Fibromyalgia is notoriously difficult to treat. Medication tends to reduce muscle pain, fatigue, and other symptoms of the chronic condition by just 30% to 50%. As a result, many patients turn to diet and lifestyle changes for added relief.
Learning which foods to avoid is a good place to start, since fibro patients often have food sensitivities that may not show up in food allergy tests. In one survey, 42% reported that certain foods made their pain and stiffness worse.
Experts believe that oversensitive nerve cells in the spinal cord and brain may be involved in the way fibro patients process pain. Certain foods may trigger the release of neurotransmitters that heighten this sensitivity, says Daniel Arkfeld, MD, a rheumatologist at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.
Although the research on diet and fibromyalgia is limited, experts suggest that the following 10 healthy eating rules can’t hurt, and may help people dealing with chronic pain.
Roughly half of fibro patients also suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Eating a diet of fresh foods, devoid of preservatives and additives, may ease fibro symptoms associated with IBS, says Dr. Arkfeld. “Foods that irritate your bowel will trigger the body to send a message to the brain that signals fibromyalgia symptoms,” he explains.
Whenever possible, it’s also a good idea to buy organic food. “Some patients do better avoiding pesticides and chemicals,” says Dr. Arkfeld.
Fibromyalgia is believed to be linked to an imbalance of brain chemicals that control mood, and it is often accompanied by unrestful sleep and fatigue. Fibro patients may try to ease fatigue with stimulants like caffeine, but they may end up doing more harm than good in the long run.
“Caffeine is a loan shark for energy. We recommend not using a lot,” says Kent Holtorf, MD, founding medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers, which are located across the country.
“For joint pains, a lot of people say avoid nightshade vegetables,” says Dr. Arkfeld. Normally, veggies are low-cal, healthy options, but the nightshade variety—including tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplants—are believed to aggravate arthritis and pain in some people.
“The thought is that they have components that are neurotoxins,” says Dr. Holtorf. “For a small percentage of patients, cutting them out makes a dramatic difference.”
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in salmon and a variety of fish, have been touted as a heart-healthy food, and they may help with pain as well. “The fatty acids are great,” says Dr. Holtorf. “They reduce the inflammation and help brain function.”
A 2006 survey of arthritis patients found that daily fish oil supplements reduced pain symptoms in 60% of the patients. Omega-3s have not, however, been tested on fibromyalgia patients specifically.
“If I had to choose one particular diet for fibromyalgia patients, I would choose a low-carb, low-sugar diet,” says Dr. Holtorf.
“About 90% of fibromyalgia patients have low adrenal functioning,” he adds, which affects the metabolism of carbohydrates and may lead to hypoglycemia. These people crave sugar, but they also experience the crash that follows the initial energy high. “If you’re hypoglycemic, you want to keep that sugar level as stable as possible. Try carbs with a mix of protein and fat,” says Dr. Arkfeld.