Fibromyalgia, pronounced 'fybro-my-aljya', is a long-term condition that causes chronic wide-spread muscular pain throughout the body and extreme fatigue.
The precise cause of fibromyalgia is as yet unknown, however, it is generally thought to be related to certain hormone and chemical changes in the body. One theory suggests fibromyalgia disturbs pain pathways transmitted in the central nervous system, linking the brain and spinal cord.
Although there isn’t a definitive cure for the condition, doctors suggest some medication, lifestyle and dietary changes can help manage and reduce the symptoms. Let’s take a look at treating fibromyalgia through a multimodal approach.
Symptoms of fibromyalgia
Alongside wide-spread pain which is often the determining factor in diagnosing fibromyalgia, a person suffering from the condition can also have:
- Heightened sensitivity to touch, light, sound and temperature.
- Stiffness and muscle spasms.
- Extreme fatigue that can come on very suddenly.
- Insomnia due to pain and muscle spasms.
- Cognitive problems such as memory, concentration and speech.
- Headaches ranging between mild aching, to severe migraines.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
Less common symptoms include:
- depression and anxiety
- restless leg syndrome
- abnormally painful periods
Diets for fibromyalgia
Although there isn’t a specific diet medically-approved to treat fibromyalgia, there are some general dietary guidelines you can follow which may help improve your quality of life. Firstly, experts advise that maintaining a nourishing, balanced diet is key in keeping both your mind and body healthy which will help you manage on-going symptoms and fibromyalgia flare-ups. A balanced diet means:
- getting your 5 a day
- eating plenty of protein in the form of fish, eggs, dairy, meat, nuts and beans
- drinking plenty of water
- eating whole grains like brown rice, pasta and bread to keep energy levels up
- eating 'good fats' which are unsaturated and found in oily fish and nuts
I find if I don’t eat enough food, or just stick to low fat, no carbs etc. I get the shakes, feel sick and get really bad migraines. So really trying to keep it balanced is key.
- Read Laura’s story of managing her fibromyalgia with dietary support.
Fibromyalgia causes extreme fatigue, brain fog and concentration problems so it can be helpful to eat foods that provide a slow release of energy to keep your blood sugar level throughout the day. Choose a variety of proteins, healthy fats and carbohydrates such as:
- sweet potatoes
- whole grains
Everyone is individual and your experience with fibromyalgia will be independent to that of another patient so it’s important to note that whilst research suggests the following diets are helpful for management of this condition, they may not be suitable for you. It’s best to consult your GP or nutrition professional before making dietary modifications.
A vegan/vegetarian diet
In 2000, an observational study concluded that symptoms of fibromyalgia were largely improved for most participants when they followed a raw vegetarian diet. A vegan or vegetarian diet which is high in plant-based foods and plant antioxidants, but low in sugar, made a significant difference to participants' pain, quality of sleep and weight (for those overweight). Processed red meat can also be linked to the occurrence of migraine which is often common in people with fibromyalgia.
A raw vegan or vegetarian diet can be restrictive so it may not suit you and should be adopted under the guidance of a health professional.
The anti-inflammatory/ Mediterranean diet
Fibromyalgia isn’t considered an inflammatory illness, but some experts suggest it is an inflammation of the nervous system, suggesting that neuroinflammation (inflammation of the nervous tissue) may be part of the condition.
In this case, it can be helpful to consider adopting a Mediterranean diet, known for its anti-inflammatory qualities and its unlikeliness to trigger systemic inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet generally consists of whole grains, fish, healthy oils, nuts, fruits and vegetables.
While many diets have appeared in the news in the last years, including “diet fads”, the Mediterranean diet remains one of the healthiest and most balanced diets to follow, be it for optimal health, disease prevention or battling against a specific condition.
- Naturopathic nutritional therapist Olianna Gourli on reasons to love the Mediterranean diet.
Common food triggers
Fibromyalgia can cause extreme sensitivity in the body which can extend to food tolerance as well, so it can be useful to identify any foods that trigger a flare-up by a process of elimination.
It’s common that people who suffer from fibromyalgia will also develop irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), a long-term condition causing abdominal discomfort and unbalance in the gut. A recommended treatment for IBS is a low-FODMAP diet, an elimination diet designed to specifically identify what food triggers your symptoms.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligosaccharides, Disaccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols - short-chain carbohydrates such as onions, garlic, cashews, peaches etc - that are difficult to digest and ferment in the large intestine, causing IBS symptoms. Countless studies have shown that the low-FODMAP diet is the most effective in treating IBS.
A recent study conducted on patients with fibromyalgia who had tested negative for coeliac-disease (gluten allergy) found that their symptoms were remarkably improved following a gluten-free diet, even suggesting that non-coeliac gluten sensitivity may be an underlying cause of fibromyalgia - a cause that is treatable.
Food additive sensitivity
Recorded in the journal Pain Management from a one-month study eliminating food additives, a diet that restricts monosodium glutamate (MSG), altered proteins and aspartame, can significantly improve pain symptoms in fibromyalgia patients. Sensitivity to food additives can present itself in the form of headaches, diarrhoea, insomnia, nausea etc.
Vitamin D deficiency
According to a recent study, there may be a link between vitamin D deficiency and fibromyalgia, suggesting that supplementation to control the severity of pain may be helpful in managing the illness.
Alternative treatment for fibromyalgia
The type of treatment available will depend on a balance between what you feel comfortable with, and what your GP considers appropriate. Because of the wide range of symptoms associated with fibromyalgia, no one treatment will ever be suitable for everyone. A patient may also be referred to a specialist health professional in severe cases, such as:
- A rheumatologist - specialising in conditions that affect the muscles and joints.
- A neurologist - specialising in conditions that affect the central nervous system.
Available treatment for pain management:
- Painkillers - to help manage pain.
- Antidepressants - to curb low moods.
- Muscle relaxants - to prevent muscle spasms.
- Anticonvulsants - usually used for epilepsy, this type of medication has been known to treat fibromyalgia.
- Antipsychotics - otherwise known as neuroleptics, are sometimes used to treat chronic pain due to their neuromuscular effects.
- Alternative medicine - acupuncture and massage.
Treatment for fibromyalgia can reach further than taking pills or going for massages: it can become part of your daily routine.
Fibromyalgia-associated fatigue can make physical activity difficult. However, a tailored exercise programme could help to reduce the severity and frequency of your symptoms. Exercise has many benefits, including:
- Increasing the flow of oxygen through the body, making you feel awake and enlivened.
- Releasing 'feel-good hormones' to combat depression.
- Stretching and exercising can ease pain and strengthen muscles.
- Helping you lose weight, reducing the strain of excess fat on joints and bones.
- Lowering the risk of diabetes, heart disease and heart failure.
Effective, low-impact physical activity could include:
Relaxation is just as important as exercise for treating fibromyalgia. Relaxing can help to ease stress and reduce the chances of symptoms flaring up. Mindfulness meditation and hypnotherapy have also been studied in connection with fibromyalgia and have been proven to help reduce pain and discomfort.
Nutritional therapy and fibromyalgia
Working with a registered nutrition professional such as a nutritionist or dietitian can support you in making informed choices about your dietary needs that may help with symptom management.
The experts listed on our directory all have the relevant qualifications and experience to offer professional nutritional support, advice and guidance. You can find a therapist near you who has experience with fibromyalgia by using the advanced search tool and filtering to the condition on the A-Z health tab. Once you’ve found someone who resonates with you, simply pop them an email.
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