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Fiftysomething Diet: Eating to Ease Your Pain

New discoveries find certain foods can dampen arthritis, migraines and shingles

By Maureen Callahan | November 15, 2013
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Maureen Callahan is a registered dietitian, recipe developer and lead author of the Health.com diet book review series.

Could a pan-seared salmon fillet, a morning cup of coffee or a splash of olive oil on your salad deliver the same kind of pain relief you expect from over-the-counter medications like aspirin?

It may sound unlikely, but scientists are taking a hard look at how certain foods and dietary regimens might mitigate the chronic discomfort associated with migraines, gout, joint pain and even shingles.

Obesity, smoking and other poor health behaviors can trigger your immune system to churn out the inflammatory proteins that set the stage for chronic illnesses like heart disease, arthritis and cancer. The food-as-pain-remedy approach, based on early research, focuses on how certain foods, alone or in combination, can address chronic low-grade inflammation. This theory — that the same foods that tame inflammation might also ease pain — has led the Arthritis Foundation to share Dr. Andrew Weil's anti-inflammatory diet pyramid with pain sufferers as a baseline nutritional strategy.

Read on for specific advice to help prevent the inflammation and pain flare-ups of specific ailments.

(MORE: Your No. 1 Health Enemy May Be Chronic Inflammation)

Migraines When you feel a migraine coming on, small sips of caffeinated drinks like coffee can sometimes stop the painful cluster headaches or enhance the effect of over-the-counter pain medications. But to reduce the overall frequency and severity of attacks, wider dietary changes may be in order. The Mayo Clinic advises eating breakfast, lunch and dinner on a regular schedule and eliminating from your diet reputed migraine triggers such as aged cheese, chocolate, caffeine and alcohol.
 
Rheumatoid Arthritis Research is not yet conclusive, but studies performed to date indicate that olive oil, rich in the anti-inflammatory compound oleocanthal, can dampen arthritis pain. Also, fiber-rich foods like whole grains, whole fruit and fresh vegetables can lower levels of C-reactive protein in the blood, a marker of one's degree of inflammation. The best baseline pain-relief strategy, according to the Arthritis Foundation, is a healthy Mediterranean-style diet, naturally low in saturated fat, with a focus on whole foods like fish, nuts, beans, fruit, vegetables and olive oil. Numerous studies have shown that this approach eases arthritis by limiting inflammation. One more thing: If you've been avoiding "nightshade" vegetables, such as eggplant and tomatoes, because of arthritis, you'll be glad to hear there's no convincing scientific evidence that these foods trigger flare-ups.

(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: Boosting Your Longevity Odds)

Osteoarthritis The medical community has reached no consensus on the best dietary relief strategy for this "wear and tear" arthritis that results in the loss of protective cartilage in joints. "There is some indication that a plant-based diet — not necessarily a vegetarian diet, but more of your food coming from plant-based sources — could be beneficial and anti-inflammatory," Lona Sandon, an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, recently told Arthritis Today. "If you are consuming a more animal-based diet, you are consuming more saturated fat, which can be pro-inflammatory and aggravate your arthritis more." Also noteworthy: A 2010 study published in the journal Musculoskeletal Disorders found that allium vegetables like garlic and onions appear to help prevent bone cartilage from breaking down. Their consumption could slow the development of painful osteoarthritis.
 
(MORE: Fiftysomething Diet: Is It Time to Go Vegan?)

Gout Medication may be the best way to treat gout attacks, but scientists are exploring the possible benefit of cherries, long a popular folk remedy for the arthritic condition. In a 2012 study published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, Boston University researchers linked consumption of the fruit to a decreased risk of gout attacks. "Cherry intake was associated with a 50 percent lower risk of gout flares over a 48-hour period," co-author Dr. Hyon Choi told Arthritis Today. "We extrapolate that cherries will continue to work long-term." The study was small, but it's just one of several preliminary reports on the anti-inflammatory benefits of cherries in whole, juice and pill form. Scientists suspect that anthocyanins, the plant pigments that give the berry its color, could be the active compound in addressing pain and inflammation. Cherries, especially tart varieties, contain more anthocyanins than other red fruits like raspberries and blueberries.
 
(MORE: I'm Not Cured, but I Am Healed)

Shingles In Native American cultures, cayenne peppers are considered food and medicine. The crucial compound in the pepper is capsaicin. When applied to the skin, capsaicin can lessen the pain of shingles, fibromyalgia and even some types of joint and muscle discomfort. Researchers speculate the compound provides relief by reducing the amount of substance P, a chemical messenger that carries pain signals to the brain. So, will sprinkling cayenne on your dinner plate help? It may not be that simple. Scientists are focusing their hopes and research on studies of topical applications of capsaicin cream, and less on the impact of foods rich in capsaicin. Still, there appears to be no harm in adding spicy foods to the menu to see whether this ancient remedy delivers relief.
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