Nutrition and pain

A well-balanced diet can be your ally in fighting pain and inflammation.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Good nutrition is an important part of your overall health. A healthy diet should include a variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, lean proteins and healthy fats. This gives your body the nutrients and energy it needs to function properly. A well-balanced diet is also vital for building your body's immune system and healing power. That's why nutrition can be your ally in fighting pain and inflammation.

Is your diet helping ... or hurting?

Research suggests that there's a link between diet and inflammation, which is your body's response to injury or infection. Inflammation causes heat, redness, swelling and pain in the affected part of the body. While this normal immune system response is important for healing, sometimes inflammation can become chronic and more widespread throughout the body. Long-term inflammation is linked to several diseases and conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.

Although the exact reason is unclear, it's believed that certain foods offer protection against inflammation, while other foods might actually encourage inflammation.

Pro-inflammatory foods

Pro-inflammatory foods are foods that can contribute to inflammation. Most processed foods are pro-inflammatory, as they tend to be high in unhealthy fats (including saturated and trans fats), added sugars, preservatives and refined carbohydrates. Deep-fried foods, pastries, processed cereals, white rice, white potatoes, sugar, breads and red meat are also pro-inflammatory foods.

Anti-inflammatory foods

The nutrients in some foods have anti-inflammatory or analgesic properties that can help relieve pain. Anti-inflammatory foods may include:

  • Fish and other foods that contain omega-3 fats. Omega-3 fats play a role in altering the inflammatory process and regulation of pain. Salmon, tuna, trout, mackerel and herring are high in these fats. Soy-based foods, walnuts, pecans and ground flaxseed are also good sources of omega-3 fats.
  • Antioxidant-rich foods. Colorful fruits and vegetables, such as leafy greens, avocados, beets and berries, are rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants can prevent, delay or repair some types of cell and tissue damage. Antioxidants include certain vitamins, minerals and plant chemicals, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, carotene, lycopene and flavonoids. A wide variety of other foods are also rich in antioxidants, such as lentils and beans, nuts and seeds, whole grains, green tea, and certain spices, such as ginger and turmeric.
  • Certain dietary supplements. Dietary supplements that have been shown to help provide a healthy balance of inflammatory chemicals in your body include the botanicals cat's claw, devil's claw, ginger root, turmeric and boswellia (frankincense). Other nonherbal dietary supplements — including omega-3 fish oil and antioxidants — are helpful when you don't get enough of these nutrients in your diet.

Always talk to your doctor before starting any supplement regimen, because some dietary supplements can interact with prescription medications.

Specific nutrients and botanicals

Even if you're eating plenty of food, that doesn't always translate to good nutrition. Due to poor eating habits and an abundance of foods that lack essential nutrients, many people aren't getting adequate vitamins and minerals for optimal nutrition.

These nutritional deficiencies can adversely impact many areas of your health and overall well-being — including your energy levels and mood, mental functioning, inflammation levels, and immune response. Good nutrition can even affect how well your body recovers from an injury or surgery. In fact, studies show that people who take certain dietary supplements before and/or after surgery experience several benefits, including fewer complications from infection, better wound healing and faster recovery.

Below are some dietary supplements that can help with pain management. Talk to your doctor about which ones might benefit you.

Curcumin

Curcumin is the active ingredient in the spice turmeric, which comes from a plant in the ginger family. Popular for centuries in Asia for its health benefits, turmeric recently has been the subject of much research in the West. Preliminary studies suggest that curcumin (which is what gives turmeric its bright orange color) has a number of health-promoting benefits. For example, it helps your body to maintain a normal response to inflammatory events, such as reducing soreness and tenderness after strenuous physical activity or promoting healing after surgery or an injury.

Bromelain

Bromelain is a mixture of enzymes found in the stem and fruit of the pineapple plant. Used topically, bromelain can bring relief to wounds and burns. As a dietary supplement, bromelain can be effective for reducing bruising or swelling after an injury or muscle soreness after exercise. Preliminary research also suggests that bromelain can improve post-surgery outcomes: One study found that when patients were given bromelain before surgery, they had reduced soreness and swelling after the procedure.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone that's naturally produced in the brain by your pineal gland. In supplement form, melatonin is created in a laboratory. Melatonin's primary purpose appears to be regulating sleep — and it has been extensively studied for how it might help people with sleep disorders. Studies have also found that melatonin might have analgesic effects, and it has been studied to determine if it can help relieve pain post-surgery, and in conditions such as fibromyalgia, endometriosis and migraine.

Probiotics

Probiotics are a type of "good" bacteria that provide health benefits when introduced into your body. Just like the existing helpful bacteria in your body already do, probiotics can aid digestion and help provide a balance of healthy bacteria in your intestines, which helps maintain a normal inflammatory response in your GI tract. Probiotics are commonly found in yogurt and are also available in dietary supplements.

Your doctor may recommend a probiotic dietary supplement to help treat occasional diarrhea and nonchronic intestinal conditions. Because probiotics boost the health of your microbiome — the trillions of microorganisms that live in your body — your doctor may recommend a probiotic dietary supplement for surgical care. Research suggests that using probiotics before surgery can help you heal and improve your digestion after surgery.

Proteins and amino acids

Proteins, and the amino acids that create them, are your body's primary building blocks. They're vital for cell renewal, tissue growth and repair, and other body functions. They play a significant role in rebuilding tissues after injury.

Two amino acids that may be of particular interest are:

  • Arginine. Arginine is an amino acid that stimulates immune cells, promotes wound healing and acts as a precursor of nitric oxide — which aids in circulation. Arginine is produced naturally in your body; however, supplementing your natural levels can be helpful in certain cases. For example, studies indicate that using arginine before surgery can result in a shorter recovery time.
  • Glutamine. Like arginine, glutamine is produced in your body and is an important fuel for your body's immune response. Glutamine promotes wound healing, supports immune function and provides energy for intestinal cells. Research suggests that supplementing with glutamine before surgery can also result in shorter post-operative recovery times.

Omega-3 fatty acids

Omega-3 fatty acids are polyunsaturated fatty acids that provide a number of benefits to your body, including supporting cell maintenance, digestion and fertility. Omega-3s are found in fatty fish (salmon, tuna and trout), shellfish (crab, mussels and oysters), some vegetable oils, flaxseed oil and also in dietary supplements.

Omega-3 fatty acids also help the body respond in a normal fashion to conditions that can cause inflammation, and, as a result, may be helpful in managing the swelling and soreness caused by such conditions. They also appear to provide nutritional support to individuals who suffer from headaches. Some research suggests that omega-3 supplements should be taken in the weeks prior to having surgery. Substantial research on the potential benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is ongoing.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is perhaps best known for its role in bone health, because vitamin D is vital for helping your body absorb calcium. But vitamin D plays an important role in other body systems, too, including supporting healthy immune function and helping the body respond normally to inflammatory conditions.

Vitamin D is found naturally in very few foods — primarily fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, and fish liver oils. It is added to other foods, such as milk, and is synthesized in your skin when you're exposed to sunlight. Vitamin D is also available as a dietary supplement.

Magnesium

Magnesium is a mineral found in your body. It is also present naturally in many foods, including milk, brown rice, black beans, certain nuts and as an additive in other foods. As a dietary supplement, magnesium comes in several forms, including magnesium oxide, magnesium citrate and magnesium chloride.

Healthy magnesium levels may help relieve muscle cramps and spasms. It may also provide nutritional support to individuals who tend to get migraine headaches. Additionally, research has found that magnesium supplementation may play a positive role after surgery. In studies, individuals who took magnesium before surgery ranked their pain lower in the first 24 hours after surgery.

Dec. 15, 2017

See also

  1. 6 tips for living well with ankylosing spondylitis
  2. A Pain-Free Thumbs Up!
  3. Achilles tendon rupture
  4. Acid reflux and GERD
  5. ACL injury
  6. Acupuncture for back pain?
  7. Acute coronary syndrome
  8. Acute myelogenous leukemia
  9. Airplane ear
  10. Anal cancer
  11. Anal itching
  12. Ankylosing spondylitis
  13. Ankylosing spondylitis: Am I at risk of osteoporosis?
  14. Ankylosing spondylitis: Eat well for bone health
  15. Ankylosing spondylitis: Exercising safely
  16. Ankylosing spondylitis: Reduce your risk of falling
  17. Ankylosing spondylitis: Understand your treatment options
  18. Appendicitis
  19. Arthritis creams
  20. Avascular necrosis (osteonecrosis)
  21. Back pain
  22. Infographic: Back Pain
  23. Back pain relief: Ergonomic chair or fitness ball?
  24. Back surgery: When is it a good idea?
  25. Banish back pain
  26. Base tan? Bad idea
  27. Bee sting
  28. Bell's palsy
  29. Bipolar disorder and alcoholism: Are they related?
  30. Bipolar disorder
  31. Bipolar in children
  32. Bipolar medications and weight gain
  33. Bipolar treatment: I vs. II
  34. Blood tests for heart disease
  35. Broken collarbone
  36. Broken hand
  37. Broken nose
  38. Broken ribs
  39. Bunions
  40. Burns
  41. Bursitis
  42. Calcium supplements: A risk factor for heart attack?
  43. Can vitamins help prevent a heart attack?
  44. Cardiogenic shock
  45. Cellulitis
  46. Cellulitis: How to prevent recurrent episodes
  47. Cellulitis infection: Is it contagious?
  48. Cervical spondylosis
  49. Chelation therapy for heart disease: Does it work?
  50. Chest pain
  51. Chronic daily headaches
  52. Chronic pelvic pain in women
  53. Chronic sinusitis
  54. Cluster headache
  55. Collecting Pennies Through the Pain
  56. Complex regional pain syndrome
  57. Contact dermatitis
  58. Costochondritis
  59. Cough headaches
  60. Cyclothymia (cyclothymic disorder)
  61. Daily aspirin therapy
  62. De Quervain tenosynovitis
  63. Degenerative changes in the spine: Is this arthritis?
  64. Diffuse idiopathic skeletal hyperostosis (DISH)
  65. Diphtheria
  66. Diverticulitis
  67. Ewing sarcoma
  68. Factor V Leiden
  69. Fasting diet: Can it improve my heart health?
  70. Fibromyalgia
  71. Fibromyalgia and acupuncture
  72. Fibromyalgia: Linked to other health problems?
  73. Fibromyalgia and Neurontin
  74. Fibromyalgia or not?
  75. Flu Shot Prevents Heart Attack
  76. Flu shots and heart disease
  77. Folliculitis
  78. Football Spinal Cord Injury - The Chris Norton Story
  79. Frostbite
  80. Frostbite: First aid
  81. Gaucher disease
  82. Genital herpes
  83. Genital herpes: Can you get it from a toilet seat?
  84. Geographic tongue
  85. Getting active after acute coronary syndrome
  86. Giant cell arteritis
  87. Glucosamine: Does it protect cartilage in osteoarthritis?
  88. Golf and Wrist Pain
  89. Grass-fed beef
  90. Greenstick fractures
  91. Growth plate fractures
  92. Hammertoe and mallet toe
  93. Headaches 101: Know your type
  94. Headaches and hormones
  95. Headaches: Treatment depends on your diagnosis and symptoms
  96. Healthy eating: One step at a time
  97. Healthy Heart for Life!
  98. Heart attack
  99. Heart attack prevention: Should I avoid secondhand smoke?
  100. Heart attack symptoms
  101. Heart Attack Timing
  102. Heart disease
  103. Heart disease in women: Understand symptoms and risk factors
  104. Heart-healthy diet: 8 steps to prevent heart disease
  105. Slide show: Heart-healthy eating after acute coronary syndrome
  106. Heartburn
  107. Heartburn or chest pain?
  108. Hemophilia
  109. Hernia truss: Can it help an inguinal hernia?
  110. Herniated disk FAQs
  111. High potassium (hyperkalemia)
  112. Hives and angioedema
  113. How do ankylosing spondylitis and pregnancy affect each other?
  114. Impacted wisdom teeth
  115. Ingrown hair
  116. Inguinal hernia
  117. Intervention: Help a loved one overcome addiction
  118. Is fibromyalgia hereditary?
  119. Jellyfish stings
  120. Keratitis
  121. Kidney infection
  122. Knee bursitis
  123. Lead poisoning
  124. Living better with ankylosing spondylitis
  125. Lyme disease
  126. Mayo Clinic Minute - Health Precautions You Need to Know About Pedicures
  127. Mayo Clinic Minute: Why the risk of frostbite is greater than you think
  128. Mayo Clinic Minute: Will there be a Lyme disease vaccine for humans?
  129. Menstrual cramps
  130. Mental health: Overcoming the stigma of mental illness
  131. Mental health providers: Tips on finding one
  132. Mental illness
  133. Menus for heart-healthy eating
  134. Mittelschmerz
  135. Mumps
  136. Myelofibrosis
  137. Myelofibrosis
  138. Myofascial release therapy: Can it relieve back pain?
  139. Nail fungus
  140. Neurofibromatosis
  141. What is ulcerative colitis? A Mayo Clinic expert explains
  142. Nighttime headaches: Relief
  143. NSAIDs: Do they increase my risk of heart attack and stroke?
  144. Nuts and your heart: Eating nuts for heart health
  145. Omega-3 in fish
  146. Omega-6 fatty acids
  147. Opioids and arthritis
  148. Oral lichen planus
  149. Oral thrush
  150. Osteoarthritis
  151. Osteochondritis dissecans
  152. Osteomyelitis
  153. Pain Management
  154. Painful intercourse (dyspareunia)
  155. Patellofemoral pain syndrome
  156. Pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
  157. Periodontitis
  158. Phantom pain
  159. Pilonidal cyst
  160. Pinched nerve
  161. Plantar fasciitis
  162. Plantar warts
  163. Polymyalgia rheumatica
  164. Polypill: Does it treat heart disease?
  165. Postherpetic neuralgia
  166. Priapism
  167. Prolotherapy: Back pain solution?
  168. Protein: Heart-healthy sources
  169. Put fish on the menu
  170. Ramsay Hunt syndrome
  171. Mayo Clinic Minute: Rattlesnakes, scorpions and other desert dangers
  172. Reactive arthritis
  173. Red wine, antioxidants and resveratrol
  174. Rickets
  175. Ruptured spleen
  176. Sacroiliitis
  177. Savella may help fatigue
  178. Sciatica
  179. Scorpion sting
  180. Scrotal masses
  181. Shave better to reduce ingrown hairs
  182. Shingles
  183. Shingles and alcohol
  184. Shingles vaccine: Can I transmit the vaccine virus to others?
  185. Shingles vaccine: Should I get it?
  186. Silent heart attack
  187. Sinus headaches
  188. Sleeping positions that reduce back pain
  189. Causes of back pain
  190. Somatic symptom disorder
  191. Spider bites
  192. Spinal cord injury
  193. Spinal stenosis
  194. Sprains
  195. Heart disease prevention
  196. Stress and headaches: Stop the cycle
  197. Stress fractures
  198. Sun allergy
  199. Sunburn
  200. Sunburn treatment: Do I need medical attention?
  201. Swimmer's ear
  202. Syringomyelia
  203. Tanning: Does a base tan prevent sunburn?
  204. Tendinitis
  205. Tendinitis pain: Should I apply ice or heat?
  206. Integrative approaches to treating pain
  207. Pain rehabilitation
  208. Self-care approaches to treating pain
  209. Thumb arthritis
  210. Thumb Reconstruction
  211. Thunderclap headaches
  212. Transverse myelitis
  213. Trigeminal neuralgia
  214. Ulcerative colitis
  215. Ulcerative colitis flare-ups: 5 tips to manage them
  216. Varicocele
  217. Video: Allergy or irritant: The truth about your rash
  218. Video: Heart and circulatory system
  219. Heartburn and hiatal hernia
  220. Vulvar cancer
  221. West Nile virus
  222. What is meant by the term "heart age"?
  223. Wisdom teeth removal: When is it necessary?
  224. Infographic: Women and Heart Disease
  225. Wrist pain