Are You Eating a "Painful" Diet?

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

Whoever coined the phrase you are what you eat clearly understood that what we put in our bodies can impact everything from energy levels to skin health to risk of disease to frank disease, with a bit of help from our genetics.

It can be baffling to health professionals when a patient understands that putting the wrong type of gas in a car can 'hurt’ the car, but struggles with understanding that the foods one chooses, can significantly influence risk of disease or can exacerbate disease. A new study published by University of Alabama at Birmingham researcher Robert Sorge Ph.D. and his team, suggests that individuals who suffer with chronic pain and practice poor dietary habits can increase or heighten their pain sensitivity.

In this case, a poor diet means a Western Diet. That’s right! The study found that the typical American diet has negative effects with respect to hypersensitivity and susceptibility to chronic pain. Is it the diet itself, or the weight gain that may ensure from following a diet like the typical western diet, or both, that influence the pain? This new research suggests that a poor quality diet and increased pain are directly linked.

The research focus was to actually explore the link between obesity and chronic pain, given current rates of obesity. Very often in a patient, chronic pain and obesity are strongly associated. Excess weight can, for example, slowly destroy knee and ankle joints. The researchers used the acronym TWD to describe Total Western Diet, a diet filled with foods that have fewer calories from protein, and more calories from refined carbohydrates and fats (specifically monounsaturated and saturated). This diet is associated with societies in our part of the world, especially the U.S.

The study helps us to realize that weight gain alone is not the singular concern for someone who eats a TWD. Sure that is an obvious symptom of the diet, but the implications of a poor diet go far beyond just weight gain. Mice in the study were fed a TWD to see the functional and physiological implications. After 13 weeks on the diet the researchers observed:

  • Increases in pro-inflammatory cytokines (they promoted systemic inflammation).

  • Increase in serum leptin, a hormone secreted by adipose (fat) tissue that regulates long-term appetite and energy expenditure.

These findings were similar to those found in obese humans. The researchers wanted to go a step further to see if the TWD specifically linked to chronic pain, by making it worse. By manipulating certain factors they introduced chronic pain into the mouse study, and then found that the TWD created hypersensitivity to heat and to touch. Additionally they found that the hypersensitivity to the two stimuli was prolonged.

The conclusion was that the TWD diet prevented normal recovery from the mild inflammatory insult that they instigated in the mice. So patients who live with ongoing chronic pain and follow an unhealthy diet may be instigating heightened pain responses. That can also mean that post surgery, pain may be exaggerated if one is following a poor diet, or chronic pain may entrench and persist longer after an injury or surgery. Beginning to understand the impact of a poor diet can help doctors and patients to grasp the clinical implications of a healthier diet.

What can you do from a dietary perspective if you suffer with chronic pain?* Eat a whole food diet including fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, beans, legumes, fish, poultry, and simple whole grains are a good core for your diet. Eat fresh foods and buy organic at least for the dirty dozen.

  • Cook more at home so you control the ingredients.

  • Limit processed foods like fast food, refined grains, and highly processed foods which are full of salt, sugar, and unhealthy fats, which can cause inflammatory reactions in your body and further fuel pain. Additives and preservatives have been implicated as a cause of IBS flare-ups.

  • Consider following a Mediterranean-style Diet which has been classified as an anti-inflammatory diet thanks to its rich omega-3 fatty acid content (olive oil, fish, and nuts). Some patients also find that eating a vegan diet can improve and limit pain.

  • Avoid nightshade plants (tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes) if you suffer with joint pain and notice that these cause flare-ups of pain.

  • Avoiding aspartame may help to limit pain in some individuals.

  • Roots like ginger can combat inflammation.

  • Turmeric or curcumin gives curry foods their yellow color and seems to have anti-inflammatory properties.

  • Caffeine has been shown to reduce the perception of pain, so include coffee and teas in your daily diet. Discuss appropriate levels of caffeine with your doctor.

If you suffer with fibromyalgia, you may be “sensitive” to certain foods, and an elimination diet can help to identify the foods you should avoid.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”