As we get older, most of us end up having cope with chronic pain from osteoarthritis and other conditions. The good news: Researchers have started exploring the pain-relieving properties of certain foods, as well as the tendency of others to aggravate pain.
A long list of foods and food-based supplements are touted as pain-fighters; some of them actually might work, based on scientific data supporting their pain-relief claims.
At the 2013 Integrative Health Symposium, Hal Blatman, MD, chair of the Integrative Medicine Consortium and co-author of The Art of Body Maintenance: The Winners Guide to Pain Relief (Duanna Press, 1999), presented research supporting an “anti-inflammatory” diet: fatty fish, fish oil, vitamin E, fresh vegetables, fruit, and other whole foods. Dr. Blatman, medical director of the Blatman Pain Clinic in Cincinnati, Ohio, also urged attendees to avoid artificial sweeteners and hydrogenated fats, along with processed foods, white flour, and sugar.
Dr. Blatman believes that the foods we eat, combined with the effects of stress and chronic disease, contribute to pain.
On the pain-relief side, the best evidence so far is for omega-3 fats in fish oil supplements and in fatty cold-water fish like salmon and mackerel, says David S. Seres, MD, an associate professor, director of medical nutrition and the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.
The Pain-Fighting Menu
Based on recent research, here are seven foods that we recommend adding to your grocery list.
What the research shows Recent studies support eating more omega-3 fats in salmon and other cold-water fatty fish to combat arthritic and other pain, as well as keep your heart healthy.
Increasing your intake of omega-3 fats can:
- Modestly reduce joint swelling, pain and morning stiffness in RA, leading to less use of NSAIDs, according to a recent British review.
- Decrease the risk of rheumatoid arthritis by 52%, says a just-published large dietary study of senior Swedish women.
- Reduce headache pain, according to a randomized clinical trial reported in July by the National Institutes of Health that also supports reducing pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.
- Significantly reduce non-surgical neck and back pain, say researchers at the University of Pittsburgh. In this study, 66% of people taking fish oil supplements (1,200 mg-2,400 mg of EFAs) for three months improved overall pain and most stopped taking NSAIDs.
How much A twice-weekly serving of fish like salmon, Atlantic mackerel, sardines, or trout (light tuna, halibut, striped bass and snapper are also good sources of Omega-3s). If you don’t like fish or want to take fish oil supplements, check with your doctor first, since they can increase the effects of blood thinners.
The downside “You need high doses, around 100 calories extra a day of fish oil, which is enough to gain a pound a month,” Dr. Seres says.
What the research shows Antioxidant compounds called “anthocyanins” in tart cherries may reduce inflammation at levels comparable to non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS).
Some recent research found:
- Drinking tart cherry juice twice a day for three weeks significantly reduced joint pain in osteoarthritis, say scientists at the Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland.
- A randomized trial found tart cherry juice reduced muscle pain during running.
- A daily dose of tart cherry extract helped reduce osteoarthritis pain by more than 20 percent in a study at the Baylor Research Institute in Texas.
- Eating cherries for two days resulted in a 35 percent lower risk of painful gout attacks, according to Boston University School of Medicine researchers
How much The Agriculture Department says eating 45 Bing cherries a day for 28 days significantly reduces inflammation. A one to one-and-a-half ounce glass of concentrated cherry juice once or twice a day (or two tablespoons of cherry extract) may also do the trick.
The downside Fruit juice and dried fruit are high in sugary calories.
3) Berries (and red grapes)
What the research shows Like cherries, berries and grapes contain anthocyanins and another antioxidant, “ellagitannins,” which studies suggest reduce inflammation at levels comparable to NSAIDs and protect your body against free radicals.
According to the scientists:
- Natural NSAIDs are found in blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries as well as in dark red and purple fruit and juices including grapes, blueberries, cranberries, pomegranates, and acai. (Click here to read more.)
- These fruits improve pain as well as cognition and motor performance, according to a recent animal study showing benefits in a half to one cup of mixed berries a day.
How much To get the biggest benefits, eat a cupful of two to three types of fresh, frozen or dehydrated berries each day. Add fresh berries to non-fat yogurt, sprinkle on some wheat germ, and you have a healthy parfait.
What the research shows Tumeric (curcumin), the yellow spice that gives curry its distinct color and flavor, relieves pain via mechanisms such as regulating expression of key inflammatory enzymes.
According to some studies:
- Curcumin may relieve achy joints: Animal research at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign that suggests curcumin inhibits a protein called NF-kappa B that activates the body’s inflammatory response.
- Two grams a day (extract) proved as effective as 800 mg of ibuprofen at easing pain during walking and managing stairs for people with knee osteoarthritis in a clinical trial from Thailand.
- The spice may have pain-fighting and therapeutic effects in arthritis, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease, according to Baylor University scientists.
How much Turmeric is a great cooking spice, not only for curries and soups, but for other dishes, like scrambled eggs. If you want to try a standardized curcumin extract, the dose used in some clinical studies was 1,500 mg of curcumin extract a day.
The downside Curcumin can reduce iron levels by acting as an iron chelator; if you are low in iron, you might want to give it a miss. Also, some brands of turmeric have been adulterated with lead; buying organic form a local whole food store rather than from an ethnic market is generally considered safe.
5) Onions and Garlic
What the research shows Onions and garlic are among the richest sources of flavonoids – plant chemicals that that mop up damaging free radicals and fight inflammation in rheumatic conditions.
According to scientists:
- Onions and garlic relieve pain and inflammation in osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis through the flavonoid quercetin, which may dampen the inflammation-causing chemicals called leukotrienes, prostaglandins and histamines.
- Garlic cloves contain plant chemicals that animal and lab studies show shut down inflammatory pathways in ways similar to ibuprofen.
- Cornell University researchers say pain-fighting chemicals are highest in shallots and yellow and red onions, and lowest in white and sweet onion varieties.
How much It depends on your individual taste. Onions and garlic are low in calories and add flavor to your salads and just about anything you cook.
The downside Garlic breath, anyone?
What the research shows Ginger is loaded with plant chemicals called gingerols and shogaols, which decrease oxidative damage and reduce muscle soreness.
Some recent research:
- A study from the University of Miami found that almost two-thirds of patients with chronic knee pain had less soreness when standing after sitting for long periods after taking ginger extract.
- Ginger also reduces levels of the pain and inflammation-causing enzyme prostaglandin in a number of painful conditions, including arthritis.
- Ginger can soothe post-workout and musculoskeletal pain, according to research from Iran and elsewhere.
How much Experts suggest using two to three teaspoons of ginger a day, which you can add to soups, stir-fries, cookies and cakes. There are also ginger tea and drinks made with fresh ginger. If you prefer ginger extract, the recommended dose is between 500 and 1,000 mg a day.
The downside Ginger can interact with drugs, so do check with your doctor.
What the research shows Soy is a great source of protein and is also packed with anti-inflammatory phytochemicals called isoflavones that have anti-inflammatory properties.
The chemicals in soy can:
- Reduce knee osteoarthritis pain. Eating 40 grams of soy protein each day for three months cut patients’ use of pain medication in half in an Oklahoma State University study.
- Soothe neuropathic pain and sciatica. Italian researchers found the natural phytoestrogen genistein in soy relieved pain from nerve injury in mice.
- Relieve nerve pain due to diabetes. A 2011 animal study, also from Italy, found three and six mg/kg of soy protein helped ease pain from diabetic peripheral neuropathy.
How much Try for the most grams of soy protein a day, preferably in foods containing unprocessed soybeans like (edamame), tofu, tempeh and miso. It could take two to three weeks to feel the effects.
The downside Genistein is a plant estrogen, so if you’re at risk for breast cancer, discuss soy intake with your doctor. Some sources say that soy checmicals can interfere with the absorption of thyroid medications; again, check with your doctor. Also, if you’re concerned about genetically modified foods, look for the “No GMO” label.
What the research shows Caffeine (and coffee) enhances the effects of many popular pain relievers and has pain-fighting powers of its own.
- Relieve dental pain and headaches. A 2012 report by the respected Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews of 19 studies and clinical trials conducted among more than 7,000 people concludes that five to ten percent of participants achieved a good level of relief by adding 100 mg or more of caffeine to their analgesic.
- Caffeine produced a significant reduction in perceptions of quadriceps pain after high intensity exercise, say researchers at the University of Illinois-Urbana and Iceland University.
- A recent placebo-controlled clinical trial suggests moderate amounts (equal to about two cups of java) slashed post-workout muscle pain by almost 50 percent.
How much Limit yourself to 200 mg (the amount in two, 8-ounce cups of coffee or one large-size coffee drink).
The downside Too much caffeine can make you jittery, trigger withdrawal headaches if you’re a big coffee-drinker and keep you awake nights.
No Magic Foods
There are no “magic” foods to fight pain, Columbia’s Dr. David Seres says.
“Many of these studies were small, done in animals or rely on people’s recall of what they ate,” he cautions. “In our desire to control how long and how well we live we often look for answers for things that don’t have answers yet.”
Then again, “A healthy diet never hurt anyone” Seres says.
Have you found any pain-relief from foods? Share your experience in the comments below.