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Studies Reveal an Association Between Chronic Pain and Diet

pain and diet are more related than you thinkDo you often experience pain which lasts for days, weeks, months, or even up to a year? Chronic pain can be debilitating and can leave you feeling highly frustrated and down. Estimates reveal approximately 31 percent of American adults suffer from chronic pain and most resort to painkillers without actually addressing the root of the problem. However, the remedy for chronic pain may actually be within reach since what you choose to eat can significantly affect pain levels. A recent study conducted by a research group in Meru, eastern Kenya has revealed that chronic pain and diet are, in fact, interrelated. The study demonstrates the incredible impact of only slight dietary changes in alleviating chronic pain to the same degree as some over-the-counter painkillers.

The Link Between Chronic Pain and Diet

Recent studies suggest that altering your dietary patterns may provide significant relief from chronic pain. The pilot study in Meru, eastern Kenya, explored the link between chronic pain and glutamate intake, one of the most common flavor enhancers found in many foods worldwide. The results revealed that chronic pain can be improved by removing monosodium glutamate from your diet.

Lead author, Kathleen Holton, suggests that dietary alterations could potentially provide an effective low-cost therapeutic option for chronic pain in the developing world, although the exact cause for glutamate sensitivity in people is unknown and extensive clinical trials are still needed.

Additional studies on glutamate are beginning to provide more insights into what the chemical actually does inside the human body. As a common neurotransmitter, glutamate often functions as an excitotoxin causing overstimulation, damage, or even complete destruction of nerve cells. Moreover, glutamate has been directly linked to an increase in chronic pain, which in itself is a reasonable biological reason for scientists to further examine glutamate in relation to pain. Glutamate is naturally found in certain foods, such as parmesan cheese or soya sauce, but most commonly as a food additive.

The main aim of the study carried out in eastern Kenya was to determine whether dietary intervention could provide adequate or superior pain relief compared to over-the-counter medicines. In the study on pain and diet, 30 participants were recruited with at least a three-month history of chronic pain. Similar to the widespread symptoms of chronic pain reported in the US, participants also reported neurological symptoms including migraines, sleep issues, cognitive dysfunction, and chronic fatigue.

The Kenyan study was collaboratively conducted by Prof. Daniel J. Clauw, M.D. of the University of Michigan and Dr. Peter K. Ndege, M.D. of Meru University of Science and Technology, Kenya. The initial idea for the research was sparked when Clauw learned about the plight of Meru villagers suffering chronic pain. An initial survey revealed that over 60 percent of residents complain of chronic pain, almost a two-fold increase compared to other regions.

To test the effects of eliminating dietary MSG, participants were divided into four groups and changes in pain levels were observed. Since dehydration is known to cause headache, water consumption was also considered. Participants of the three two groups who regularly consume Mchuzi Mix—a seasoning containing MSG—were either provided with an MSG-free substitute instead or instructed to increase their water intake—eight cups of bottles water per day—or both. The fourth control group was only administered acetaminophen—a common pain reliever available in Meru.

Based on observation, the pilot study revealed that eliminating MSG and increasing water consumption substantially improves pain symptoms similar to those receiving acetaminophen. The observations suggest that slight modifications in diet could be a credible method of alleviating chronic pain, furthermore, chronic pain and diet may be interrelated.

Stress, Inflammation, and Fatigue

Inflammation is the root cause of various diseases and can lead to chronic pain and fatigue. With rest and a diet rich in nutritious foods, it’s usually possible to recover from fatigue. However, frequently experiencing extreme fatigue along with other symptoms, such as difficulty waking up, low energy levels, lightheadedness, difficulty concentrating, brain fog, insomnia, anxiety, constipation, weight gain, and cravings for salty or fatty foods, may be indicative of Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS).

How stress effects pain and dietManaging stress is a vital tool for fighting inflammation. The NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response System is your body’s natural stress-fighting mechanism, comprised of a delicate network of six circuits and various organs working in unison to defend your body against stress. When stressful situations arise, your NEM response system signals to your adrenal glands to secrete the anti-stress hormone cortisol. However, when stress is persistent, your adrenals can become overburdened, which can affect their ability to secrete hormones. Thus, your body’s natural ability to deal with stress is reduced and if stress levels exceed what your body can deal with, this could lead to Adrenal Fatigue.

Understanding Inflammation, Pain, and Diet

To understand how chronic pain and diet are interrelated, understanding inflammation may be helpful. Inflammation is your body’s response to stress, which can be emotional—loss of a loved one, financial losses, marital disputes, or separation anxiety—or physical—chronic infection or injury. During the inflammation process, your immune system attacks foreign entities, however, under certain conditions, your immune system may attack normal healthy cells as well. This can damage healthy tissue and cause further inflammation. A number of conditions are associated with inflammation including arthritis, leaky gut syndrome, osteoporosis, acid reflux, celiac disease, food allergies, asthma, bronchitis, diabetes, cancer, gout, ulcerative colitis, chronic stress, exposure to environmental toxins, and migraine.

So, what does food have to do with inflammation and pain? The immune system plays a significant role in your inflammatory response and over 70 percent of immune cells are found in the digestive tract. Moreover, certain foods can actually alleviate inflammation while others simply trigger inflammatory symptoms, thereby worsening your condition. This is how chronic pain and diet are linked, therefore, depending on what foods you choose to eat, you can make or break your immune health. Taking full control of your diet can help strengthen your immune system, reduce inflammation, and ease chronic pain.

Foods That Trigger Inflammation

Certain foods can trigger inflammation and symptoms of chronic pain—to reiterate, this is how pain and diet are interrelated. Moreover, different people are sensitive to different foods which is why food you may be fine to eat can trigger inflammation in someone else. Also, food you may have tolerated in the past can start to set off allergic responses. Therefore, it’s vital to identify your trigger foods.

Below are some common foods that increase the risk of inflammation:


People with celiac disease are highly sensitive to gluten and even small traces can trigger inflammation. Gluten is a protein found in grains such as rye, wheat, and barley. Additional studies are required to understand whether gluten triggers pain in individuals without sensitivity. So far, animal studies have suggested gluten may increase intestinal permeability causing leaky gut and an increase in inflammation.


Sugar has been linked to numerous health issues ranging from obesity to cardiovascular disease to cancer. Chronic pain is directly related to a diet rich in sugar, therefore, increasing your sugar intake can lead to chronic pain. According to research, a high-sugar diet can alter your gut microbiome, which in turn, disrupts your immune system and triggers inflammation. Consuming large quantities of sugar can also increase intestinal permeability, allowing the particles to pass from your gut into your bloodstream, leading to a leaky gut and pain.


Though a cup of coffee can make you feel energized, in the long run, it may actually do more harm to your body than good. According to a study, giving up coffee reduced migraines in 72 percent of participants. In particular, those with chronic pain and Adrenal Fatigue should avoid coffee and other sources of caffeine, including energy drinks, soft drinks, and dark chocolate, since consuming them can worsen symptoms.

Processed Foods

How procesed foods relate to your pain and dietWith our increasingly busy lifestyle, processed foods are now making up a major proportion of the modern diet. According to estimates, unhealthy processed foods account for over 58 percent of the total energy in American diets. The average American eats a substantial amount of convenience foods such as potato chips, soda, pastries, and pizza.

An intimate relationship exists between pain and diet, particularly those high in processed foods. Several studies have also linked trans fats, which are found in large quantities in processed food, with increased inflammation. A study by Harvard Medical School has linked the traditional Western diet (high in red meat, processed meat, French fries, desserts, and sweets) with an increased level of inflammatory markers.

Foods That May Reduce Pain

The underlying cause of pain is inflammation. Certain foods are rich in anti-inflammatory properties which, remarkably, can help reduce pain. Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet is an incredible way of fighting chronic pain.

The following anti-inflammatory foods may help reduce chronic pain:


Turmeric helps to minimize chronic pain by reducing anti-inflammatory markers. Curcumin is a powerful anti-inflammatory compound found in turmeric that fights inflammation and strengthens the immune system. Studies suggest curcumin may be more potent than any over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications.


For centuries, ginger has been used as a powerful natural remedy to ease pain and fight infection. Ginger has the ability to break down accumulated toxins in your body and cleanse your entire lymphatic system. In addition, it’s a great modulator of the immune system and helps fight inflammation caused by an overactive immune response.

Cayenne pepper

Cayenne pepper can be wonderful pain reliever since it contains capsaicin, an active ingredient found in several over-the-counter pain relief medicines. Cayenne pepper is also rich in antioxidants that fight against the damaging effect of free radicals.

Green leafy vegetables

Green vegetables are amazingly rich in antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins, and minerals and help fight inflammation and renew your cells. Eating plenty of green leafy vegetables can protect your body from oxidative stress and reduce the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue.


Pineapple is a delicious fruit loaded with bromelain, vitamin B1, vitamin C, antioxidants, and manganese, and therefore, has rich immune-modulating and anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce pain and alleviate the symptoms of Adrenal Fatigue.


Improving pain and diet changesChronic pain and diet, as well as inflammation, are intricately connected and can significantly affect your overall health and wellbeing. The immune system makes up major part of your inflammatory response. Importantly, over 70 percent of immune cells are located in the digestive tract so what you eat can significantly influence pain by either reducing or increasing inflammation. A number of scientific studies have linked diet with chronic pain. Therefore, making slight alterations in the foods you eat can be an incredible method of reducing chronic pain.

Certain foods fight inflammation while others trigger an inflammatory response leading to pain. However, it’s important to keep in mind that the effects of certain foods on individuals may vary. Some foods may trigger pain and other symptoms in one person whereas others may not be as sensitive. Therefore, identifying your personal trigger foods and eliminating them from your diet can provide a powerful means of eliminating chronic pain. Eating a health diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, maintaining your ideal weight, managing stress levels, and doing regular exercise can help reduce inflammation and chronic pain.

© Copyright 2018 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.

Dr. Lam's Key Question

Studies have shown that pain and diet are interrelated. Chronic pain can place additional stress on your body which may be a contribute factor to Adrenal Fatigue. Amazingly, identifying trigger foods and eliminating them from your diet, as well as eating an array of nutritious anti-inflammatory foods, can reduce chronic pain.

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