Can we use diet to ease chronic conditions?

I have chronic fatigue syndrome. Five years ago I couldn’t make it from the car park to Sainsbury’s without feeling so inconceivably exhausted I would weep. Today, a tough night’s sleep will leave me feeling like sleep has evaded me for a year, and my physical strength and mental well-being will deteriorate quickly, but I will come back from it. So you could say I recovered, but I’m definitely one of the lucky ones.

You won’t know this from looking at me. Which is often part of the stigma when it comes to managing a condition like chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS). There currently isn’t a cure, and sufferers who have severe symptoms which often leave them bedbound may never make a full recovery. 

A chronic condition can be categorised as a long-term condition without a cure, in which symptoms can only be managed. They can seriously impact the quality of a patient’s life and are often life-long. They can be incredibly frustrating and debilitating.

Other common chronic conditions include:

  • fibromyalgia
  • asthma
  • arthritis
  • diabetes
  • Crohn’s disease 

In my quest to overcome a condition that robbed a fair few years of my 20s, I tried a number of recommended activities, diets and holistic therapies, two of which I had great success with; reflexology and managing my diet. 

I identified two of the big culprits that were causing flare-ups: dairy – leading to excruciating migraines – and spicy food, in particular red chillies (my previous love!) which lead to IBS symptoms. I also became a vegetarian, after noticing that eating red meat made me extremely itchy and increased my intake of foods containing riboflavin B2, as I developed a severe sensitivity to light. 

Diet and chronic illness

Over the course of this year, we’ve noticed a significant increase in people searching for support with chronic conditions, particularly CFS and fibromyalgia – a chronic condition that causes widespread pain throughout the body and extreme exhaustion. 

So I put it to the people: How has diet helped you manage a chronic condition? Because I’m a big believer in taking a holistic approach to any illness. It did work for me – and continues to do so – and it may just give you some support in managing a chronic illness.

Diet and fibromyalgia

Laura, a dear friend of mine struggles with fibromyalgia and finds that heightened stress and heavier weight, plays a big part in her flare-ups. She says, “I feel at my best usually in the warmer months, so it’s easier to lean towards eating salads and fruit. When I was consciously managing my weight for my wedding, I lost two and a half stone and I felt so much better. There was less strain on my joints, which helped with some of the pain. But that diet wasn’t sustainable.

“I’m heavier now and am in more pain. 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.”

I asked Louise Blanchfield, nutritional and physiotherapist, what foods she would recommend to ease fibromyalgia discomfort: “From a nutritional perspective, we class fibromyalgia as an autoimmune condition and hence, we recommend a gluten-free and dairy-free diet with plenty of anti-inflammatory foods like oily fish, olive oil, fruits and vegetables and nuts like walnuts. High magnesium intake also helps muscular pain, so include foods like green leafy veg, almonds and pumpkin seeds.” 

Although fibromyalgia is not an autoimmune condition, applying nutritional practices similar to those of other autoimmune conditions can be helpful.

Kerri, a business coach from Somerset also has fibromyalgia and has found her diet significantly affects her condition. She says, “I’ve found that I can’t tolerate mushrooms, leeks or courgettes due to the IBS symptoms associated with fibromyalgia. If I eat wholemeal bread or anything with too much whole grain wheat, I find my pain levels and fatigue are much worse.”

Kerri might not be the only one who struggles with certain veg and fungi: mushrooms and leeks actually contain high levels of glutamate, the amino acid found in high-protein foods. Excess glutamate in the brain is linked to amplifying pain throughout the body which can have a severely negative impact on a person with fibromyalgia. 

Dietitian Gillian Killiner, who supports patients with CFS and fibromyalgia by equipping them with practical, nutritional advice, notes that the key to success in managing chronic pain can often lie within the gut, and a lack of knowledge around supplementation could be hindering the progress. “I find patients rely on a plethora of expensive supplements and quick fixes but if they are unable to absorb via a problematic gastrointestinal tract, or their diet is full of processed foods that are repetitive and pro-inflammatory, then they are never going to improve.

“In my experience, it is important to correct any relevant bloods, eat as naturally as possible and practise self-care. Mental health can be very much affected with long term ill-health and so assisting this is also essential using good quality proteins, polyphenol-rich foods etc…”

Diet and arthritis

Environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant Lee lives with seronegative arthritis, and after he reached a point where his illness left him immobile, he is now managing the disease through diet and lifestyle alone.

I have been experimenting with my nutrition for years with the mission of controlling my disease by lifestyle alone.

– Lee Chambers

Lee says, “This process has given me so much acuity to how certain foods energise me, drain me and trigger inflammation. It involved three years of testing food types by experimenting with my diet, isolating ingredients in and out and recording how I felt at the time, after 30 minutes and after two hours, and attempting to account for other variables. 

“Going through this process has also given me clarity on which foods affect my mood and cognitive capacity, allowing me to be more functional in my work, and a happier individual in life.”

So finally, can we use diet to make life with chronic conditions more comfortable? In many cases, yes, but it’s important to remember we are all individuals, and unique, meaning our bodies respond differently to others and we may experience different levels of severity with chronic conditions. Nutritional therapy can help you identify what works for you in a safe and healthy environment and go a long way in helping you live a healthy, happy lifestyle, whilst managing a chronic condition. 

Remember, if you would like to make changes to your diet to manage a medical condition, it’s important you seek professional support from your GP or registered nutritional therapist before doing so.

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Written by Katie Hoare
Katie is a writer for Nutritionist Resource.
Written by Katie Hoare
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