Five Pillars of Pain-Free Living: Nutrition

The penultimate pillar of pain-free living that I would like to explore with you is ‘Nutrition’. 

Did you know that much of the chronic pain we suffer is the result of inflammation of our muscles, tissue and joints? When you think of inflammation, you might think of it as a bad thing, but it can actually play a very important role. When a virus or bacteria infects us, or we get injured, our immune system sends all-important white blood cells to repair the affected area, causing short-term inflammation. As we heal, the inflammation subsides. Sometimes, our immune system can be left ‘switched on’ though and over prolonged periods, this can damage healthy cells, causing persistent pain. Chronic inflammation also increases our risk of serious conditions such as diabetes, certain cancers, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.   

So where does nutrition come into this?

“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.”

Jim Rohn

The ‘human’ diet

There have been numerous studies carried out regarding nutrition over the years. Diet-based diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes have been increasing dramatically in the last few decades. You may assume that this is because people haven’t been listening to guidance on what we should and shouldn’t be eating. However, studies have shown that it isn’t just what we eat; our genetics, lifestyle and gut bacteria also play a huge role.

I am particularly interested in a study by Professor Eran Segal, who has also written books on this topic. Professor Segal studied the effect of a range of foods on blood sugar levels and determined that responses to food are personal, and no single, best diet exists for all humans. For some, a banana might cause a spike in blood sugar levels, while the effect is negligible in others. Surprisingly, the study found that rice caused blood sugar spikes in more people than ice cream did! Who would have expected that?! The conclusion here is that diets need to be tailored to individuals.

For more information, why not watch Professor Segal’s TED talk? It really is interesting stuff!

Nutrition and our immune systems

Food certainly plays a part in how well our immune systems switch on and off at the appropriate times, and subsequently, how our bodies manage inflammation. In an ideal world, we would like to know how each of our bodies is affected by the different foods we eat, but unfortunately, that isn’t possible yet. However, we can look at government guidance and try to eat foods considered to help reduce inflammation and positively affect our immune system. 

For example: 
Antioxidants known as polyphenols can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Omega-3 fatty acids can help control inflammation. 
An unhealthy diet can cause our immune system to react in a similar way to how it would a bacterial infection.
Micronutrient deficiencies such as zinc, selenium, iron, folic acid and vitamins A, B6, C and E can alter our immune system function.
A healthier diet can combat feelings of sluggishness, enabling us to get out and exercise more. Gentle movement and stretching are another great way to fight chronic pain.

You may wish to start a food journal to track how your diet affects pain and see if you notice your blood sugar level is affected by unexpected culprits.

The Mediterranean way

This part of the world certainly gets a lot more sunshine than we do in the UK, making people feel healthier and happier. They also have something else – the Mediterranean diet! Packed full of healthy oils, fatty fish (such as sardines and mackerel), whole fruits, leafy vegetables, whole grains and nuts. It is also lacking in processed ‘junk’ food, sugar and highly refined carbohydrates.

Variety is the spice of life

In order to cut out ‘bad’ inflammatory culprits and increase some of the anti-inflammatory foods we have just looked at, it’s important to consider our regular meals:

  • Aim for variety. Don’t just choose a few favourites. Explore a range of healthy ingredients.
  • Guidance recommends that we should pack half of our plates with healthy whole grains such as brown bread, wholegrain pasta, brown rice, and lean proteins such as turkey, chicken, fish and nuts. Load the remaining half with vegetables and some fruits.
  • Avoid butter for cooking and flavouring. Instead, try using healthy oils such as olive oil and olive spread.
  • Try not to see this as a diet but a new way of eating that could have a lasting impact on your pain and longevity.
Eat the rainbow!

I’m sure you’re well aware of the ‘5-a-day’ recommendations. As we’ve just discussed, it’s important to pack each meal with as many vegetables and pieces of fruit as possible. Try to eat a variety of colours to ensure you are getting an array of essential vitamins and nutrients that can help prevent disease and manage flare-ups. Here are a few examples of ‘eating the rainbow’:

  • Red – red pepper, apple, tomato, strawberries, beetroot, raspberries, cranberries.
  • Orange – carrot, apricot, orange, pumpkin, mango, orange pepper, sweet potato.
  • Yellow – banana, pineapple, sweetcorn, golden beetroot, butternut squash, grapefruit, cauliflower.
  • Green – asparagus, courgette, pear, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, spinach, avocado, green grapes.
  • Blue/purple – aubergine, purple cabbage, plum, blueberries, cherries, blackberries. 

“Your body is a temple, but only if you treat it as one.”   

Astrid Alauda

I hope that have a better understanding of how nutrition can play a part in controlling inflammation and chronic pain. With just a few simple changes to your diet, you should also see improvements in your overall health and energy levels. Please remember though that there isn’t a one size fits all approach to diet and nutrition; it is a very personal and complex subject.