A few years ago, my mom woke me up in the middle of the night complaining of chest pains. As I frantically searched for my car keys, one scary thought kept racing through my mind: "She's having a heart attack. ... She's having a heart attack. ..."
I hurried her into my car, backed out of the driveway and took off for the hospital. About halfway there, she told me to pull the car over. She was feeling better, but I insisted on taking her to the hospital. After a quick exam, the doctor said she was fine and blamed the chest pains not on a heart attack but on acid reflux.
The culprit? Our traditional Sunday afternoon pasta and tomato sauce, eaten just a few hours before.
While an estimated 40 million Americans live with what they describe as chronic pain, many more suffer from acute bouts of pain, such as acid reflux and headaches. But be it chronic or acute, pain is something we'd all like to live without.
Dr. Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and president of the Cancer Project in Washington, D.C., believes that pain-free living could be a dietary change away.
"What we know is that when people eliminate certain foods from their diets, their symptoms are eliminated or reduced, so we know that there is a link here," says Barnard, who is an outspoken advocate of vegetarianism. The link could be a number of things, ranging from a reaction to certain proteins found in particular foods, to an increase in cholesterol, which can irritate the lining of our arteries, he says.
Since pain is something that we'd all like to live without, we've rounded up the worst pain-inducing offenders for headaches, acid reflux and arthritis.
But as Dr. Ali Askari, director of rheumatology at University Hospitals Case Medical Center in Cleveland, warns, results may vary.
"It's different for each person," he says. "For instance, John's arthritis may get worse when he eats tomatoes or carbonated beverages, but Mary's arthritis may get worse when she drinks coffee."
Both Askari and Barnard agree that the best approach is elimination.
We put them in chunks on our salads. We eat them ground up in our tomato sauce. And the chemical that makes them so red -- lycopene -- may lower our risk for certain cancers. But for the millions of Americans who suffer from heartburn and acid reflux, the tangy fruit is a chest pain waiting to happen.
"Tomatoes or tomato-based products can lead to or contribute to heartburn because they affect the lower esophageal sphincter," says Dr. Felice Sussman, a gastrointestinal specialist and director of research at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York.
When you ingest things like a tomato or spicy foods, the lower esophageal sphincter has an abnormal relaxation, and it allows the acid contents of the stomach to splash back up into the esophagus. This causes the discomfort known as heartburn, says Sussman.
And although everyone experiences small amounts of reflux every day, some people's acid reflux is so severe that the excessive amount of acid actually breaks down the lining of the esophagus, leading to extraordinary pain.