People suffering from chronic pain have options besides rummaging around in the medicine cabinet or visiting a doctor to try to figure out which painkiller works best for them. Certain foods have the ability to diminish pain over time. Foods containing antioxidants can help reduce the damage the body goes through when food and oxygen react and create free radicals as byproducts. Some foods have the ability to reduce the inflammation causing the body’s pain response. Still other foods strengthen the immune system, which helps to prevent and reduce illness as well as to limit inflammation.
Beth Reardon, the director of nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine, claims that dietary changes are much healthier in the long term than the extended use of painkillers. “We get in the habit of taking Advil or Aleve to treat pain symptoms, without getting at the underlying cause of pain. Over time these medications, because of their side effects, can do more harm than good,” she explained. "Changing your diet...protects your cells from damage and reduces the number of inflammatory compounds the body produces."
Anti-inflammatory foods have also been linked to weight loss, which makes the pain reduction even more effective. A recent study published in the journal Cancer Research found that losing 5% of body weight eases joint strain and reduces inflammation.
Choosing more foods from the categories below can make a real difference in a person’s pain level.
Fish and plant protein
Protein from fish and plant sources provide far more omega-3 fatty acids than typical protein sources like beef and chicken. Fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and herrings are a good source of the long chain omega-3s which have been linked to reductions in both rheumatoid and osteoarthritis. Protein-rich plants provide a good supply of essential short chain omega-3s. Vegetable sources of protein can include legumes, such as beans and lentils; seeds and nuts; and ancient grains like spelt and quinoa.
Salmon is by far the most omega-3 laden of fish, but fresh salmon can be pricy. Canned salmon, however, is less expensive and may even be healthier, since it uses wild-caught salmon instead of farm-raised salmon which may be contaminated with toxins.
Herbs and spices
Certain spices, including garlic, turmeric, dried tart cherry, cinnamon, ginger, rosemary, and curry, act to prevent inflammation by decreasing the body’s production of COX inhibitors and prostaglandins, a similar mechanism to the painkiller Celebrex.
Reardon particularly recommends turmeric as a pain-killing spice. Its anti-inflammatory properties have been shown to decrease rheumatoid arthritis pain.
Certain oils, like olive, coconut, and grape seed, contain a high number of omega-3s, as do flaxseeds and nut butters, particularly almond butter and cashew butter. Most Americans have an unhealthy ratio of omega-3s to the unhealthy omega-6s found in processed foods and red meats. By replacing unhealthy fats with these healthy ones, the ratio can be reversed, which will help the body better regulate the hormones which produce and reduce inflammation.
Coconut oil has the added advantage of being a good food for the cells of the stomach lining, which aids in efficient digestion and keeps the immune system running well.
Fruits and Vegetables
A diet consisting primarily of unprocessed, plant-based foods creates antioxidant protection for your cell membranes and DNA. Processed, high-sugar foods are already well-known for increasing blood glucose and eventually leading to type 2 diabetes, but the extra insulin the body creates to try to deal with the extra glucose can also cause inflammation.
When looking for fruits and vegetables, it’s important to select a wide variety; good health requires a number of different nutrients from different sources to work in harmony. A good rule of thumb is to select food of different colors: green spinach, yellow squash, purple eggplant, red grapes, and so on. As a general rule, plants with more intense color have a higher number of antioxidants, but even naturally pale foods like cauliflower will provide many benefits.
Kale is one of the most beneficial vegetables around. This dark leafy green is full of fiber, nutrients, and beneficial flavonoids. It’s also easy to prepare; it can be chopped fine and included in soups or sauces, used raw in salads and pasta, or baked into crispy kale chips.
Probiotics are beneficial to the bacteria which live in the digestive system and help break down food. These good bacteria can lose population from stress, pollution, or poor nutrition. Antibiotics prescribed for illness kill the good bacteria right along with the ones causing infection, so additional probiotics can be useful once the infection has cleared. Probiotics can be found in fermented foods such as kimchee and sauerkraut and in yogurts which have live cultures; Lactobacillus acidophilus and L. bifidus should be listed on the label.
Greek yogurt contains all the probiotics of regular yogurt, but it also contains extra vitamin D and nearly twice as much protein as regular yogurt. Greek yogurt can be eaten plain, but it does have a sour taste so some people mix fruit or honey into it.
Plenty of Fluids
Plain water is an absolute necessity to the human body. The body’s organs and blood are comprised of nearly 90% water. The liver and kidneys need water to detoxify the blood of chemicals which shouldn’t be there. Even cellular processes require water. Good hydration is essential to keeping the body’s internal processes running smoothly.
Coffee, black tea, and green tea work against inflammation, and their caffeine content can help ease headache pain. Green tea contains more antioxidants than black tea or coffee. Powdered green tea, a finely ground version of the tea leaves, provides more benefit than regular green tea steeped from a tea bag. The steeped tea contains the tea’s water-soluble antioxidants, but consuming the powder provides the benefit of all antioxidants in the leaf. Green tea powder, or matcha, can be added to soups and baked goods or mixed in to beverages.
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