Fibromyalgia: Which foods to choose to ease symptoms?
Published 22 Mar 2022 • By Courtney Johnson
Fibromyalgia is a complex chronic condition that remains poorly understood today by the medical community. Because of its variety of symptoms and lack of standardised treatment plan, many patients have turned to their plate in their disease management journey.
How can diet and nutrition affect fibromyalgia? What foods should one avoid or enjoy when you have fibromyalgia?
We answer these questions and more below!
Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition with a complex array of symptoms including widespread muscle and joint pain, overwhelming fatigue, and cognitive effects, among others.
This complexity of expression in patients has led it to be poorly understood by the medical community. There is still no known cause or recognised treatment plan that is effective for all fibromyalgia patients.
For this reason, many people have turned to diet as a way to ease some of the symptoms. Though dietary measures are not part of the standard fibromyalgia treatment regimen, in many chronic conditions a multimodal approach combining medication, exercise, complementary therapies and dietary changes can be beneficial.
How can diet affect fibromyalgia?
Eating a varied and balanced diet is good advice for anyone, whether or not they have fibromyalgia. However, a 2018 literature review published in Biomedicine & Pharmacotherapy has established that ensuring the right mix of nutrients is key for fibromyalgia patients.
A diet full of nutrients such as vitamin B12 and rich in antioxidants can help to ease fibromyalgia symptoms in some cases.
A balanced diet should incorporate:
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Lean protein, like chicken or fish
- Health fats
- Low fat dairy
- Whole grains
Though fibromyalgia causes widespread pain, it is not an autoimmune or inflammation-based condition. Despite this, evidence published in the journal Nutrition Research Reviews has suggested that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet can help people with chronic pain, such as people with fibromyalgia. While an anti-inflammatory diet is not a specific eating plan, its recommended guidelines can help patients to make choices that help ease their symptoms.
Additionally, evidence has further suggested that a plant-based diet could be beneficial in reducing fibromyalgia symptoms, due to the high antioxidant content of many fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants help the body to dispose of “free radicals”, which are waste products produced naturally by the body. When free radicals build up in the body, it can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation.
Another research avenue has highlighted the role of dietary excitotoxins in fibromyalgia. Dr. Kathleen Holton, PhD, assistant professor, and researcher in health studies at the American University in Washington, D.C., has focused much of her work on the effects of diet on neurological health, including chronic illness involving pain, like fibromyalgia.
Early study has showed that removing these excitotoxins, chemicals that “excite” neurons in the brain and can be toxic if consumed in high quantities, from the diets of some patients living with fibromyalgia reduced symptoms. Subsequent research has had mixed results but eliminating excitotoxic food additives from one’s diet still remains a low-cost treatment option for patients with few-to-no side effects.
What foods should you avoid and enjoy if you have fibromyalgia?
Dr. Holton and other researchers working on chronic illnesses presenting with chronic pain have been able establish to a list of guidelines to help people living with to better manage conditions like fibromyalgia through diet.
Here are a few helpful tips:
Avoid foods that contain added glutamate
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that occurs naturally in some foods but also in the body. Often it is added to foods as a flavour enhancer. The most common form of dietary glutamate is monosodium glutamate (MSG). Ingredients lists that include the terms “protein concentrate,” “protein isolate,” “autolysed,” or “hydrolysed” are also likely to contain naturally occurring MSG. Fortunately, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) requires that MSG be listed on the label when it is used as an ingredient in food, so it is easy to identify and therefore avoid. In the UK and Europe, MSG may be listed by its E-number: E621.
In a 2017 study published in Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology, 37 patients living with fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) (a common condition in fibromyalgia patients), followed a diet that eliminated added MSG and aspartame for four weeks. The findings showed that more than 30% of their fibromyalgia symptoms improved in that period. Those who had improved symptoms were then given MSG or a placebo for three days in a row per week for two weeks, and the group given MSG saw a significant return of their fibromyalgia symptoms.
Foods that typically contain MSG include:
- Canned soups and vegetables
- Crisps and snack foods (potato crisps, corn crisps, snack mixes, etc.)
- Certain seasoning blends and bouillon cubes (especially “low sodium” versions)
- Frozen meals (frozen pizzas, pastas, frozen breakfast meals, etc.)
- Processed meats (hot dogs, lunch meats, beef jerky, sausages, pepperoni, smoked meats, etc.)
- Fast food (Chinese food, fast food hamburgers and chicken, etc.)
Avoid cured meats
When you buy meat for your table, avoid processed products with added preservatives or salts, or meats that have been cured or smoked. This can include canned meat, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, corned beef, cold cuts, and beef jerky.
It’s also a good idea to keep your eye out for meat products with “natural flavour added” on the ingredients list, such as turkey breast marinated in broth, for example. “Natural flavours” are typically derived from natural sources like other meats, plants, and seafood, but may be high in naturally occurring MSG.
Increase your vitamin D intake with cold-water fish and fortified foods
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, supplementation with vitamin D may help to reduce pain for people with fibromyalgia who are also deficient in the nutrient.
Vitamin D can be found naturally in the following foods: sockeye salmon, tuna, swordfish, and eggs, and some foods like milk and orange juice, are often fortified with vitamin D.
Get more magnesium in your diet with dark, leafy greens, nuts, and seeds
Magnesium can be found in many foods, including dark leafy greens, nuts and seeds, yogurt, dark chocolate, avocado, bananas, fatty fish, and legumes (dried beans and lentils).
Boost your Omega-3s with fish, flaxseed, and chia
Omega-3 fatty acids are thought to lower inflammation, reduce oxidative stress, and boost immunity.
Foods rich in omega-3s include walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseeds, and wild-caught seafood.
Omega-3s can also be taken as a supplement, but it is important to avoid omega-3 capsules because they contain gelatine. Gelatine contains the amino acids aspartate and glycine, which may activate a glutamate receptor on nerve cells implicated in fibromyalgia.
Opt for whole foods over processed foods
When you can, choosing whole, unprocessed foods is advisable for people with fibromyalgia.
Processed foods often contain more additives and less nutrients and soluble fibre than unprocessed foods. Refined carbohydrates like white rice, white pasta, and white flour, for example, are common examples of processed foods that have been transformed and removed of their naturally occurring nutrients.
When composing your plate, opt for whole grains such as brown or wild rice, quinoa, whole wheat berries, buckwheat groats, or amaranth, or go for a plain potato or sweet potato instead of pasta, rice, or bread.
Try the Mediterranean or DASH diet
Though the two diets are slightly different in some of their specific guidelines, they both encourage a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat or no-fat dairy, and whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
Many aspects of both diets can decrease inflammation, which can benefit many chronic illnesses.
It is important to note that not all diets are for everyone, and not all fibromyalgia patients may see benefits from changing their diet. If you’re interested in modifying your diet, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor. He or she should be able to guide you towards a method that works for you.
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