Healing Meals: Foods That May Fight Pain

Eleven years ago, Sandy Guerriere of North Carolina was crippled with pain and nearly bedridden from her rheumatoid arthritis.

"I was scared. … I couldn't do anything, I lay in bed," she said. "The disease is horrible."

That was then. Now, Guerriere is up and walking, enjoying her career and looking decades younger than her 61 years.

Her remedy, she claims, is not due to any drug or medical treatment -- but a diet.

Guerriere eats strictly a Mediterranean diet -- rich in olive oil, vegetables and whole grains and avoids dairy, processed flour and sugar. She also swears by juicing -- blending up fresh fruit, vegetables and herbs for a daily, healthful concoction.

Guerriere's regimen is only one of many diets that are rumored to help people combat their pain conditions. The Internet lists diets and foods promising to cure chronic pain, from gluten-free food to gin-soaked raisins. And while our diets can influence our health in myriad ways, the question remains as to how much our daily meals affect how we physically feel.

Feel-Good Grocery List

"There are many foods that are recommended [for pain management] based on small studies," said Dr. Joseph Sherman, chair of pain management at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., "Bottom line, these are just small studies. … We'd like them to be a lot more evidence based."

Sherman lists a series of foods that may help with pain: cherries, soy, oranges, peaches, asparagus, cranberries, cauliflower and kiwi, to name a few.

But these foods won't necessarily help erase pain for those with chronic conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia.

In the case of rheumatoid arthritis, the pain and stiffness comes from the body's natural inflammatory response that's gone haywire. Susan Levin, staff dietitian for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, explains that certain chemicals in fats can "fan the flames of inflammation, while others cool them down."

So going fat-free may help avoid the inflammation. Then again, other foods may be the culprit. Levin notes that dairy, chocolate, eggs, citrus, meat, wheat, corn and nuts can exacerbate inflammation, along with beverages such as red wine, coffee, tea and sodas.

Levin doesn't recommend any particular diet, but rather an elimination process.

"I would recommend avoiding the common triggers completely for four weeks, then reintroduce one at a time every two days," Levin writes in an e-mail. "Elimination diets can help pinpoint the cause of other chronic pain issues such as rheumatoid arthritis and back pain. When researchers began to suspect that foods played a role in arthritis, some eliminated the problem by putting patients on a supervised fast for several days. As it turns out, it works well. The vast majority of patients improve, and the relief is often striking."

In effect, this was how Guerriere arrived at the Mediterranean diet.

"Whenever I would eat certain foods, I noticed that maybe the next day maybe I would be swollen," Guerriere said. "I decided I better start watching my diet a little closer. … It took me three years to figure out a program that I could tell was working for me."

No Miracle Cure

However, other chronic pain victims haven't found the same success with their diet.

Cynthia Toussaint of California suffers from a debilitating pain disorder know as reflex sympathetic dystrophy and hasn't found any foods that help her condition.

"There are always miracle cures," said Toussaint, "but there aren't any when you're talking about chronic pain…I think people get better because of the placebo effect."

Toussaint said that she's been plied by companies to try their pain-fixing diets -- like drinking noni juice, a concoction made from the tropical noni fruit.

"They claim it's a cure-all," Toussaint says. "It tastes awful … like vomit. I took it for as long as they asked me to … and it did nothing for me."

Dr. Doris Cope, professor and vice chairman of pain medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's Pain Medicine Program, says that there's no direct dietary answer to chronic pain and notes that many chronic pain diseases are changeable.

"The natural course of [the disease] is to come and go and get better and worse with time," she said. "You might get better and you would attribute to something you've done."

However, Cope says that certain diets, like vegan or vegetarian, may help people indirectly through losing weight.

"One of the biggest contributors to pain is weight, so anything that causes weight loss is going to help," she said.

Finding a Balance

However, taking any diet to the extreme can be dangerous. One of Cope's pain disorder patients developed anorexia while trying to control her condition.

"She was a type-A person and she was just going take control of her disease," said Cope. "She didn't realize she was a skeleton. … She was trying to gain control."

In general, most doctors recommend a typical healthy diet for chronic pain sufferers, with an emphasis on fish oils.

"I personally suggest getting Alaskan salmon," said Sherman. "I always tell my patients that fish don't have back pain. … Bottom line is, get your weight down, eat a healthy, fish-vegetarian-type diet. It's just a basic cardiac diet."

However, people like Guerriere still stand out as a mysterious example of a food-based treatment for pain.

"I still have flares every now and then -- I am not cured by any means," Guerriere said. "I have my ups and downs. But I'm on no medication. I found my own way."

While changing your diet may help your health, doctors emphasize that moderation is better than anything extreme.

"So much in our lives is time driven, we're constantly setting these goals for ourselves -- putting ourselves into type-A diet is just adding more stress," said Dr. Cope. "You get as much benefit from a balanced diet and meditation and exercise."

"A moderate approach to good nutrition, good sleep habits -- things like that are much better than how many grams of fish oil you take."