We’ve learned quite a bit in the last decade about how food affects pain.  Food allergies and intolerances have been linked to multiple health problems and have been known to make pain worse, especially conditions such as migraines, asthma, anxiety, inflammation, and muscle or joint pain.  About 4% of Americans have a food allergy or intolerance, which is a little over 13 million people.

Since around 100 million people have chronic pain, it wouldn’t hurt to look into the foods you eat to see if any of them are causing pain symptoms.  To start, let’s look at the chronic pain conditions that are associated with food allergies.  These have been confirmed by physicians, dietitians, and research studies (see sources below).

  • Joint pain and inflammation associated with arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Back pain due to inflammation, reflux, or kidney infection
  • Chest pain signaling or worrisome for heart attack
  • Irritable bowel syndrome (sometimes treated with traditional Chinese spinal orthopedic manipulation)
  • Neck or shoulder pain
  • Chronic abdominal pain
  • Fibromyalgia

The Difference Between Food Allergy and Food Intolerance

When you think about food allergies, most people think of the immediate allergic symptoms such as:

  • Hives
  • Skin rash
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling
  • Life-threatening anaphylaxis

Allergies tend to be more obvious than food sensitivity.  They stimulate IgE antibodies, which are produced by the immune system as a response to a food or chemical it thinks is unsafe.  IgE antibodies have unique radars that cause an immediate reaction in the body, and everyone responds differently to well-known allergens because of those radars.

A food sensitivity is not that obvious; they stimulate IgG antibodies, which stick around a lot longer (28 days) than IgE.  That means that the pain symptoms you experience today may be caused by something you’ve been eating for a month!  Most food sensitivity symptoms show up anywhere from an hour after eating to several days later.

If you’re interested in doing a full elimination diet, you can read more about it here.

How to Spot a Food Intolerance

Here is a list of warning signs that may indicate you have a food intolerance or sensitivity, which tend to make pain worse:

  • You have widespread chronic pain often associated with arthritis and fibromyalgia.
  • You experience migraines after eating certain foods.
  • Lower back pain begins almost immediately after eating.
  • Chest pain, breathing problems, and heartburn shortly after eating.
  • You don’t have celiac disease, but you still feel ill when you eat wheat.
  • You have hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid).
  • You have chronic abdominal pain.
  • Your skin breaks out in a rash or eczema.

Action Steps to Determine if Food Affects Pain

Do you think that food is behaving badly in your body?  What foods make you feel ill afterward?  Some of the most common pain trigger foods are:

  • Gluten (wheat, barley, rye)
  • Fatty, greasy foods
  • Dairy
  • Caffeine
  • Alcohol
  • Processed foods
  • Pesticide-heavy foods
  • FODMAPs (carbs that cause digestive issues)

Not sure?  That’s okay!  Here are a couple of tricks to deal with food intolerances.

Start a Food-Feeling Diary

A food-feeling diary is a simple journal (written or digital) that tracks the food you eat, the date and time, along with any symptoms.  If you can do this every day, that’s great!  However, if you’re like most of us, it’s hard to remember or have time to do it daily. Instead, aim for tracking one ingredient per week or even per month.  This is a great tool for tracking how food affects pain.

Here’s an example of a food-feeling diary entry for gluten:

Pain is made worse with food

Does food make pain worse? A food-feeling diary is one way to find out.

Eat Foods That Make Pain Better

While it’s important to avoid foods that make pain worse, it’s even more important to eat powerful pain-fighting foods 3-5 times per week. These foods include:

  • Walnuts (raw and unsalted)
  • Avocado
  • Sea veggies like seaweed
  • Acai
  • Cherries
  • Turmeric (excellent anti-inflammatory!)
  • Ginger (great for stomach pain and nausea)
  • Flaxseed
  • Dark, leafy greens

Making dietary changes while dealing with a chronic pain condition can feel like a daunting task. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed or frustrated but ask yourself if that’s the mind frame you want to keep, or if you’re ready to start the journey to better health and reduced pain.  There are very easy ways to get yourself started.  Try tracking foods in a diary and eating pain-relieving foods a few times a week.  If foods are culprits to your pain, you’ll start to notice changes in how you feel within a few weeks.

Diet Vs. Disease – 11 Warning Signs You Have A Sneaky Food Intolerance
YorkTest Laboratories – Symptoms of Food Intolerance
Medical News Today – Why do I get a pain in my back after eating?
Your Migraine Doctor – Food Intolerances Can Cause Migraine Pain

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