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Nutrition for Chronic Pain

By Bonnie Nasar, RDN

man sitting on a couch with his head in his hand

Approximately 50 - 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain conditions. Currently, most chronic pain warriors have limited options to relieve their suffering. Sadly, they often suffer in silence, as chronic pain is not always visible on the outside.

While physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and massage can help, there is one other treatment modality that is often overlooked- nutrition. What we eat can affect how we feel, and this includes pain. One study which looked at a low glycemic index diet and migraines found that eating this way decreased migraines for the patients. It isn’t only the nutrition we are eating, but also looking for nutrient deficiencies that can sometimes help decrease pain.

Eating a well-balanced diet can also help improve sleep habits, which are known to effect pain status. A good night’s sleep helps our brain process information better, and this includes processing pain, thereby decreasing stress on the body.

So what does a diet look like for chronic pain patients? It depends on the root cause of the pain, of course. It is always best to consult with a registered dietitian before changing your diet, but here are some tips you can try:

Going Gluten Free- There is anecdotal evidence to support that some autoimmune diseases respond well to a gluten-free diet. We are seeing a growing body of evidence to support the fact that there is a very real condition called gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, without having celiac disease. For people who think they may have an issue with gluten, try going gluten-free for a couple months and see if your pain levels improve.

Following a Low FODMAP Diet: This diet, out of Monash University, was initiated originally to help those with irritable bowel syndrome. If a person’s primary complaint is abdominal bloating and abdominal pain, this diet might help alleviate symptoms. Foods high in FODMAPs (fructose, fructans, lactose, galactans, and polyols) are eliminated from the diet. If improvement is noted, foods are reintroduced one by one to see if they are tolerated.

Low Carbohydrate/Modified Ketogenic Diet: There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that putting the body into ketosis can affect a person’s level of pain. One study with mice showed that when compared to a regular diet, mice who were on a ketogenic diet felt less pain and had less inflammation when exposed to pain-inducing situations. More research is needed of course, to see if this diet affects humans the same way.

Optimizing Nutrition: Looking for deficiencies in vitamins and minerals is always a good idea. Low levels of Vitamin D, for instance, can cause widespread aches and pains. Your physician can check your blood levels, and if any deficiencies are found, supplements and diet modifications can be recommended by your registered dietitian.

One thing to note when chronic pain patients are looking to make dietary changes- go slow! Switching your diet can throw your already sensitive body for a loop, and spiral down into more pain. Changes should be gradual, and monitored for effects, both positive and negative. It is always a good idea to keep a food and symptom journal to help look for patterns.

Bonnie Nasar is a chronic pain warrior and registered dietitian nutritionist. You can visit her website at

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