Would it surprise you to know that poor nutrition can be a cause of your pain? The Standard American Diet (SAD) causes numerous nutrient deficiencies, which has implications for chronic diseases, including pain. (1) Heart disease, autoimmune disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and even obesity are all related to nutritional deficiencies. The cause? Most Americans eating the SAD, which is a highly-processed and (sometimes) fast-food ritual, don’t realize their food is void of so many of the nutrients that their bodies need to function optimally. In addition, pharmaceutical medications increase the likelihood of nutrient depletion. Over time, metabolic processes break down, leading to a variety of pain-related illnesses, including musculoskeletal pain. I’ll explain how lack of important nutrients can be causing your discomfort.
Nutrition is an area where most medical professionals receive little training. If doctors learned more about the benefits of nutrition in medical school, it would likely improve the outcome for the majority of their patients. According to a 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the average medical student received just 23 hours of nutrition instruction. (2) With four years spent in medical school, a mere 23 hours on the topic of nutrition is alarming!
For many of us, doctors included, the challenge is being able to recognize the connection between a nutrient deficiency and pain. Nutrient deficiencies alter bodily functions and metabolic processes down to the cellular level. Let’s look at some key nutrients and their connections to inflammation, pain, and illness.
7 Key Pain-Alleviating Nutrients You May Be Missing
1. Vitamin D
Most American adults are deficient in vitamin D, which contributes to a pro-inflammatory state. It’s immune modulating, and because it inhibits calcium absorption into the bone, can cause musculoskeletal pain. Researchers have found that vitamin D deficiencies are common in patients with chronic pain, and deficiency symptoms can include fatigue and muscle aches. (3) Vitamin D3 is the most bioavailable form, is quickly absorbed, and is rarely found in foods. The best way to increase your levels is to spend time in the sun, 20-30 minutes per day with exposed arms and legs, and depending on where you live, take a supplement.
2. B Vitamin Family
B vitamins are important for the myelin sheath, which protects your nerves. There are about 8 different B vitamins, and they all have critical roles. Vitamins B2 (riboflavin) and B6 (pyridoxine) can help improve carpal tunnel syndrome, and vitamin B3 (niacin) relieves osteoarthritis discomfort, resulting in improved joint flexibility, reduced inflammation and a reduction in the need for anti-inflammatory medications. (4) Vitamin B12 can help relieve the neurological pain that presents with tingling and other strange sensations. Different types of B vitamins are readily available in whole foods such as meat, fish, dairy, dark leafy greens, almonds, peanuts, mushrooms, avocados, beans, and eggs.
B vitamins are important for the myelin sheath, which protects your nerves. Click To Tweet
3. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and analgesic, and it has a long history of use for musculoskeletal pain relief. In a study of patients taking 600 mg twice per day, results showed a significant analgesic effect and some symptom relief, but further research is needed on dosage and efficacy. (5) Find vitamin E in sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, red peppers, asparagus, fish, mangoes, and avocados.
Magnesium, the most abundant mineral in the body, is used for over 300 biochemical reactions, yet most Americans are deficient! It’s required for protein synthesis, muscle and nerve function, energy production, and blood pressure regulation. (6) It is a cofactor for ATP, therefore, vital for energy production. Magnesium activates vitamin D, which is also important for calcium regulation and bone health. It regulates other minerals and also aligns itself with nutrients to help complete a multitude of biochemical functions. The older we get, magnesium intake decreases, and we see more deficiency symptoms. Numbness, muscle cramps, and abnormal heart rhythms are some of the symptoms seen with inadequate magnesium levels. This mineral is used to treat migraine headaches and may also be useful in treating fibromyalgia and impaired mitochondrial function. Dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fish, beans, whole grains, avocados, and bananas are rich sources of this mineral.
Dark leafy greens, avocados, and bananas are rich sources of magnesium. Click To Tweet
5. Amino Acids
Amino acids are the building blocks of protein and are a large component of neurotransmitters, muscles, cells, cartilage, bone, and tissue. They are just as important as vitamins and minerals! In fact, for anyone recovering from injury or surgery, or for those desiring muscle growth, proper amino acid intake is critical. (7) Methionine is critical for those suffering from arthritis since it helps to relieve pain and stimulate cartilaginous tissue. The amino acid arginine is important for bone health since it is a component of collagen, an important component of bone. Adults require between 50 to 300 milligrams of amino acids per day. The foods with the highest amounts include animal products like lean meat, poultry, seafood and eggs, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds, avocados, figs, and quinoa. Did you know that quinoa is actually a seed that is loaded with amino acids?!
6. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) are an essential type of fat that is used in metabolic processes, essential for good health, and help reduce inflammation in musculoskeletal and autoimmune conditions, relieving chronic pain. They stimulate the development of cartilage for joint repair, increase mineral absorption, and have been effective for treating migraines, back pain, and arthritis. For musculoskeletal pain, doses of 3000 milligrams (3 grams) of EPA and DHA daily is necessary to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits. (8) If you are not craving the familiar sources like halibut, salmon or sardines, be sure to include eggs, walnuts, and cauliflower in your diet.
Calcium is important for maintaining strong bones and controlling muscle and nerve function. Signs of severely low calcium include fatigue, muscle cramps, and abnormal heart rhythms. Make sure you are getting 9 servings of vegetables each day—especially dark leafy greens. Leafy greens are a rich source of calcium and not associated with intolerance or allergy that accompanies dairy products.
Medications and Nutrients
According to the Mayo Clinic, 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug, and more than half of Americans take two. (9) For most of us, as we age, these numbers increase; 20 percent of Americans take five or more prescription medications! And this does not even take into account the drugs available over-the-counter that might be added to the mix! If you are currently struggling with pain, or are overweight, chances are that you fall into one of these categories.
While the medications you take on a daily basis seem to do their intended job, behind the scenes it’s another issue. Doctors are taught to look for the potential side effects of medications. The ramifications of long-term medication usage are that they can cause nutrient depletion, leading to widespread effects throughout the body. Nutrient depletions affect the immune, musculoskeletal, digestive, endocrine and neurological systems, in turn, causing pain. Has this got you wondering about the medications you may be taking and their consequences?
Five Common medications and their effects (10)
- Non-Steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs and Anti-inflammatories: (NSAIDS) These include over-the-counter drugs such as Advil, Aleve, and Excedrin, as well as prescription versions. This class of medication can deplete iron, vitamin B9 (folic acid), vitamin C, and zinc, leading to a weak immune system, anemia, and increased susceptibility to infections.
- Glucocorticoids: These include steroids like prednisone and cortisone. This class of drugs can deplete a multitude of vitamins and minerals such as magnesium, potassium, sodium, selenium, and zinc, which are important for bone and cellular health, muscle and nerve function, and immunity. Another consequence is reduced calcium absorption which then interferes with both magnesium and vitamin D metabolism.
- Disease-modifying anti-rheumatic drugs: (DMARDS) These medications, used to slow the progression of joint damage, include medications like methotrexate, leflunomide, hydroxychloroquine, sulfasalazine, minocycline, azathioprine, and cyclosporine. The list of possible nutrient depletions includes B3, B6, B9, B12, vitamin K, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, the important antioxidant glutathione, and probiotics which are vital for gut health.
- Opioids: These drugs that act on the nervous system to relieve pain include codeine, hydrocodone, Vicodin, oxycodone, and morphine. Selenium and glutathione, both important antioxidants, become depleted, as does zinc, which again, is important for the immune system.
- Proton Pump Inhibitor: (PPI) These drugs that help to relieve the symptoms of GERD include medications such as Prevacid, Prilosec, and Protonix. Because they act right in the stomach at the initial site of digestion, they can affect a whole list of nutrients that include calcium, chromium, folic acid, iron, B vitamins, vitamin C, and zinc. The cascade of consequences from all these nutrient depletions can include changes in bone health, immune system, digestive function and mental health status.
By making adjustments in your diet, you could set yourself up for success by seeing (and feeling) an improvement in your digestive health, getting better absorption of nutrients from food and supplements, and relying less and less on prescription medications to relieve your pain. An added bonus may be the money you save on all these expensive pain relieving meds! Nutrition is a fast way to change your health, resolve pain and lose weight.