Chronic pain is one of the most widely-recognized medical terms for the obvious reason that a majority of individuals suffer from some form of… you guessed it… chronic pain. This type of ailment differs from other types of pain as it usually negatively affects your daily life, making it difficult to accomplish normal tasks, and it can eventually affect your mental health, causing severe depression.
While chronic pain may stem from many different sources — an injury, a disease or condition, or an unknown source — one of the persistent and almost universal causes is chronic inflammation.
You’ve most likely heard this term thrown about frequently in the health world lately. Inflammation is quickly becoming the leading cause of many health conditions outside of chronic pain, including poor gut health, autoimmune diseases, mental health disorders, and even cancer.
When it comes to chronic pain, inflammation is generally pinned down as the underlying culprit.
The consequences of chronic inflammation with chronic pain can be far-reaching, including a build-up of scar tissue, decreased flexibility, hardening of arteries (which can lead to atherosclerosis), and even the acceleration of joint degeneration leading to arthritis. All of these factors may be causing a different type of pain that you would never associate with inflammation.
What can you do to help heal your body and reduce pain?
Try integrating plant-based foods into your diet! Recent studies have shown that a high intake of plant-based foods may be a leading intervention to help decrease the level of inflammation and help manage chronic pain. Plant-based foods are naturally rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents, as well as vitamins, minerals, and essential macronutrients.
Understanding What Chronic Pain Is
Chronic pain — also called chronic pain syndrome — refers to pain that forgoes so-called “normal” types of pain, which occur “after an injury heals or an illness runs its course.” Chronic pain can draw out for months or even years, oftentimes without a specific known cause or trigger. If constant pain lasts longer than three to six months, your doctor will generally categorize it as chronic pain. Chronic pain syndrome is so prevalent in the states that it is said to affect “some 25 million Americans.”
While pain is different for every person, chronic pain is generally experienced as joint pain, muscle aches, and burning pain. On top of that, chronic pain is also experienced in less obvious ways, such as severe fatigue and sleep issues, mood problems — depression, anxiety, irritability — and even loss of stamina or flexibility, generally caused by a lack of activity due to the chronic pain.
What’s Going on in Your Body?
Depending on the cause of chronic pain, there may be different things happening in your body. With that said, most chronic pain sufferers share a few things in common. First off, with chronic pain “your body continues to send pain signals to your brain, even after an injury heals,” meaning that the trauma or illness may have healed, but your body still believes it’s in pain. Secondly, most people suffering from chronic pain generally are also suffering from some sort of bodily inflammation, inflammation-related disorder, or chronic inflammatory issue.
Unfortunately, chronic pain can affect any part of your body. Yet, there are a few more common areas of issue including headaches, postsurgical pain, post-trauma pain, lower back pain, cancer pain, arthritis pain, neurogenic pain, — caused by nerve damage — and psychogenic pain — unknown pain that is not caused by disease, injury, or nerve damage.
What Causes Chronic Pain?
Causes of chronic pain vary depending on the person and their particular situation.
Possibly, it’s an injury that did not heal correctly or trauma from a surgical procedure. It could also be a lingering ghost pain from an illness that created a “miscommunication between the brain and the nervous system,” so that your body doesn’t know it’s not in pain anymore. This type of “ghost” pain is continually worsened in a cycle as chronic pain changes “the way neurons … behave, making them hypersensitive to pain messages.”
Nerve cells are damaged by pain, thereby making the pain worse.
With that said, there are a few common conditions that are known causes of chronic pain syndrome, including back pain — stemming from “muscles strains, nerve compression, or arthritis of the spine — osteoarthritis — the wearing of the “protective cartilage between bones” — fibromyalgia — a “neurological condition that causes pain and tenderness” for unknown reasons — advanced cancer in the body, and autoimmune diseases, in particular, rheumatoid arthritis — inflammation of the joints — and inflammatory bowel disease — “inflammation of the digestive tract.”
The Chronic Pain — Inflammation Cycle
There may be a handful of conditions that cause chronic pain, yet one of the most common triggers and instigators of pain is bodily inflammation.
What is inflammation?
You may be familiar with this word as it’s become a hot-button term in the health world over the last few decades. While inflammation has gotten a bad rap, it’s an essential and normal bodily response. For instance, “when you are injured or get infected, your body signals the immune system to send white blood cells to the affected areas to repair the injury or fight the infection.” An inflammatory response is meant to keep you safe and healthy.
Unfortunately, sometimes the inflammatory response can go a little haywire — when your “immune system gets turned on and stays on after the ‘crisis’ has passed” — whether it’s due to diet, disease, condition, or injury. This leads to chronic inflammation, which is a condition that can cause a slew of health issues, including an increase in the “risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and even Alzheimer’s disease,” as well as “damage [to] healthy cells and organs and [causing] constant pain in muscles, tissues, and joints.”
Hence the connection between chronic pain syndrome and chronic inflammation.
Plant-Based Foods to Fight Chronic Pain
So, chronic inflammation is a key component of chronic pain. How can you combat inflammation?
First off, talk to your doctor about this as a possible cause or component of your pain. There are certain tests that your doctor can perform to check your inflammatory health. They may also have a special course of treatment particular to your exact situation.
With that said, diet plays a huge role in both causing and mitigating inflammation.
Per Dr. Fred Tabung — a visiting researcher with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard — in a Harvard Medical School article entitled Can Diet Heal Chronic Pain? “a lot of chronic pain is the result of chronic inflammation, and the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation … But your diet is also one of the best ways to reduce it.” When it comes to reducing bodily inflammation, you can’t get any better than plant-based foods. Most plant-based foods are naturally rich in anti-inflammatory properties, as well as antioxidants, polyphenols, and a variety of vitamins and minerals that boost health and protect your body from harm. Dr. Tabung explains that “your diet can help Support your immune system by having it turn on and turn off at the appropriate times … [while] … a poor diet can alter your immune system, so it acts abnormally, and can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation.”
The Mounting Evidence
It’s not just Dr. Tabung promoting this idea of the diet-inflammation connection. There is a whole slew of studies that Support this theory and, in particular, the theory of a plant-based diet decreasing inflammation and helping to mitigate the symptoms of chronic pain syndrome.
In a 2015 study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine, “600 participants followed a vegan diet for three weeks which significantly reduced C-reactive protein, a key marker for acute and chronic inflammation.” Another study in 2010, published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, “observed 79 rheumatoid arthritis patients who [performed] a vegetable fast for seven to 10 days,” after which they were divided into two groups: one that followed a vegan diet and another that followed a lacto-vegetarian diet — a diet that includes dairy and eggs. While the Lacto-vegetarians didn’t see any change in pain, those that followed the vegan diet “experienced significant improvement in tender and swollen joints, pain, duration of morning stiffness and grip strength.”
Another study entitled Chronic musculoskeletal pain and function improve with a plant-based diet published more recently in 2018 in Complementary Therapies in Medicine followed a small group of 20 participants in an eight-week diet intervention that focused primarily on plant-based foods to mitigate chronic musculoskeletal pain. While only 14 of the participants finished the study, the results found that the “diet intervention resulted in decreased pain and improvement in quality of life.”
Best Chronic Pain-Fighting Plant-Based Foods
Want to start eating for your pain? Before changing your diet, make sure to consult your doctor! Every human body is different, and your doctor can help you tailor a new diet to meet your specific bodily demands, sensitivities, allergies, and needs. After you get the thumbs up from your doctor, you can move forward with a new diet! Switching to a primarily plant-based diet is a great place to start, and yet there are a handful of specific plant-based foods that target and reduce pain. Here are a few that are particularly effective when fighting pain symptoms.
1. Red Grapes
Grapes are one of the best plant-based indulgences to have in your kitchen. This is especially true for those looking to cut out all refined sugar. Even though grapes are high in natural sugar — one cup has around 23 grams — they also happen to be a great source of vitamin A, vitamin K, choline, and potassium, and they are rich in resveratrol, “a powerful compound that blocks the enzymes that contribute to tissue degeneration.” In recent studies, it’s been found that resveratrol may protect “against the kind of cartilage damage that causes back pain.”
Adding grapes into your diet is also super easy and enjoyable! They can be snacked on raw, directly after being washed or you can include them in meals such as this Cinnamon Spiced Apple and Grape Salad or even create your DIY jellies such as this Sugarless Grape Jelly or this 3-Ingredient Grape Chia Jelly. Just remember to use red grapes if you aim to reduce pain!
If you’re a health nut like me, you most likely already keep ginger in some form in your kitchen. This diverse and aromatic ingredient is not only great for naturally kicking nausea and easing digestion but it also has been shown to help fight chronic pain symptoms. In a University of Miami-based study observing patients suffering from chronic knee pain, “almost two-thirds of patients … reported less soreness upon standing after taking a ginger extract.”
It doesn’t hurt that ginger also happens to be delicious! When you’re consuming ginger for its medicinal properties, it’s best to get the most potent version. While extracts and powder varieties can be easy, nothing is better than consuming ginger in its raw form. When you’re just starting, try integrating raw ginger into other flavor-filled recipes such as this Sweet Potato, Ginger, and Coconut Soup, this potent Ginger Tea, or this Basil Pineapple Ginger Smoothie.
For those that have been addressing inflammation for some time, turmeric is a staple in your kitchen. This traditional Indian spice contains a powerful anti-inflammatory agent called curcumin. Curcumin gives turmeric its rich yellowish color and is a powerful antioxidant that is known to help fight inflammation in the body. One study found that turmeric counteracted rheumatoid arthritis as effectively as ibuprofen! Consuming turmeric from the raw root is the most potent way to get the benefits of curcumin such as in this Raw Turmeric Ginger Smoothie (plus, you’ll also get the pain-fighting agents of ginger!). With that said, the powder form is more affordable and will last longer in your pantry. To boost the benefits of the powdered form, mix your turmeric spice with freshly ground black pepper, such as in this Vegetable Pilaf Bowl with Creamy Turmeric Dressing.
Soy fights pain via isoflavones, which are “plant hormones with anti-inflammatory properties.” In a study conducted by Oklahoma State University, it was discovered that “consuming 40 grams of soy protein daily for three months slashed [osteoarthritis] patients’ use of pain medication in half.” Plus, soy is a great source of protein for plant-based eaters! If you want to integrate this pain-fighting agent into your diet, start with classic edamame — such as in this Spicy Garlic Edamame recipe — or try your hand at some tofu-based meatless recipes — such as this Tofu Steaks recipe or this ‘Chicken’ Thai Red Curry With Fried Rice recipe.
To be honest, this one surprised me! When it comes to the pain-fighting powers of caffeine, there are a few different layers to the so-called coffee onion. First off, caffeine has been shown to enhance “the effects of common painkillers such as aspirin and acetaminophen.” Secondly, studies have also shown that caffeine “has pain-lowering powers of its own — at least when it comes to the pain associated with exercise.” A University of Georgia-based study revealed that “moderate doses of caffeine — equivalent to two cups of joe — reduced post-workout pain by almost 50 percent.” Plus, caffeine can help “boost your workout” efficacy as well, which produces a higher level of endorphins, making you feel better.
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