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Foods That Fight Pain

by Neal Barnard, M.D.

We all suffer pain from time to time, and for some of us that pain has become a recurring, and sometimes constant, presence in our lives. I would like to offer you an approach to pain that is different -- and perhaps more powerful -- than anything you have ever tried. It is based on the premise that foods have medicinal value, a notion which has long been accepted in the medical traditions of China, India, Native America, and other cultures around the world, and is now being confirmed by the latest Western medical research.

Foods can fight pain. I want to establish something important: There is nothing speculative or far-out about the premise that foods can fight pain. On the contrary. The ideas presented in my book, Foods That Fight Pain, are drawn from a wealth of new research from prestigious medical centers around the world.

Years ago, findings showing that foods work against pain, even pain in its most severe forms, emerged as tentative and sometimes controversial theories. Physicians and scientists then rigorously investigated these concepts in human research volunteers. Today, after years of testing, discarding, and refining, we arrived at a revolutionary way of thinking about pain. Research studies have given us the scientific basis, not only for why foods work this magic, but also how to put it to use. 

Nutrients work against pain in four ways. They can reduce damage at the site of injury, cool your body's inflammatory response, provide analgesia on pain nerves themselves, and even work within the brain to reduce pain sensitivity.

The most important approach for you depends on the kind of pain you have. If you have arthritis, your goal is to stop the joint damage along with the pain. If you have cancer pain or chest pain, you can choose foods to affect the disease process itself. If you have shingles, diabetic nerve pains, or carpal tunnel syndrome, you need to fix a problem within the nerves. If you have a chronic backache, headaches, abdominal pain, or cramps, you just want the pain to disappear. Specific foods can help with all of these.

Different Foods for Different Kinds of Pain

Research studies have revealed special effects of certain foods and nutrients. Rice or peppermint oil, for example, can soothe your digestive tract. Ginger and the herb feverfew can prevent migraines, and coffee sometimes cures them. Natural plant oils can reduce arthritis pain. Cranberry juice can fight the pain of bladder infections. Vitamin B6 can even increase your pain resistance, to name just a few.

Whether we are talking about back pain, migraines, cancer pain, or anything else, there are three basic principles to using foods to fight pain. 


  1. Choose pain-safe foods. In headaches, joint pains, and digestive pains, for example, the key is not so much in adding new foods as in finding out which foods have caused your pain and avoiding them, while building your meals from foods that virtually never cause symptoms for anyone.

    In the Lancet of October 12, 1991, arthritis researchers announced the results of a carefully controlled study that tested how avoiding certain foods could reduce inflammation. Often the culprits were as seemingly innocent as a glass of milk, a tomato, wheat bread, or eggs. By avoiding specific foods, many patients improved dramatically: pain diminished or went away, and joint stiffness was no longer the routine morning misery. The same benefit has been seen for migraines. While there are also benefits to be gained from certain supplements, particularly natural anti-inflammatory plant oils, identifying your own sensitivities is an enormously important first step.

    Sugar may affect pain, at least in certain circumstances. Researchers at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Minneapolis tested its effects on a group of young men. They attached a clip to the web of skin between their fingers, and wired the clip to an electrical stimulator. They gradually increased the voltage, and asked the men to say when they felt any pain and at what point they found it intolerable. As the researchers then infused a dose of sugar, the volunteers found that they could feel the pain sooner and felt it more intensely. The researchers then tested diabetics, who tend to have more sugar in their blood than other people, and found that they too were more sensitive to pain than other people.

    What would it mean if some part of your diet, whether it was sugar or anything else, were to cause pain to hurt just a bit extra, without your realizing what was causing this problem? In fact, there are many foods that trigger pain and aggravate inflammation. Choosing pain-safe foods is as important as bringing the special healing foods in.

  2. Add soothing foods that ease your pain. Foods that improve blood flow are of obvious importance in angina, back pain, and leg pains. Foods that relieve inflammation help your joints to cool down. Other foods balance hormones and will come to your rescue if you have menstrual pain, endometriosis, fibroids, or breast pain. Hormone-adjusting foods have also been the subject of a considerable amount of research in cancer, as we will see.

  3. Use supplements if you need them. I encourage you to explore the benefits of herbs, extracts, and vitamins that can treat painful conditions. Some have been in use for a very long time and have been tested in good research studies. Do this under your doctor's care, so that a nutritional approach can be integrated with other medical measures as needed, and so that you have a solid diagnosis.

Why Didn't My Doctor Tell Me?

Unfortunately, your doctor is not likely to tell you -- and may well not know -- most of what you will read in my book. In treating pain, many doctors rely on a very restricted range of treatments, while vital research showing what is actually causing the problem and how to correct it very often gathers dust in medical libraries.

The fact is, when a shiny nugget of potentially life-saving information appears in a medical journal, very few doctors will ever even see it. For even the most conscientious doctors, it is a challenge to keep up with more than a few of the thousands of journals that appear every month, even though the very answers we are seeking might be found there. Only a handful of these journals ever publicize their findings in the popular press. The vital information they hold is simply buried in medical archives.

Of course, it is a very different story when a research study favors the use of a new drug. Then the drug company will hire a public relations firm, pay for massive mailings to physicians, and advertise in medical journals. The company will sponsor medical conferences that highlight the role of the drug and pay speakers to discuss it. They are skilled at getting a busy doctor's attention, motivated by millions of dollars in profits. But no industry makes money if you stop eating a food that causes your migraines. No surgical supply company makes a cent if you open your arteries naturally through diet and lifestyle. A pharmaceutical company's bottom line does not improve if you use natural anti-inflammatory foods instead of expensive drugs. And without the PR machinery paid for by industry, some of the most important findings never make their way onto a doctor's desk. Patients with arthritis, migraines, menstrual cramps, or even cancer who ask their doctors what they should be eating to regain their health get no answers, simply because no one has brought new information to the doctor's attention.

In spite of the economic forces that often slow progress, we have every reason to be optimistic about the future of medicine. More and more doctors are integrating nutrition into their practices, and scientific journals are responding with reports on its efficacy. Studies in leading allergy journals are showing the links between migraines and food sensitivities, the Journal of Rheumatology has published a series of reports on how foods affect the joints, The Lancet is reporting the new approaches to back pain and heart disease, and the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms the value of something as simple as cranberry juice for bladder infections.

Use What Works

When it comes to our health, we simply want what works. Very often that means a change in diet, since every hormone, neurotransmitter, and blood cell in your body needs nutrients in order to do its job. On the other hand, sometimes the best choice is a prescription. Most ulcers, for example, are caused by a bacterial infection, and all the "ulcer diets" in the world are not nearly as effective as two weeks of antibiotics. 

Please use this information in consultation with your doctor. If you have pain, you need a diagnosis. No matter what treatment you are choosing, your doctor can clarify your other treatment options, monitor your progress, look out for any adverse effects, and can be educated by you as your symptoms improve.

However, this does not mean surrendering your good judgment. It always pays to get a second opinion -- or a third, if necessary -- if there is any doubt about the right treatment for your condition.

This article was excerpted from 

"Foods That Fight Pain"
by Neal Barnard, M.D.


Info/Order this book

About The Author

Neal Barnard, M.D., is president of the Physicians' Committee for Responsible Medicine and editor-in-chief of Good Medicine. He is an active clinical researcher and author of numerous scientific publications. Dr. Barnard travels widely giving lectures on nutrition and health. Excerpted from Foods That Fight Pain by Neal Barnard, M.D. Copyright© 1998. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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