Chronic pain? It could be what you’re eating

It’s no secret that omega-3 fatty acids like the kind found in fish, flaxseed and walnuts have been proven in studies to help relieve arthritis pain. But what about other types of pain, especially chronic pain conditions that can affect quality of life?

Researchers sought to answer that question in a recent study. And what they found was that certain fatty acids play a significant role in making different types of pain both better and worse, depending on which you consume…

Omega-6 fatty acids may increase pain

A research team led by the University of Texas Health Science Center (UT Health) at San Antonio determined the high-fat diet typical of many Western cultures can raise the risk of painful disorders such as neuropathy that are common in people with conditions like diabetes or obesity.

What was really interesting was the discovery that changes in diet may significantly reduce — or even reverse — pain from conditions causing inflammatory pain, such as arthritis, trauma or surgery, or neuropathic pain associated with diabetes. This finding could lead to a treatment plan for chronic-pain patients that involves a simple diet modification or the development of drugs that block the release of specific fatty acids in the body.

Chronic pain is a distressingly common and complex problem with a significant effect on both individuals and society as a whole. The increasing prominence of pain and pain-related diseases is a leading cause of disability globally.

While pain is often the result of injury or disease, it is now considered a separate condition on its own, rather than a symptom of other health issues. Scientists are working hard to develop a better understanding of the many factors contributing to chronic pain — not just the physical, but the social, biological and psychological. This is necessary to develop more effective treatment plans and prevention strategies.

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In the UT Health study, the researchers used mice and humans to study the role of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in pain conditions. They specifically focused on omega-3 and omega-6 PUFAs. Omega-6 lipids are mainly found in foods with vegetable oils, including fast foods, processed snacks, cakes and fatty and cured meats.

Results showed a Western diet high in omega-6 PUFAs was a significant risk factor for both inflammatory and neuropathic pain. And according to the study, lowering omega-6 consumption and increasing omega-3 lipids in the diet greatly reduced these inflammatory and neuropathic pain conditions.

When looking specifically at neuropathy, the researchers demonstrated that skin levels of omega-6 lipids in patients with type 2 diabetic neuropathic pain were elevated in those reporting higher pain levels and the need for analgesic drugs to relieve them.

“This paper is a high-profile contribution for a huge unmet translational need as there are no treatments altering the nature of this neurological disease [neuropathy],” says Dr. José Cavazos, professor of neurology, assistant dean and director of the South Texas Medical Scientist Training Program at UT Health San Antonio.

The study could serve as a foundation for new clinical trials and ultimately provide new paths for neuropathy treatment.

Steps toward a pain-free diet

If you suffer from chronic inflammatory or neuropathic pain, you can try making the following changes to your diet to help ease your pain.

First, ditch foods fried in or containing vegetable oils. In addition to raising your pain levels, these foods carry other health risks, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, brain abnormalities and a shorter lifespan. Even a modest serving of these foods can carry risks, so it’s just best to avoid them completely.

Next, eat more foods containing omega-3 fatty acids to your diet. We’ve written extensively about how omega-3s help maintain a healthy heart, brain and eyes, among other benefits. Make sure you’re eating at least a couple of servings of omega-3-rich fish like salmon every week. If you’re not a big fan of fish, you can try eating flaxseeds, walnuts, chia or hemp seeds or soybeans. Also, certain grass-fed meats, as well as omega-3-enriched chicken and eggs, are some other good dietary options.

Finally, there are other foods you can try that may help relieve inflammatory pain. For instance, eating foods rich in vitamin K, including spinach, broccoli, kale and collard greens, can help your body better repair its bones and cartilage, which helps to relieve osteoarthritis pain. Also, eating more fiber has been found to help with arthritis-related joint pain and may help ease inflammation overall.

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Western high-fat diet can cause chronic pain, according to groundbreaking paper by UT Health San Antonio-led team — UT Health San Antonio

Elevated dietary ω-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids induce reversible peripheral nerve dysfunction that exacerbates comorbid pain conditions — Nature Metabolism

Chronic pain: a review of its epidemiology and associated factors in population-based studies — British Journal of Anaesthesia

Carolyn Gretton

By Carolyn Gretton

Carolyn Gretton is a freelance writer based in New Haven, CT who specializes in all aspects of health and wellness and is passionate about discovering the latest health breakthroughs and sharing them with others. She has worked with a wide range of companies in the alternative health space and has written for online and print publications like Dow Jones Newswires and the Philadelphia Inquirer.