The link between chronic pain, inflammation and what you eat

We talk to Dr. Heather Tick about her new book, Holistic Pain Relief, and how better nutrition may be the solution to your pain.
Heather Tick, MD, author of Holistic Pain Relief Heather Tick, MD, author of Holistic Pain Relief

Chronic pain is a disease that's hard to see. Whether you suffer from pain caused by an injury, fibromyalgia, headaches or chronic fatigue syndrome, pain is often hard to describe, hard to place and even harder to remedy. We took a look at Canada's pain issue earlier this year (click here to read the articles) to give the issue some much-needed attention. As a follow up, we spoke with integrative medical practitioner Dr. Heather Tick, about her new book that focuses on natural remedies for chronic pain and helps people realize that the answer does not always lie in the bottom of a bottle:

Q: Where do you start with a family member or friend who's been in pain for so long that they’re hesitant to change or try something new?
A: I would start by asking a few questions to learn more: Are you satisfied with where you are in terms of health or pain? What in particular are your concerns? What do you want out of life as far as your health goes? Then I would try to look for small solutions to some of their expressed concerns.

The basic message would be, “If you are not satisfied with where you are, then lets try adding some new approaches that have a chance of making you healthier and helping your pain. If you keep doing the same thing, can you expect different results?” Sometimes the hesitance to try new things is part of the problem and keeps people stuck in an uncomfortable condition.

Q: What would you say are the best foods someone can add to their diet to start naturally-alleviating pain?
A: Lentils are under-represented in the North American diet. They're a wonderful part of the pulse and bean family. They have good fibre and minerals, they can be eaten hot or cold and in soups, and they reduce the acidity of our bodies. That improves the operation of our enzyme systems that keep all the chemical reactions going in our bodies. (Click here for eight great lentil recipes.)

Broccoli is a fabulous vegetable containing minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, enzymes and fibre. For those who don't think they like broccoli, try it raw with tasty dips, cooked and pureed into a soup with seasonings you like, or on top of pizza. Children like the idea that broccoli can be cut into small trees. I like that too.

Fish contains very healthy protein and omega-3 fatty acids — natural anti-inflammatories. However, fish can be contaminated with mercury and other toxins and there are concerns about the sustainability of fishing practices. There is information on fish with less contamination and sustainable fisheries on the websites for Environment Canada, Environmental Working Group, National Geographic and Green Peace.


Ginger and turmeric are in the same family and both are effective anti-inflammatories. There are studies showing that ginger is helpful with arthritic pain and turmeric studies have shown that this spice can reduce the need for painkillers after surgeries. The side effects of both are also helpful: ginger is good for nausea and upset stomach and turmeric can help irritable bowel and is being studied for Alzheimer's prevention.

Dark chocolate: Food is to be enjoyed and sometimes we do need treats. Dark chocolate with at least 70 percent cocoa and no milk added is a very healthy source of antioxidants.

Q: How are chronic pain and poor nutrition linked?
A: You change your body chemistry every time you eat. You can increase your inflammation or decrease it with your food choices. Foods high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, and artificial-flavour enhancers increase our inflammation and make it more likely we will become diabetic or obese. Obesity causes more wear and tear on joints, including your back and neck, makes it harder to exercise and the excess fat becomes its own factory for inflammatory chemicals in the body. Diabetes is also associated with more pain and accelerated wear and tear on our organs and nerves. Whatever the cause of your pain, your body will not heal well if you are eating the commonly available calorie-rich processed foods that have little nutritional value. Your body needs the right raw materials in the form of nutrient-rich foods.

Q: What are the most common misconceptions about getting off medication and on to an all-natural approach?
A: The most common misconception is that it is an all or nothing proposition: that they can never take another pain pill. It is true that fewer drugs at lower doses often lead to better results, but sometimes pain pills are very helpful.

The other major misunderstanding is that people assume that pain drugs are more effective and safer than they actually are. Each of these types of pain pills — acetaminophen, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and opioids — has significant side effects, some of them life shortening. So unfortunately, we do not have a perfect drug solution to chronic pain. This does not mean that there is no role for pain killers, but it is limited. We know for example that people with fibromyalgia and chronic low back pain do not do well on daily non-steroidals or opioids in the long run.


Q: What are the easiest things someone can do for themselves to start alleviating pain today?
A: Eat one more vegetable each day than your daily intake last week. Take vitamin D, omega-3 fish oils and extra magnesium. Get seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Learn to meditate. It can be as easy as some simple breathing exercises for a few minutes in the morning and before bed.

Q: How or why does inflammation affect people more so today than it did in the past? (Or does it?)
A: It does! Because our diet has changed so much in a way that causes much more inflammation. For example, the average American eats 150 pounds of sugar a year and Canadians are not far behind. A hundred years ago we ate two pounds a year. We eat more refined and processed foods that are high glycemic, meaning that they spike our blood sugar. In the average supermarket there are 45,000 to 50,000 different items on the food shelves. Our great grandparents would not have considered most of them as food.

Holistic Pain Relief cover


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