The Impact of Diet and Nutrition on Pain Management


Pain Nutrition


Did you know that millions of adults experience chronic pain? The CDC estimates that around 20 percent of adults in the U.S. deal with chronic inflammation. Joint pain, musculoskeletal pain, and neuropathic pain are a few examples of inflammatory pain people experience.

If you’re among those who suffer from ongoing discomfort, there are different ways to manage it. Dietary interventions are highly effective because of the connection between diet and pain relief.

What can you expect from chronic pain management that includes medical nutrition therapy? At Western Reserve Hospital, Bethany Pontius, NP-C, is an expert on diet and nutrition to help reduce pain severity and promote weight loss. Bethany provides more insight on nutrition for pain relief to help you better understand this connection.

Understanding Pain and Nutrition

How can your diet affect pain? Some foods are inflammatory, while others are anti-inflammatory. A poor diet filled with meals that cause inflammation can lead to achy joints or discomfort in other parts of the body. The more of these foods you eat, the more pain you might have.

An anti-inflammatory diet has the opposite effect. Eating more of these foods helps reduce chronic pain. Why does this happen? The food contains nutrients, such as antioxidants, that decrease inflammation. The link between the brain and digestive system—known as the gut-brain axis—might also play a role in managing chronic pain through nutrition.

Research supports the link between nutritional factors and chronic pain:

  • A 2020 analysis found that beneficial dietary patterns and interventions help relieve chronic pain.
  • A 2022 review showed that nutrition is crucial to chronic pain management.
  • A 2023 study found that a diet that includes anti-inflammatory foods and restricts pro-inflammatory foods helped ease chronic pain.

Key Nutritional Strategies for Pain Management

How and what should you eat to help ease the pain? Consider the average diet in the U.S. Many meals include large amounts of refined grains and sugary, processed, and fatty foods. They also tend to contain smaller amounts of whole grains, healthy fats, fruits, and vegetables.

Consequently, people often consume too few of the micronutrients that help relieve inflammation. Sugars, saturated fats, and foods eaten in large quantities can also result in weight gain. This excess weight puts more pressure on your joints and musculoskeletal system—leading to chronic or worsening pain.

Which nutrients are important when you want to relieve inflammation? Some examples include:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids
  • MagnesiumVitamins B1, B3, B6, and B12
  • Vitamin D
  • Zinc
  • Beta-carotene

Specific dietary patterns are known to have anti-inflammatory effects. The Mediterranean diet is one of the most well-known examples. This type of diet usually includes the following:

  • One to two servings of fruits and vegetables with each meal
  • Whole grains
  • Unsaturated fats, like olive oil
  • Lean proteins, such as chicken and fish
  • Legumes as a protein source
  • Smaller amounts of processed foods and dairy products
  • Limited servings of red meat, such as every other week

These dietary patterns emphasize eating foods with nutrients that feature anti-inflammatory properties. Foods that can trigger inflammation are eaten in limited amounts or sometimes avoided.

Adopting an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t just an effective way to manage pain. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight, which is essential to pain management and improves your overall health and wellness.

Foods to Embrace and Avoid

What foods should you put on your grocery list? And which ones should you stay away from? Adding more foods that support pain relief can help you feel less sore and achy. Knowing which foods might exacerbate pain will help you decide what to limit or avoid.

Foods with anti-inflammatory effects include:

  • Fatty fish, such as tuna and salmon
  • Blueberries, strawberries, and other berries
  • Oranges
  • Avocados
  • Tomatoes
  • Almonds, walnuts, and other nuts
  • Kale, spinach, and other green leafy vegetables
  • Broccoli
  • Olive oil
  • Enzymatic foods, such as pineapple, mango, and papaya

Foods that may trigger chronic pain or make it worse include:

  • White bread, baked goods, and other refined carbs
  • Highly processed foods
  • Fried foods
  • Processed meat, such as bacon and sausage
  • Red meat, such as steak
  • Margarine
  • Sugary beverages, such as soda
  • High amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, such as in mayonnaise and vegetable oil

What are some simple ways to include more anti-inflammatory foods in daily meals? Bethany recommends swapping foods that increase inflammation with those that ease it. For example, stock up on berries and nuts instead of eating potato chips and cookies as snacks.

Other techniques include adding greens or some fruit to every meal. You can make these ingredients part of a dish or enjoy them on the side. The idea is to get into the habit of having fruits or vegetables in each meal.

Other changes include going from refined carbs to whole grains, replacing red meat with lean protein, and cooking with olive oil.

Practical Diet and Nutrition Tips for Chronic Pain Sufferers

You can help keep chronic pain at bay with the correct nutritional changes. Some helpful tips include:

  • When grocery shopping, keep a list of good and bad foods for inflammation.
  • Make meal planning simple with recipes with plenty of anti-inflammatory foods for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
  • Keep nuts, vegetables, and fruits on hand for healthy snacking.
  • Aim to have half of your plate filled with vegetables and the other half divided between proteins and whole grains.

How can you make sure you stick to these dietary changes? The trick is to start small. Doing a complete overhaul of your diet is challenging, which can discourage you from continuing. Begin with simple switches, such as replacing processed food with a whole grain. Have a salad with dinner, and make a vegetable or fruit smoothie for breakfast. These simple, gradual adjustments can lead to sustainable change over time.

Don’t forget that other factors are also crucial for managing pain. Poor sleep and a sedentary lifestyle can make it hard to reduce inflammation. To change that, work on improving sleep and getting regular exercise.

Western Reserve Hospital, Pain Management, and You

Do you have more questions about nutrition and chronic pain or need help managing inflammation? Consult with healthcare professionals, such as Bethany Pontius, NP-C, at Western Reserve Hospital for a personalized pain management plan.
Contact Western Reserve Hospital for more information on pain medicine services and additional support.