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Chronic Pain and Diet

Medically reviewed by Priti Parekh, MD, Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on January 10, 2023

Seamus Mullen was sick. Really sick. He spent years following a regimen of medications (and self-medication), including chemotherapy, every type of pain killer, bottles of wine, and even monthly blood transfusions. But nothing really helped. His body was wracked with inflammation, and his rheumatoid arthritis constantly caused excruciating pain, attacking his joints. He eventually ended up in the emergency room with bacterial meningitis, when he decided that SOMETHING had to help.


So what did he do? Well, Seamus is a chef. So he decided to work on eating foods to improve his gut health, decrease his inflammation, and relieve his pain. Did it work? Yes! So well that he is now possibly more famous for his book, Real Food Heals, than he is for his award-winning, high-end restaurants.


Seamus’s story shows that one of the ways to reduce chronic pain caused by inflammation is to change your diet. If you suffer from chronic pain, what does the medical world recommend you eat or not eat? 


Interestingly enough many of the recommendations lead to a diet that is very similar to the Mediterranean diet. This diet has already been associated with reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and forms of cancer. It’s also been associated with longevity. Both the Mediterranean diet and an anti-inflammatory diet are plentiful in fruits and vegetables as well as the healthy fats found in olive oil and nuts. Our friends in the Med also aren’t so big on red meat and instead get protein from low-fat sources such as chicken and fish. 


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Mediterranean Diet

Mediterranean Diet

Sounds perfect, right? So–what’s the catch? The main difference between the Mediterranean diet and an anti-inflammatory diet is in carbs. The anti-inflammatory diet recommends restricting carbs in general, and when you do eat grains, only eat whole grains. That’s not so bad, right?                                  


Are all vegetables ok? Dr. Leonard Calabrese, a rheumatologist at Cleveland Clinic, says that although many people avoid vegetables from the nightshade family (tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and white potatoes) because they worry that they cause inflammation, there isn’t any solid research to support this claim. Generally, vegetables, in all their colors and varieties, are on the list of “do eat!” foods. Experts recommend eating at least six to eight  servings of vegetables and about two to three servings of fruit every day. Getting a full rainbow of fruits and vegetables is important–from cruciferous and leafy greens to root vegetables–as the variety can help strengthen your immune system.


So load up that grocery cart with fresh fruits and veggies! But–you’ll have to get rid of all those processed foods if you want to feel well. Most of them contain high amounts of sugar along with unhealthy fats and grains that aren’t whole. It’s recommended to lower your sugar consumption in general–even in your home-baked goods–if you want to reduce inflammation and feel better.

Other foods that help lower inflammation and thus reduce pain are healthy fats–the types of fat found in olive oil, nuts, avocados, and some fish. Whole grains can help you stay away from white flour–another food that can cause inflammation. Red meat can also be a problem, so focus on getting proteins from lower fat options such as fish, chicken, or legumes. Some experts even recommend minimizing dairy to relieve pain and inflammation.


What we put into our body affects how we feel. Many studies show the benefit and improvement of chronic pain when changes in diet are made, but why wait for pain to adopt healthier eating habits? Don’t wait until you reach the point Seamus got to. Learn from his experience and move away from processed food to a healthier diet that focuses on vegetables, healthy fats, and low-fat proteins. Your body will thank you!

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