How diet affects fibromyalgia
I’m going to borrow a description from Jane Wundersitz and Damian Barr in thinking about fibromyalgia, “we may all be facing the same storm, but we are doing so in different boats”.
You may be in a yacht with a full crew, or you could be in a rowing boat, alone and zapped of strength. Do you have a life jacket? Does your boat have an engine? Is there a sail? Is there a rudder, is it working or is it jammed?
Fibromyalgia (FM) is a complex, multi-faceted chronic pain condition with dysfunction in a few vital systems in the body, resulting in symptoms of widespread pain, extreme fatigue, local tenderness and non-restorative sleep. These are often accompanied by (but not limited to) impaired cognition, aching, dizziness, headaches, anxiety and/or depression, pain/cramps, IBS and tender lymph nodes.
Back to the storm: fibromyalgia sufferers share symptoms with many other conditions, particularly chronic fatigue syndrome as both can have numerous similar and heavily influential contributing factors.
These undercurrents are represented by the following:
- diet and lifestyle
- environmental factors that include underlying chronic infections/bacteria and toxins
- the state of the gut
- hormonal imbalances
- psychological factors including trauma and adverse childhood events
The extent of the impact of these stressors, both individually and/or collectively, can determine the type of boat you may find yourself in.
Nutrition is of paramount importance in fibromyalgia yet there is an overwhelming amount of conflicting information regarding what is good or bad to eat if you suffer from the condition. It’s important to acknowledge that everyone is different and so are their needs and dietary requirements, which also includes genetic predisposition, hence there is data supporting the effectiveness of different diets in reducing FM symptoms.
However, what all these diets have in common is the focus on eating whole foods, in their natural forms and the exclusion of processed foods and additives. Consequently, there are certain nutrients and foods that are best either included or excluded from your diet if you find yourself in the midst of the storm.
A diet that is lacking in key elements including vitamins and minerals can play a crucial role in FM development and muscle pain is also associated with deficiencies in amino acids, magnesium, selenium and B vitamins, especially vitamin B12 and D.
Research tells us that when optimal levels of nutrition are achieved, these interventions have a significant impact on pain reduction.
Diets for fibromyalgia
So what should you eat? A whole foods diet, whether based on vegetarian, Mediterranean, or gluten-free principals appear to be effective at reducing FM symptoms. Studies reflect a reduction of inflammation, improved quality of life and significant improvements in chronic pain, anxiety, depression, cognitive function, sleep and gastrointestinal symptoms with an increased intake of plant foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre.
A diverse variety of plant foods is also supportive of the microbiome whereas a more western-style diet that is high in processed foods and sugars can result in a lack of nutrients that are needed to help support healthy gut bacteria.
What foods and nutrients should you eat with fibromyalgia?
- Olive oil as a source of antioxidants and monounsaturated fat.
- Fruit as a source of antioxidants and vitamins.
- Vegetables as sources of antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
- Oily fish provide sources of vitamin D, omega 3 essential fats, vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
- Nuts and seeds as a source of omega 3 fats, minerals and amino acids.
- Legumes and cereals as a source of minerals and omega 3 fats.
- Lean meat as a source of amino acids and minerals.
- Small amounts of organic dairy if tolerated as a source of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
- Ancient grains including Khorasan contain increased amounts of minerals and nutrients compared to modern-day wheat and replacing grains within the diet with ancient varieties has been shown to improve the severity of FM related symptoms.
Why these nutrients can help
Antioxidants exhibit potent anti-inflammatory effects (include fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices, especially ginger and turmeric and green tea).
Particularly magnesium, this mineral helps support your body’s natural defences and is often called nature’s relaxant. Deficiencies in magnesium are often found with FM and are associated with low-grade inflammation, muscle weakness and abnormal sensations of the skin.
Aim to include:
- green leafy vegetables
- seeds - pumpkin, flax, chia
- nuts - almond, cashew, Brazil
- dark chocolate
- legumes - lentils, beans, chickpeas, peas
- whole grains - buckwheat, quinoa
Tryptophan is an essential amino acid and a precursor to serotonin (which is then converted by the body to melatonin), which is supportive of sleep. Sleep is often disrupted in FM so including organic dairy, bananas, wild-caught fish, turkey and chicken, pumpkin and sesame seeds and cashew and walnuts can be supportive.
A diet that is rich in good quality protein (along with a significant amount of vegetables) may help reduce muscle pain as the amino acids in protein can provide energy to support muscle function and strength. The vegetables supply an increased amount of antioxidants.
What foods should you avoid with fibromyalgia?
- sugar and refined carbohydrates
- artificial sweeteners
- highly processed and highly refined foods
- monosodium glutamate and aspartame
Processed foods are foods that are not in their natural form and this processing can remove vital nutrients including vitamins, minerals and fibre. Foods can be artificially manipulated using colours, flavours, preservatives, sweeteners, hormones and antibiotics, all of which can result in inflammation and oxidative stress
Gastrointestinal disturbance is often seen in FM. These symptoms that appear similar to gluten sensitivity have been shown to improve with the removal of gluten in addition to more systemic FM symptoms including improvements in pain, tender points, fatigue and restless sleep.
Monosodium glutamate and aspartame removal has shown to result in overall improvements in fibromyalgia symptoms such as chronic pain, fatigue, sleep and cognitive function.
The storm contains many variables, but we also have the opportunity to build our defences, resilience and strength to enable us to weather the storm and emerge into calmer waters and sunnier skies in the future.