Discover the Foods that Cause Chronic Pain

It’s a question we often get asked: are there foods that chronic pain worse? And how do I figure out what they are?

It is absolutely true that eating the wrong foods can increase widespread pain. These foods can also create symptoms like irritable bowel syndrome, stomach cramps, bloating and wind. In contrast, eating the right foods will promote a healthy gut, leaving you feeling energised and well.

The basic science of food and chronic pain is this: there are foods that increase inflammation in your system and thereby increase pain. These are pro-inflammatory foods. And then there are foods which decrease inflammation – anti-inflammatory foods.

Depending on how your digestive system reacts, a food like milk or bread may produce a large amount of inflammation – or next to none.

And thanks to TV, the internet, celebrity chefs and dieticians, there’s a huge amount of information and misinformation on nutrition.

For every food type, there are arguments for and against. Hundreds of experts extol the virtues of their chosen diet and warn of the dangers of other diets.

There’s Paleo, low carb, low fat, sugar-free, no carb, slow carb, high protein, ketogenic, low inflammation, alkaline – the list of diets and nutrition plans goes on and on. Even with a Ph.D. in nutrition, it’s hard to wade through the science and pseudoscience to discover the truth.

While there are several ‘best practice’ rules for how to decrease pain through diet, the problem is that everyone is different.

A food that produces a huge negative reaction for one person, may be totally fine for another. Certain foods may be fine by themselves, but produce pain in combination with others.

It’s this individuality and complexity that makes it hard to sort out exactly what foods you should eat – or avoid.

Finally, if your body is sensitised from being in pain for years, it’ll likely be more reactive.

Working out which foods to avoid and which foods to eat more of can make a big difference in your overall quality of life. So earlier this year, we did a Nutrition Challenge with our Life After Pain Course members.

The Nutrition Challenge

Doing this challenge meant we first of all followed an elimination diet for 8-10 days. Then we gradually added food groups back in, at the rate of one per day. We noted down which ones provoked a negative reaction, and eliminated those for the rest of the challenge (so as not to confuse the results.)

The whole process took around 20 days, and by the end of it, we were all a lot smarter about which foods agreed with us – and which didn’t.

That’s the basic of what we did. The details are a little more complex. 

As we researched which elimination diet to follow, we immediately ran up against the problem of ‘too much information.’ There were dozens of types of elimination diets, ranging from the very simple to the very complex (and difficult to do.)

Eventually, we chose one that seemed relatively straight forward and didn’t require you to live on nothing but rice and bananas for 6 weeks. We were looking for the happy medium of ‘doable’ vs. ‘will get real results.’

Here’s a link to the elimination diet we used >>>

As you can see, it’s 10 days of eating the foods deemed most ‘safe’ and least likely to cause any type of reaction.

This includes foods like rice, plain vegetables, salads fruit, coconut milk, fish.

The principle is that after 10 days of sticking to this diet, your digestive system is more or less ‘reset.’ You’re no longer under the influence of foods you react to, and are ready to start reintroducing these foods to gauge how your body reacts.

What follows is an account of what I and the other members who did this diet discovered. It’s intended to be helpful, but the only way to really find out what works for you is to do this yourself.

Doing the Challenge

This is not always easy. After all, I had meant to do something like this for a long time. I’d thought: ‘yeah, I should do that’ – but it was much easier to put this off than do it.

There is a world of difference between knowing you should do something – and actually doing it. Like most people, I needed a catalyst to take action. That’s where being part of a community is helpful. As soon as we announced we were running this challenge – it was game on. We had to step up, take part, and stick to it.

That said, let’s start with the hard part: days 1-4.

On the first morning of the challenge, I woke up thinking “Oh my god, I have no idea what to eat! No coffee, no toast, no peanut butter, no muesli, no porridge, no nuts…’

Breakfast (dairy free) smoothie

Truly, I could have planned this somewhat better. I had a few ideas for meals, but needed to take a shopping trip to buy the essentials, now that 90% of my food cupboard was off limits.

Something I should have been expecting (but instead went for unfounded optimism) was this: the coffee withdrawal. It was brutal. The first 2.5 days I spent in a headachey haze, feeling slightly better than death warmed up. That eventually faded, but it was a vivid reminder that I (probably) drink too much coffee…

For the elimination period of this challenge, I had several go-to dishes which I ate every day. (Variety is not a feature of this diet.)

  • Smoothie – frozen berries, banana, coconut cream
  • Buckwheat pancakes
  • Pumpkin soup
  • Roasted kumara, beetroot and mushroom

Now – for the results. Here’s what I noticed during the first part of the challenge – before adding foods back in.

The drink of doom….

Taking out coffee made my energy levels much more stable. In the past I had drunk coffee when I was sleepy, making a yo-yo effect of peaks and valleys in my energy.

Being vegetarian meant I essentially had no protein for 7 days. It was odd. I adjusted eventually but still felt empty soon after each meal – a not entirely unpleasant feeling.

Once I started to add foods back in, I learned some more interesting things.

Cheese was a definite bad food for me, prompting hayfever and allergies.
So was wheat. I was surprised how gluggy and low-energy I felt after a couple of bread rolls. (The gluggy feeling I attempted to offset with coffee…)

This brings up an important point. For this diet, when you reintroduce foods, you do it in significant quantities – enough so a negative reaction is easy to spot. It begs the question though – if you were reacting badly to wheat (for example) and only took small amounts of it each day, then it’s quite possible it may be causing a constant, low-grade energy drain on you. Something you wouldn’t notice unless you drastically changed your eating habits (as I did in this challenge.)

Introducing the nightshade family of foods (potato, tomato, eggplant, capsicum) was a question mark. I had something of a negative reaction, but I need to revisit this to test potato vs. tomato (the two most likely culprits.)

Unfortunately, there appears certain correlation between the foods you most crave (hot potato chips, coffee) and what is not good for you.

Chocolate passed muster (thank goodness.) And nuts, seeds, and beans. These were the first foods I tested, and as soon as I added to my diet, I felt much more energetic. I suspect this was an effect of eating protein after several days of a very low protein diet.

So that was my experience: dairy, wheat, and coffee proved to be my danger foods. I’ve since cut back to 1 coffee per day and stopped buying any dairy or wheat products. I’m not strict about this (I might eat some dairy if I were out for instance) but at least now I’m not flying blind. I have a much better idea of what foods are good for me, and what to avoid.

Other Comments & Observations

Now – I wasn’t the only one doing this challenge. Everyone had different results – part of why good nutrition is a highly individual topic, and one you need to test yourself.

Here’s some comments from other community members:

“Everyone said how well I looked while on the exclusion part of the diet, and I had lots more energy.”

“So far I have found peppers, sweet potatoes cause very bad digestive pain. Bacon gave me a very bad headache & indigestion that was a bit surprise. Fresh tomatoes gave me pain & indigestion pain but strangely tinned tomatoes didn’t have the same effect.”

“Milk caused digestive problems and pain. I know yoghurt makes me cough a lot and as an asthmatic dairy can cause problems due to mucus production.”

“My go-to food during the elimination diet was home-made organic turkey soup with rice and carrots in it.

“I was looking for foods that caused migraines. Although I found them all the biggest surprise was the other reactions I had. Tomatoes and pineapple made my nose stream, soya made my skin itch and yeast made me really angry!!”

“Grains and sugar in all forms have an adverse effect on me. Stoneground organic wheat is the worst. Bloating and worse gut symptoms. However since I’ve been strictly eliminating carbs for a few weeks I can have an occasional slip without major symptoms.”

“The LCHF diet (low carb, high fat) suits me, I’m not hungry and I’m slowly losing weight as long as I keep up my exercise (swimming). I feel worse without my organic raw milk kefir but don’t seem to have other bad reactions. I take licorice root extract to assist with heartburn and a daily teaspoon in my kefir/kale/pea and blackcurrant breakfast smoothie has kept that deliciously under control.”

Elimination Diet Guide

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