’. Any excess sugars are not ideal, regardless of whether they’re in a cheesecake or in an apple. Sugar as we know it is sucrose (glucose and fructose), a refined carbohydrate, having been broken down and crystalized for optimal absorption. When eaten, sucrose is broken down into glucose and fructose and quickly converted into energy. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it becomes a problem in certain quantities, and in certain diets.
Research shows that diets with plenty of sucrose and fructose increase inflammation and are a bad combination for patients dealing with chronic pain. However, the effects of refined carbohydrates are more serious when considering how they affect the rapid release of insulin, spike your blood pressure, and cause an increase in stress hormones. While slow-releasing carbohydrates can provide us with all the energy we need in conjunction with digestive fiber, refined carbohydrates don’t agree with us, especially when we’re already in pain.
A sugar found in milk; lactose is a compound many humans are partially allergic to. This leads to the symptoms known in lactose intolerance, which affects roughly 65 percent of humanity. While we can process lactose as babies, our ability to do so diminishes greatly over time, based mostly on ethnicity and genetics. East Asians, for example, are more lactose intolerant than Northern Europeans, who have been consuming lactose for thousands of years.
In individuals who are lactose intolerant, the compound can worsen the effects of chronic pain and negatively affect inflammation. A good way to tell if you can or can’t deal with lactose is to take note of how you feel after some whole milk. Digestive issues are often the first clue, including diarrhea.
While celiac disease is far rarer than lactose intolerance and far more severe, recent research has come to show that some populations are also gluten intolerant, struggling to digest and process the protein found in wheat (and wheat-based products, including most breads, pastas, and pastries).
Also known as gluten sensitivity, research shows that gluten may play a role in fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis. While the research isn’t completely clear on whether gluten plays a role in increasing the symptoms of these chronic pain conditions, there seems to be enough of a correlation that it’s worth trying out a gluten-free diet and observing any potential changes in your condition.
4. Refined (White) Flour
While gluten is one problem, refined flour in general is linked to a large number of health problems, including an increase in chronic pain and inflammation. Refined flour is regular flour further bleached and processed, and sometimes fortified with certain compounds to increase the nutritional value of the flour (including iron and several vitamins).
What separates refined flour from regular flour is the lack of bran and the loss of the wheat germ, reducing the amount of fiber in the flour and changing its taste and consistency.
5. Nitrates and Nitrites
Nitrates, nitrites, and other preservatives are commonly used in the preservation of processed meats, such as hams, sausages, and bacon, in order to prevent spoilage and maximize profit – but these compounds are highly inflammatory and linked to increased joint pain and arthritis.
They’re also incredibly unhealthy for a host of other reasons, and only serve to preserve food that is largely devoid of any nutritional value as it is. If you must eat processed meats and vegetables, consider handmade fermented foods and healthier kinds of charcuterie (in moderation).
While the myth that alcohol has any considerable health benefits has been debunked several times over, it continues to be one of the most popular drugs in the world due to its availability and price. While a pint every few days won’t kill you, it can make your life more miserable if you have chronic pain issues, as alcohol further taxes the body, increases inflammation, and can cause small fiber peripheral neuropathy – increasing the sensation of pain in the body.
Alcohol can also mess with your sleeping habits, putting a hamper on recovery and pain relief. For those with chronic pain, alcohol’s temporary numbing effect on pain can prove addictive over time, making it a prime way to self-medicate and lead you down a terrifying path.
7. Certain Fats
We’ve put butter and eggs on and off the Bad Foods list for decades, but there are certain foods that nutritionists can reliably identify as worthless, and these include hydrogenated fats and seed oils. While seed oils are good for cooking due to their high smoking point compared to other oils such as cold-pressed olive and coconut oil, they also greatly affect the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in our body, contributing significantly to pain, brain fog, and recovery.
Meanwhile, hydrogenated oils and trans fats are linked both to increased pain sensitivity as well as increased inflammation. Try to stick to the fats already present in the vegetables and meats that you eat, and for additional grease, insist on grass-fed butter, fish oil, or virgin olive oil.
8. Too Much Food
The final culprit in many diets is the presence of far too much food – it’s no secret that a bad diet isn’t great for your health, but excess calories and lack of nutritious foods can lead to deficiencies in certain crucial minerals and vitamins while causing obesity, which puts further unwanted pressure on the joints, limits mobility, and negatively affects the mood – which, to bring it all into a full circle, further increases pain.
A fad diet or yoyo diet is a bad way to seek good results and reduce pain, as these methods are prone to causing even more weight gain in the future – but a slow and steady life-long commitment to a healthier lifestyle will greatly benefit anyone struggling with chronic pain issues.