If you suffer from chronic pain, you probably also struggle with inflammation whether you notice it or not. Inflammation or swelling is a natural, physiological response that is the result of a higher concentration of white blood cells, fluids and other healing factors.  Normally, these dissipate once the injury or infection is resolved, but in chronic pain patients, this inflammation may persist.

If inflammation lingers too long, then it may injure healthy cells and produce pain in joints, tissue and muscles. Chronic inflammation can increase the risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Given the serious risks associated with prolonged inflammation, you can understand why your doctor may recommend a diet that fights inflammation. Specialized diets like the Mediterranean Diet can lower inflammation and have reduced pain symptoms in many chronic pain sufferers.

Inflammation and Your Health

At the heart of the inflammation process is an immune response.  If there is an injury or the presence of foreign substances, your immune system will mobilize white blood cells, cytokines and nutrients to combat the infection or expedite the healing process. Without this response, your wounds would go unhealed and infections would overwhelm you.

However, long-term chronic pain can produce a low-level inflammation response throughout the body. In those cases, your immune response has been prompted but lacks a target. This may cause immune cells to attack healthy organs and tissue. It can also lead to health complications like plaque buildup in blood vessels leading to a heart attack or stroke.

Prolonged inflammation may lead to oxidative stress as well as changes in your metabolic processes in the liver, muscle and fat cells. Oxidative stress, an imbalance between harmful free radicals and beneficial antioxidants, is a precursor to oxidative damage which harms cells and may contribute to many chronic diseases.

Chronic inflammation may also damage DNA in your cells, which may, in turn cause a breakdown in the cell replication process.  This may eventually lead to unchecked cell growth, also known as cancer.

Long-term inflammation is difficult to detect using normal medical examination techniques, but your doctor can test for C-reactive protein (CRP), a biological indicator for chronic inflammation. Although elevated CRP levels may be indicative of other health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or infection, it may suggest that low-level inflammation is a concern.

How Diet Affects Inflammation

There is an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence that nutrition has a profound impact on inflammation.  One study found that certain foods affect key inflammatory pathways in our metabolic system. Research suggests that the ideal diet is one that includes the following:

  • Low in refined carbohydrates
  • High in soluble fiber
  • High in mono-unsaturated fatty acids
  • High in polyphenols
  • Higher ratio of omega-3 to omega-6

An anti-inflammatory diet may not be sufficient alone to lower inflammation levels to healthy norms, but it should be a key component in your pain management strategy.  Furthermore a healthy diet should also help keep in check your underlying chronic health condition as well as exacerbating factors like obesity and high blood pressure.

Healthy Foods

If you discuss an anti-inflammatory diet with your doctor, they are likely to recommend the Mediterranean Diet which is a vegan plan. This diet is based on eating habits of people around the Mediterranean Sea, where life expectancy is higher and cancer and cardiovascular disease rates are lower. That may be why U.S. News and World Reports recently ranked the Mediterranean Diet number one among 41 diets.

The Mediterranean Diet boasts many key benefits for chronic pain sufferers including

  • Weight loss
  • Heart health
  • Brain health
  • Diabetes prevention and control
  • Cancer prevention
  • Lower inflammation

Unlike other diets that have strict requirements, the Mediterranean Diet is more about eating habits. You are free to eat as much as you like, but only from certain food type.  The primary components of the Mediterranean Diet plan include

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Whole grains
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Fish or seafood (in moderation)
  • Olive oil
  • Poultry (in moderation)
  • Egg
  • Cheese
  • Yogurt
  • Red wine (one glass a day for women and two glasses a day for men)

In addition to complying with the dietary recommendations, you should also maintain an active lifestyle.  This doesn’t necessarily mean very strenuous exercise, but may include walking, yoga or gardening for at least two and a half hours a week.

One of the key reasons that the Mediterranean Diet is so beneficial for chronic pain sufferers is that it is high in antioxidants and polyphenols which relieve oxidative stress, one of the primary ways that inflammation damages your body.

Although the Mediterranean Diet is not as restrictive as other diets, there are some foods you should avoid because they promote inflammation:

  • White bread
  • Pastries
  • Deep fried foods
  • Sodas and sugary drinks
  • Red meat
  • Processed meats like hot dogs or sausages
  • Margarine, shortening or lard

Other Anti-Inflammatory Strategies

While a healthy diet can help you go a long way towards lowering inflammation, there are also other anti-inflammatory techniques you may use.

  • Exercise regularly—moderately strenuous exercise that includes aerobic as well as weight training can help limit inflammation.
  • Lose weight—a healthy diet combined with regular, calorie-burning exercise should help you lose a few pounds. If you are obese, you may want to prioritize weight loss since fatty tissue promotes inflammation.
  • Reduce stress—you may not realize how much the anxiety and stress that you experience is contributing to inflammation levels, but prolonged stress elevates cortisol levels which damages tissue and your immune system.  You may want to try yoga or biofeedback to help you manage your stress.
  • Limit exposure to toxins—limit the toxic materials in your environment.  Find organic substitutes for more harmful products so that your immune system has less of a load to carry.
  • Sleep more—one of the most damaging habits you can engage in is depriving yourself of sleep.  Sleep loss has been shown to trigger inflammation, so make a full night’s rest a priority. If you have sleep issues, discuss your options with your doctor.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information. 

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