What? There are Foods That Can Calm My Pain?

foods-ms-webby Dionetta Hudzinski

Inflammation is a useful defense mechanism of your body. It is part of your immune system. It is the body’s way to heal itself from injury or invasion.  People in pain have an over active immune response and increased inflammation throughout their body.  This is inflammation which has outlived its usefulness and can cause damage to your joints and connective tissues like your tendons. Inflammation can manifest itself in a variety of painful conditions such as Arthritis and Fibromyalgia.

So how can we reduce or eliminate this unwelcomed guest – inflammation?  There are several classifications of medication out there that help in this process.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) like Aspirin, Advil and Aleve
  • Steroids like Prednisone
  • Immune suppressant medications (disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs -DMARDS) like Methotrexate and Humira and Enbrel (for Rheumatoid arthritis and sero-negative arthritis)

Although these medications have excellent anti-inflammation properties, they also have many unwanted side effects that may outweigh the benefits for some.  The NSAIDS can cause GI bleeding; Steroids can cause osteoporosis, avascular necrosis of joints (especially the hip joint), lung problems, and shut down your own adrenal system; and the DMARDS compromise your immune system and put you at risk for infection.  These medications can be lifesaving for some (benefits outweigh the risks) in that they can lessen the pain and allow for better functioning throughout the day.  But for others the risks may outweigh the benefits and the side effects can become worse than the condition being treated.  So what is the alternative if you cannot take these medications due to allergic reactions or severe side effects?

Take a look at the foods you eat. There are some foods that help reduce inflammation which calms the pain.  This approach is not a cure by any stretch of the imagination. However, for some this might be just the ticket to reduce pain enough so that medication doses can be lowered and at times eliminated along with their side effect risks.  Some research studies suggest that eating certain foods might actually help pain medications and anti-inflammatory medications work better.

Let me share what I found from the Anti-inflammatory Pyramid on Dr. Andrew Weil’s website. It is set up like the USDA food pyramid and encourages healthy food choices. The base of the pyramid is vegetables (4-5 servings a day) and fruits (3 – 4 servings a day). The top of the pyramid are healthy sweets like dark chocolate (sparingly).  In between are other categories of healthy food choices that are considered to be anti-inflammatory.

Foods to avoid or eliminate–if you have pain from inflammation:

  • All processed foods that come in boxes or designed as frozen dinners. All junk food and snack foods high in salt, sugar and artificial ingredients and fat
  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Sugar (use sparingly)
  • Artificial sugar substitutes (contain chemicals that can be harmful)
  • Peanuts – contain omega 6 fats which increases arachidonic acid production which is directly related to inflammation.
  • Cooking oils such as: safflower, soy, sunflower, corn, cottonseed
  • Trans fats – promote inflammation, obesity and resistance to insulin, you can find trans fats in commercially baked goods and pastries, margarines, and vegetable oils
  • Fried foods and meats cooked at high temperatures
  • Dairy products – kefir and some yogurts are acceptable but other dairy products like milk can trigger inflammation
  • Feedlot raised meat contains high inflammatory products
  • Red and processed meat: Red meat contains a molecule that when ingested can trigger an inflammatory response.
  • Alcoholic beverages – regular consumption causes irritation and inflammation to many organs in your body especially the liver which is an organ we need to detoxify our blood.
  • Refined grains: anything that is white, rice, flour, white bread, pastries, pasta
  • Artificial food additives such as aspartame and MSG can trigger inflammatory responses
  • Nightshade family: tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes and some peppers
  • Soda especially diet sodas and any beverage with artificial coloring and ingredients

As you look at this list I know what you are thinking—what in the world should I eat? As we approach the winter holidays with parties and family gatherings, everyone brings out old family recipes, well known comfort foods and celebrates with toasts of mulled wine, hard hot cider and other favorites. It will seem short of impossible to make good choices.  Well, I am happy to say that there is good news—there are still plenty of healthy food choices that are anti-inflammatory in nature and may be familiar fare.

Here is a partial list of some foods you might add to your food choices:

  • 4-5 servings per day of fresh vegetables (especially those from the cabbage family) like:
    • Broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower, cabbage and kelp are loaded with antioxidants that detoxify the body of harmful substances.
    • Substitute sweet potatoes for white potatoes;
    • Other good choices are carrots, butternut squash, green leafy vegetables, pumpkin, red and yellow onions, celery and celery seeds.
  • 3-4 servings per day of fresh or frozen fruits:
    • Especially blueberries, tart cherries, cranberries, pomegranate, acai, and grapes.
    • Also oranges, apples, pineapple, kiwi, cantaloupe and mango.
    • Choose organic whenever possible
  • 3-5 servings a day of whole grains and cracked grains such as brown rice, bulgur wheat, cooked oatmeal
  • 2-3 servings per week of whole grain pastas cooked al dente
  • 1-2 servings per day of beans and legumes
  • 5-7 servings per day of healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil, nuts especially walnuts, cashews and almonds, avocados, and seeds like hemp seeds and freshly ground flaxseeds.
  • 2-6 servings per week of fish and seafood: wild Alaskan salmon, black cod, herring and sardines
  • 1-2 servings per day of whole soy foods: edamame, soy nuts, tofu, tempeh
  • Cooked asian mushrooms – unlimited amounts
  • 1 – 2 servings per week of other sources of protein: natural cheeses, non-fat greek yogurt, omega 3 enriched eggs, skinless poultry, and lean meats

There are healthy herbs and spices that can be introduced or added to recipes, like:

  • Garlic, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon – unlimited amounts.
    • If you are not regularly eating ginger or turmeric consider taking these in supplemental form:
      • Ginger 500 – 1000 mg /day and turmeric or curcumin 1500 mg/day. CAUTION: if you are on a blood thinner like Coumadin skip the ginger as it can act as a blood thinner. Consult your doctor before adding to your daily regimen.
    • You can add cinnamon to your hot beverages (coffee, tea, cocoa—see below) and your oatmeal.
  • Dark chocolate with a minimum cocoa content of 70%. Eat sparingly.

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) determined that an adequate fluid intake for men is close to 13 cups (8 ounces = 1 cup) of total beverages a day and around 9 cups for women. The common advice of drinking eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day (equals 8 cups/day) remains popular because it is easy to remember. It is close to the IOM recommendation if you remember that all fluids count toward the daily total. So, take a look at what beverages you select and drink:

  • Water or drinks that are mostly water (such as very dilute 100% fruit juices), sparkling water with lemon or lime
  • 2-4 cups per day of tea – white, green and oolong
  • Coffee with caffeine in moderation (if you do not have a medical condition where caffeine is not permitted)
  • No more than 1-2 glasses per day of red wine if you are not headache prone from tannin
  • Dark chocolate hot cocoa is another option—drink occasionally

Here is a recipe I found for anti-inflammatory lemonade:

  • 1 cup of fresh squeezed lemon juice (4-6 lemons)
  • 4-6 cups of water
  • 1 tsp ground turmeric
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • Pinch of Himalayan salt
  • Optional: honey to taste and 1 tsp ground or fresh ginger

While the list I have suggested is not exhaustive you can see that an anti-inflammatory diet is full of healthy choices than can help you calm the pain. Like anything, start with small changes; make substitutes in one area at a time. For example, begin with adding more fresh fruits and vegetables or eating sweet potatoes instead of white. Look at the holiday feasts presented and choose carefully. As you adapt to new eating and succeed, you will be more willing to take on a new challenge. Remember, change of any kind is a marathon not a sprint.

I believe that the key to the anti-inflammatory diet is to eat healthy, eat fresh whole foods rather than processed foods, exercise to the extent you are able and reduce your stress all of which will increase your well-being, decrease inflammation and help you cope better with the daily stressors of life and calm your pain. Here’s to healthy eating and reducing your pain. Please share with me any tips you might have to reduce inflammation from foods.  What foods have you found that help your pain?

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