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Foods That Fight Pain

By Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

If you have thought of chronic pain as some-thing that is simply here to stay, new hope may come from ordinary foods. They can cool down inflammation, ease digestive and menstrual pains, clear away artery blockages, and restore circulation to oxygen-starved tissues.

Rice or peppermint oil, for example, can soothe your digestive tract; ginger and the herb feverfew can prevent migraines, and coffee sometimes cures them; natural plant oils can reduce arthritis pain; cranberry juice can fight the pain of bladder infections; and vitamin B-6 can even increase your pain resistance, to name just a few.

Among the most striking links between foods and pain came from studies of back pain. When researchers examined the spines of people with back pain who later died from accidents or other causes, they found that the pain was caused by a degeneration of the leathery disks that act as cushions between the bony vertebrae. When the disk degenerates, its soft interior tissues squeeze out and pinch a nerve.

Surprisingly, the cause may be blocked arteries. The lumbar arteries that carry blood and nutrients to the vertebrae often become clogged with plaque—the same kind of blockage that clogs the arteries to the heart, causing heart attacks.

When lumbar arteries are blocked, the oxygen and nutrients that help the spine recover from daily wear and tear are cut off, and waste products build up, irritating sensitive nerves. Autopsy studies showed that the greater the artery blockage, the worse the degeneration of the disks. One in ten people in Western countries has an advanced blockage in one or more of these arteries by age 20.

This discovery opened up a fascinating possibility: perhaps a change in diet could be used to improve the circulation to the back and prevent or even reverse back pain. By the mid-1990s, Dean Ornish, M.D., of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute had proved beyond any reasonable doubt that a combination of a vegetarian diet, modest exercise, smoking avoidance, and stress management allows the arteries to start to clean themselves out in the vast majority of research subjects.

Whether this can also happen in the arteries to the spine is yet to be shown. If so, the lifestyle changes would be the same as for reversing artery blockages elsewhere in the body.

For headaches, joint pains, or digestive pains, the key is to track down which foods may have caused your pain so you can avoid them, while building your meals from foods that virtually never cause symptoms.

In The Lancet of October 12, 1991, researchers gave the results of a carefully controlled study that used a menu designed to avoid foods that trigger arthritis pain. The culprits were as common as a glass of milk, a tomato, wheat bread, or eggs. Many patients improved dramatically: pain diminished or went away, and joint stiffness was no longer the routine morning misery. The same benefit has been seen for migraines.

Sugar may affect pain, at least in certain circumstances. Researchers at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis tested its effects on a group of young men. They attached a clip to the web of skin between their fingers, and wired it to an electrical stimulator. As they gradually increased the voltage, they asked the men to say when they felt any pain and at what point they found it intolerable. As the researchers then infused a dose of sugar, the volunteers felt the pain sooner and more intensely. The researchers then tested people with diabetes, who tend to have more sugar in their blood than other people, and found that they too were more sensitive to pain.

PCRM’s research team is now studying the use of a very-low-fat, vegetarian diet to treat menstrual pain. Low-fat foods reduce the hormone swings that contribute to pain, and while the study is ongoing, many participants report remarkable results.

COMMON ARTHRITIS TRIGGERS
Dairy products Citrus fruits
Corn Potatoes
Meat Tomatoes
Wheat, oats, rye Nuts
Eggs Coffee

COMMON MIGRAINE TRIGGERS

Dairy products Nuts and peanuts
Red wine Tomatoes
Chocolate Onions
Eggs Corn
Citrus fruits Apples
Meat Bananas
Wheat (bread, pasta, etc.)

PAIN-SAFE FOODS
Foods that virtually never trigger
migraines or arthritis:

Brown rice
Cooked green, yellow, and orange vegetables
Cooked or dried non-citrus fruits

This article is excerpted from Dr. Barnard’s newly released
Foods That Fight Pain, available from the PCRM Marketplace.



 

Spring/Summer 1998

Spring/Summer 1998
Volume VII
Number 2

Good Medicine
ARCHIVE

 
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