Ask the Doc

Rx for Pain

Can a menu change provide relief?
Rx for Pain

Q: I have chronic arthritis and a bad back, and am worried about the side effects of pain medications. Are there any natural pain remedies?

A: Absolutely. Surprising as it may sound, the answer to many kinds of pain—from sore joints and back pain to headaches and stomachaches—may be in the kitchen, rather than the medicine cabinet.

Foods fight pain in three main ways: First, certain foods can cool inflammation. As I wrote in my January column, natural plant oils (flax, evening primrose, borage, and others) have an anti-inflammatory effect that may help relieve sore joints. Even more importantly, some foods trigger pain, and a quick menu change is often all you need for relief. Among the common pain triggers are dairy products, eggs, citrus fruits, meat, and wheat, and they can play major roles in migraines, sore joints, and some digestive problems, such as Crohn’s disease. Eliminating a food from your diet for about two weeks and then reintroducing it may help you identify sensitivities.

Second, a diet change can improve circulation. When Dean Ornish, MD, used a vegetarian diet, along with exercise and stress management, to improve circulation in heart patients, many of his research participants had been on medications for years without relief. But with simple diet and lifestyle changes, their arteries began to open up again, and their chest pain melted away.

Amazingly enough, poor circulation may also be a key contributor to back pain. In the same way that a meaty diet and smoking can constrict the arteries to the heart, they also limit blood flow to the spine. Without a good blood supply, the leathery discs that act like cushions between the vertebrae become fragile. If a disc breaks open, it is like a pillow losing its stuffing. Its soft core squeezes out and can pinch a nerve, causing pain.

A research team in Finland used a special scanning technique to measure the arteries to the lower back of 51 people with chronic back pain. They found constricted arteries much more often in back-pain sufferers, compared with the average person. Later, a Japanese team showed that surgically restoring circulation to the back improves back pain. These studies show that back pain is not necessarily caused by heavy lifting or a lumpy mattress. Often, it is caused by poor circulation.

Third, a menu change can rebalance hormones. This makes all the difference for menstrual cramps. Several years ago, a young woman called my office complaining of excruciating menstrual pain. She could barely get out of bed. I prescribed painkillers to ease her immediate symptoms; I also suggested that she try a diet change to see if she could head off pain the following month. That meant eliminating animal products and emphasizing vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans. Indeed, this rather simple diet change virtually eliminated her pain.

To put this diet to the test in larger numbers, we invited women with painful menstrual cramps to try a low-fat vegan diet for two months. The menu change reduced pain severity and duration and also improved PMS symptoms.

Why would a change in diet help? Because it can affect the hormones that contribute to pain. Here’s how: Every month, estrogens—female sex hormones—thicken the lining of the uterus in anticipation of pregnancy. At the end of the monthly cycle, as menstrual flow begins, the disintegrating uterine lining releases prostaglandins, a group of chemicals that cause cramps. Our theory is that if fewer estrogen particles were flowing through your bloodstream, there should be less uterine thickening, less prostaglandin release, and less pain.

It turns out that a diet change can help eliminate excess estrogens. Every minute of the day, your liver filters your blood, removing estrogens and sending them into the intestinal tract, so they can leave with the wastes. In order to work, this system depends on fiber. If there is plenty of fiber in the intestinal tract, estrogen binds to the fiber and promptly exits your body. If you don’t eat enough fiber, your liver still removes estrogens from the blood and sends them into the intestine, but with no fiber to adhere to, these estrogens pass from the intestinal tract back into the bloodstream. A high-fiber, plant-based diet helps get your hormones into balance, helping to prevent menstrual pain. It may be that the same hormone-control method can help with endometriosis and some types of cancer pain, but this has not yet been tested.

There are many other ways that foods can fight pain. Capsaicin, which gives chiles their spice, is an active ingredient in some joint-pain creams; as the tingle kicks in, the joint pain subsides. Ginger also appears to ease joint pain. Vegan diets have been shown to ease the nerve pain of diabetes; they may also help prevent painful kidney stones.

So, while painkilling drugs have their place, for many common aches and pains, a menu change can be just what the doctor ordered.

February 2010 p.24

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comments

I am 63 years old, and need to lose a lot of weight. So I went vegan 2 weeks ago, according to The Ultimate Anti-Diabetes Diet... I am eating only whole grains, legumes, veggies and fruit. Only eating 3 meals a day with 2 fruit snacks. NO CHEATING. I am in more pain than I've been. All my joints are killing me. Anyone know why?

deb - 2014-11-28 20:00:16

Since I stopped eating meat 7 monthe ago I've gained 15 pounds.....anyone else gain weight

ls - 2011-12-06 11:16:45

I have been vegan for 1-1/2 years now (or so I thought)...I just found out that the chewable 100mg ibuprofen that I've been taking has whey protein and other animal products in it. I have stage 4 Endometriosis and don't know how I'm going to function without ibuprofen. My vegan diet has done nothing for my menstrual cramps and now that I know my ibuprofen is not vegan I have no idea on how I'm going to handle the pain this month from my menstrual cramps. Any suggestions?

Rebecca - 2011-11-09 09:34:24

Robin, I know exactly what you mean! I've had the same experience here. Years of going to a dermatologist and trying every cream and pill couldn't help. They only made me feel worse. I've had acne since I was 12 and bad cystic acne for the last ten years or so. After eliminating dairy from my diet, my skin is fine. I do also supplement my diet with a bit of flax oil and that also seems to help. After testing it out a couple of times and breaking my resolve, I had flareups as well. Now I'm so careful. A moment of breaking my resolve is just not worth it. Plus, it's kinda gross when you think about it. Hooray for dairy free!!

Susanne - 2011-11-02 12:03:38

After years of being on heavy duty prescription meds, I gave up dairy altogether and my acne has all but disappeared! I only have flare ups now right before "that time" and they are nowhere near as bad. The deep, scarring, cystic acne that has plagued me for 14 years (since I was 11!) is gone. I've broken my resolve a few times and had a slice of pizza or a little ice cream, and every time my skin has flared. Vegan is the way to be!

Robin - 2011-08-28 20:57:06

I stopped eating meat over spring break. I was feeling like I would throw up after meals. My body was sluggish. I felt generally tired and awful. I went on a one day water diet out of pure instinct. I knew too much was going on in my system and I needed to clean it out and replace my body with good foods. The result in just two weeks is amazing. I have energy to do everything. The comination skin I thought I had has disappeared. No more dry patchy areas on my face. I have replaced coffee, tea, and sweet juices with water. I probably had three glasses of juice this whole week. There was some nasty detox--lots of mucus. Right now, I don't think another bowl of meat based chili would pass my lips. There is no way I am going back to a diet that does not energize but only makes me feel like I want to lay down and sleep. I feel quicker too. I suffered from constant headaches for the past two years. Doctors gave medicine right away. Not one asked about diet and water intake. Not one asked about digestion. Just here take this pill. I have not had a serious headache since I changed the way I eat. There is no way I am going back to eating like and insane person. Oh, and eating too much is definitely a problem too. I've cut back on how much I eat at a meal and I snack on dates, almonds, walnuts, and generally stick to foods that I enjoy and make me feel like I am eating for a purpose but my life does not revolve around food, food, food. This country is food obsessed and mostly in negative ways. I do not want the health issues my family has gone through in the past thirty years. I had a grandfather who died at 103. He obviously lived in a time when food was thought of differently. He was naturally lean and quick minded until the end. If you are wondering if you should make a change to a plant based diet. Do so and quick. This testimonial is not exaggerated in the least.

Regina - 2011-04-22 23:42:44

This is my 2nd week of being a Vegan. I do feel much lighter and more alert than before. I am having some flareups of a urinary tract infection, that comes and goes throughout the year. I stopped taking all antibiotics because of dangers of blood disorders as a side effect. I am a 64 year old Diabetic (type 2), with Hypertension. The blood pressure has been lowering, but the blood sugar always stays high. I'm testing and waiting to see when it will start to lower. Its not hard for me to stop eating meat or fish. I don't seem to have a taste for it now that I don't eat it. No cravings either. I'm hoping that I can feel wonderful soon. I am enjoying being Vegan...

Jeanne Rhodes - 2011-04-04 06:46:23

I loved this article and found it to be very helpful. I haven't eaten meat in a long time and I feel great! There's so many substitutions to be made-and I love, love, this article on "pain relief". Thanks, "Vegetarian Times" for all your knowledge!!! Sincerely, Dawn Gustafson

Dawn Gustafson - 2011-01-19 02:39:30

Veggie diet is not waste of time...but some people still dont know. I am glad for u Aideen.

Zuzana svakova - 2010-08-07 16:31:17

I'm 72 years old & have always eaten huge amounts of meat, particularly beef. I've had painful osteoarthritis for decades - I took Celebrex daily for over 20 years. In recent months, I stopped buying all meats except for some fish & seafood. I had already given up dairy products 6 years ago. I pretty much stick to a plant-based diet now, except for the occasional fishy meal. I've stopped taking Celebrex & rarely take any kind of pain medication. I have excellent range of motion & very little pain. I'm amazed!

Aideen McKenna - 2010-06-25 17:04:35

Yes but not to say that you do not, but some vegetarians have unhealthy diets and do not eat the way they "should." I think what they're trying to say is that if you follow good guidelines and maintain a healthy diet without meat, it will be beneficial.

Anna Goldberg - 2010-05-12 16:04:02

I have been told by a doctor specialist I will have problems in future cos I have been vegetarian. I have been vegetarian for 15 years and sincerely I do not miss meat, fish or seafood. i like tofu and veggie food. I started to look for info, and found that veggie people should not suffer from problems like osteoporosis....howevrr, the doctor told me it is not true, that I will definitely lack sth and suffer from calcium lost and Fe from my body since I do not eat meat.

Zuzana Svakova - 2010-04-25 16:30:44

what can you use for chest congestion

Anonymous - 2011-11-24 22:38:06