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 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 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 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 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 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

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