This is the second article in an ongoing series. Make sure to check out the other articles after finishing this one:
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Although fibromyalgia wasn’t a known condition when Hippocrates was alive, his words still ring true today.
We know that foods have health or healing benefits. But does it also work in the other direction?
Can certain food types trigger the symptoms of fibromyalgia? And if they’re removed will symptoms improve?
Since inflammation is one of the main symptoms of fibromyalgia, it only makes sense that the foods you eat should not be inflammatory.
While your doctor may prescribe medication useful for alleviating pain, combining that medication with a diet low in anti-inflammatory foods will likely increase your success rate.
Below, I’ll describe the best foods to avoid in order to successfully treat fibromyalgia.
Each of us has a unique genetic background. The geographical location where your ancestors lived is likely different from mine and so it follows that the food available to eat was also different.
Being exposed to specific types of food for long periods of time eventually creates an adaptation. This is why some cultures like the Inuit First Nations consumed a diet that was nearly ninety percent animal products. (1) Contrast this with the Tukisenta tribe of New Guinea where their diet consisted almost solely of carbohydrates. (2) You can imagine that the genetics for each culture is different. Both adapted to thrive on a diet native to their geographic location.
After eating the same foods for many generations, our ancestor’s genes adapted to consume a very specific group of foods. These are the genes they passed down to you. The foods they thrived on are the same foods you will thrive on.
Remember, these are unique to you. In order to best determine the foods you tolerate, food sensitivity testing or performing a reset diet are recommended. This can help fine-tune the specific foods your body tolerates.
What foods cause inflammation?
For those with fibromyalgia, the initial dietary changes aren’t super specific. Instead, we recommend that you completely eliminate the general categories of foods that are known to cause inflammation.
Below, I detail the common culprits found in a typical North American diet:
Foods with a high GI index
Glycemic index (GI) relates to the ability of a food (specifically carbohydrates) to increase blood sugar level.
Diets with relatively high glycemic index (GI) have been associated with elevated risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes, particularly among overweight individuals.
You can read more about how foods affect blood sugar in this post.
When the body is challenged to regulate blood sugar, large amounts of stress hormones like cortisol are released in response.
This stress-response can create an environment that prevents the body from healing itself.
In general, foods with a high GI are more likely to cause inflammation. (3)
For those with fibromyalgia, eating foods with a lower GI index is always a good plan. Sticking to low GI foods will also help reduce the number of refined and processed products you consume.
New research is showing that the affect a food has on your blood sugar has more to do with your unique genetic makeup than the GI of the food itself. A food that causes a blood sugar spike in some people may not cause your body to react at all. So while you do need to follow a diet with low GI foods, you may need to monitor your blood sugar to figure out which foods cause a spike.
Processed & artificial sugars
Eating simple, refined sugars increases blood sugar levels. In turn, blood sugar levels raise insulin and cortisol levels. Higher cortisol levels have been shown to increase pain. (4) Therefore it is logical that for those suffering from chronic pain such as fibromyalgia, limiting sugar is extremely important to managing pain.
Keep in mind that grains, especially refined grains like bread, are metabolized very similarly to sugars. This includes organic unprocessed grains.
For more detail on the pathways involved in processing sugar, please read this post.
More and more research is being published on the negative effects of artificial sweeteners. Unfortunately, using them in place of refined sugars is not the solution we originally thought. In this post, I shed light on the negative aspects of using artificial sweeteners.
Start by first eliminating all forms of artificial sweeteners. These can be replaced with natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey. Natural sweeteners are healthy, tasty and as so many contain antioxidants – are good for you!
Next, read the labels on the packaged foods you purchase to begin decreasing refined sugar in your diet. Look for a different product if you see words like:
- corn syrup,
- fruit juice,
- or high-fructose corn syrup.
In general, fats come in two different types:
- Saturated fat: fats that are solid at room temperature, like butter and coconut oil.
- Unsaturated fat: fats that are liquid at room temperature and include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
- Monounsaturated fat include olive oil and avocado oil
- Polyunsaturated fat include vegetable oils
Like carbohydrates and proteins, fats are an essential part of our diet. The fatty acids they contain are the building blocks for body fat, cell linings and hormones. (5)
You’ve likely heard of the polyunsaturated fatty acids omega-3 and omega-6. Omega-6 fatty acids, found in foods such as wheat, cereals, and nuts increase inflammation while omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods like flaxseed, fatty fish, and fish oil reduce it. Eaten in proportion, the fatty acids work together to optimize the body’s response to inflammation. However, the average Canadian eats 10 times the amount of omega-6 as omega-3. This results in minor, chronic inflammation. (6)
The easiest way to improve your ratio is by eating more omega-3 fats. Some of the best sources of omega 3 fats include:
- Freshly ground flax seeds
- Fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring)
- Fish oils (cod liver oil)
- Hemp seeds
- Egg yolks (from chickens fed with flax seed)
In the beginning, try to add at least one serving three times a week of any of the above sources. This can be as simple as eating fish for dinner once a week and adding hemp or flax seeds to your morning breakfast.
There is a lot of controversy over whether nightshades cause inflammation. Some common examples of nightshades include:
- White potatoes
- Peppers (both chilies and bell peppers)
- Spices made from peppers (paprika, red pepper flakes, and cayenne pepper)
Nightshades contain the compound solanine which has been linked to inflammation in arthritis sufferers. However, at the time of this writing, there are no scientific studies done on whether nightshades affect chronic illnesses. However, there are thousands of anecdotal reports claiming that the removal of nightshades improved symptoms. (7,8)
An elimination diet focused on nightshades may be enough to determine if their removal helps your symptoms. Try eliminating nightshades from your diet for 30-60 days. Then, reintroduce one nightshade back into the rotation. Make notice of change in symptoms. If there are no changes after three days, add another nightshade back into your diet.
Continue in this way until all varieties of nightshades are back in your diet. If your symptoms remain the same, it’s likely that nightshades are not a contributing factor.
General dietary guidelines for fibromyalgia
Now that you know the types of food best avoided for those with fibromyalgia I’ll outline the general dietary recommendations we implement at the clinic for those dealing with chronic pain.
1. Eat a diet with moderate carbohydrates:
Many patients with fibromyalgia have adrenal fatigue. Those with adrenal fatigue (also known as hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis dysfunction or HPA-D) often face problems with blood sugar regulation, resulting in low blood sugar and sometimes a combination of high and low blood sugar.
Focus on a moderate carbohydrate diet, which means about 15 to 30 percent of your calories coming from carbohydrates (100 grams of carbohydrates on a 2,000-calorie diet or 125 grams on a 2,500-calorie diet).
In more practical terms, 100 grams of carbohydrates looks like:
- 6 slices of bread
- 16.5 cups of broccoli
- 3 white potatoes
- 2 cups of white rice
- 3 cups of sweet potato
- 20 cups of cauliflower
- 6 cups of butternut squash
2. Adopt a gluten-free diet
Fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome seem to occur together quite often, although the reason has not yet been discovered.
Fibromyalgia is present up to a third of people with IBS and IBS has been found in up to 70% of people with fibromyalgia.
In a year-long study looking at the effects of gluten on those with fibromyalgia, the symptoms of those who ate a gluten-free diet improved by nearly 30%. (9)
Suffice it to say, going gluten free is likely to help your symptoms. For a deeper dive on gluten’s relationship to fibromyalgia, see the first post in this series.
3. Eat adequate protein, especially in the morning:
Higher protein diets reduce food cravings and have a regulating effect on blood sugar. You should eat at least 15 percent of total calories as protein (75 grams of protein on a 2,000-calorie diet or 95 grams on a 2,500-calorie diet). You should also eat a high-protein breakfast (40 to 50 grams). This has a stabilizing effect on blood sugar throughout the day.
In more relatable terms, 40 grams of protein for breakfast would like:
- 2 large eggs (12g protein)
- 5 slices of bacon (15g protein)
- 1 serving of greek yogurt with nuts (10-15g protein)
4. Eat frequently throughout the day:
To keep blood sugar levels stable, you should either eat five or six small meals per day or three regular meals with snacks in between. Choose whichever approach suits your preference and lifestyle best. Snacks and meals should always have some protein and fat, never just carbohydrates alone.
The exception to this rule occurs if you have high blood sugar. In this case, stick to three meals per day.
5. Avoid caffeine and alcohol:
Caffeine is a stimulant that places additional stress on the body. Alcohol stresses the liver, which already often functions suboptimally in fibromyalgia. It’s best to avoid caffeine entirely and either limit alcohol consumption to 2-3 drinks per week or avoid it completely.
Ok, now you know which foods are best to avoid while healing from fibromyalgia. Don’t forget to check out the other articles in this series:
Now I want to hear from you!
What foods have you found trigger your symptoms?
Also published on Medium.