We are a nation in pain. We need relief and we want it now. This collective way of thinking has landed us in a social and economic opioid crisis of massive proportions. We are now facing a public health emergency. We need a different approach; we need a better type of cure.
Pain is a puzzle to be solved rather than a symptom to be suppressed. Pain is a signal that the complex system of integrated networks known as the human body is out of balance.
A well-researched, powerful prescription is available to all of us that can significantly provide relief for many types of pain, and all without side effects. This seemingly magical alternative to pills and procedures is lifestyle medicine, with a healthy diet at the top of the list.
A whole-foods, plant-based diet is a critical foundation for optimal health and well-being. We can prevent and reverse diabetes, heart disease and many of the negative effects of aging by adopting nature’s gardens as a natural pharmacy. Consuming high-quality, nutrient-rich foods to repair and support our bodies’ cell structures translates into healthier joints, muscles and organs. Food is indeed our best medicine.
The gold standard is a whole-foods, plant-based diet consisting of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans and whole grains. These dietary choices will support our healthiest gut microbiome to reduce inflammation, boost our immunity and reduce pain. Foods that trigger inflammation should be avoided, such as processed foods, sugar, dairy, meat and sweetened beverages (artificial sweeteners as well). I regularly remind my patients that we should all eat a rainbow every day — colorful fruits and vegetables.
Pain can originate from many different structures of the body. Some of the most common types of pain syndromes I see in my office originate from muscles, joints and head pain.
This can occur anywhere in the body (mostly neck, back and shoulders) and is often a consequence of deconditioning, poor posture, dehydration, stress and a nutrient-poor diet.
A diet deficient in magnesium can exacerbate muscle pain. Be sure to consume magnesium-rich foods such as flax seeds, almonds, pumpkin seeds, black beans, spinach, barley and tofu. Adding spices such as turmeric and ginger to a meal can reduce pain due to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties – as well as enhancing flavor!
Hydrating with at least 2 liters of water as a daily habit will ensure optimal circulation and oxygen delivery to all muscles for peak performance.
(We found this Ultimate Winter Porridge recipe that should help with muscle pain. –Ed.)
Damage to the joints from disease or injury in the form of osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and sprains and strains can respond positively to a conditioning program as well as a healthy diet.
Avoiding refined carbohydrates, dairy, sugar and processed foods, while eating a whole-foods, plant-based diet will support joint health. Especially look for foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA): spinach, brussels sprouts, peas and tomatoes, beans and flax seed oil (concentrated ALA). They should be the cornerstone of a joint-healthy diet.
(We found this simple salad dressing recipe using flaxseed oil to help with joint pain. –Ed.)
Head (ache) pain
Head pain is extremely common and can present as migraines, headache and even neck pain. Poor posture, sleep deprivation, hormonal imbalance, stress, dehydration and often the quality and timing of meals can cause head pain.
Common triggers for head pain include dairy products, wheat, meat, peanuts, eggs, alcohol (especially red wine) and artificially sweetened beverages.
Foods rich in magnesium (see muscle pain above) and foods rich in vitamin D and calcium have all been shown to alleviate headache pain. Try including mushrooms, tofu and fortified soy and almond milk in your diet for vitamin D. Calcium-rich foods include bok choy, broccoli, collards and kale.
Cooked fruits and vegetables have been shown to make nutrients more available to the body. These, along with regular sleep, exercise and adequate hydration, can help you keep headaches away.
(We found this simple Bitter Greens Stir-Fry for Chinese New Year which combines foods rich in magnesium and calcium. –Ed.)
We DO have choices in our health, and our choices matter greatly in how we feel and function. We all want to feel well without the burden of pain and physical limitations. We have with us a powerful first line of therapy in the fight against pain. We can make the choice to nurture our nature with a whole-foods, plant-based diet to stop the hurt and get the most out of life.
Like this article? Read this, also by Dr. Rosenthal, Rethinking the Pain Puzzle.
An expert in lifestyle management with a focus on injury prevention, pain management and biomechanics, Lillie Rosenthal, DO, is a board-certified physical medicine and rehabilitation physician in New York City.
Dr. Rosenthal sees a variety of patients in her Manhattan practice, including world-renowned musicians, dancers, choreographers, and writers, as well as marathon runners and other athletes, and treats such conditions as back pain, tendonitis and repetitive stress disorders. She is also a consulting physician for the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Metropolitan Opera, MTV Video Music Awards and several Broadway productions and is, herself, a dancer and a marathon runner.
Dr. Rosenthal’s media experience includes national television appearances on “The Dr. Oz Show” and she has been featured as an author and expert source in a number of publications, including U.S. News & World Report, the New York Times, The Huffington Post and Consumer Reports.