A large number of people live with chronic back pain. For some, treatments like nerve blocks aren’t the answer and medications come with unwanted side effects.
For these people, a diet rich in foods that reduce inflammation may offer relief from chronic back pain. This approach is often used alongside other treatments, such as exercise, acupuncture, osteopathic manipulation therapy and stress management.
Inflammation is a natural process in the body that occurs in response to injury or infection. Normally, it is short-lived, but sometimes inflammation can continue for a long time at a low level.
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This kind of chronic inflammation can cause symptoms such as fatigue, depression, insomnia, diarrhea, constipation and weight gain. Some people with chronic inflammation also experience pain, either throughout the body or mainly in the joints.
Some medications are available that reduce inflammation, but these can have side effects. However, there are other options. One of these is as simple as changing what you eat.
Filling your plate with anti-inflammatory foods can reduce inflammation in the body. As that happens, the symptoms associated with it may also decrease. This includes back pain.
The best part of this approach is that eating healthy doesn’t come with any negative side effects. In fact, you may feel healthier overall, which can boost your mood and make it easier to deal with painful flare-ups.
There are many different compounds with anti-inflammatory properties. Some have been studied in depth. Others are just starting to be explored. There may even be other compounds that scientists have yet to discover. Here are a few of the most common ones.
Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids.Omega-3s
are found in cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. They also occur in flaxseed, soybean, and canola oils, as well as chia seeds and walnuts.
They appear to be particularly useful in reducing joint pain in people with inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). One study
found that people who took omega-3 supplements for three to four months had less painful joints and fewer minutes of morning joint stiffness.
This vitamin occurs
in fatty fish salmon and tuna, as well as in cheese and egg yolks. But your body also makes it when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet rays in sunlight.
In one study
, people who took 4,000 International Units (IUs) of vitamin D per day for three months had lower pain levels compared to those who took an inactive oil. They also had lower levels of certain biomarkers of inflammation in the body.
. These compounds occur naturally in fruit, vegetables, chocolate, wine, and tea. Flavonoids
have been widely studied for their potential health benefits, including their anti-inflammatory properties. One study
found that people who ate diets higher flavonoids had lower levels of inflammation.
These compounds give fruits and vegetables their yellow, orange, and red color. They have been found to have anti-inflammatory properties
in laboratory and animal studies. Other studies
have found that people with higher amounts of carotenoids in their blood had lower levels of inflammation.
Nine foods that reduce inflammation
The list of anti-inflammatory foods is long. Most unprocessed, whole foods have some compounds that turn down inflammation in the body. Here are nine of the ones that are known to have high anti-inflammatory properties.
- Cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines contain two anti-inflammatory nutrients—omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and, in smaller amounts, vitamin D.
- Red wine contains several types of flavonoids that reduce inflammation in the body. Although red wine has healthy properties, it should only be consumed in moderation—up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.
- Green tea contains high levels of flavonoids known as catechins. These may help reduce inflammation related to conditions such as cardiovascular disease and cancer. One of these catechins—known as epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG)—was also found to reduce pain in rats.
- Berries such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, and blackberries contain many different flavonoids. One study found that people with knee osteoarthritis who ate a strawberry beverage every day for 12 weeks had lower levels of pain and lower inflammation biomarkers.
- Ginger root has been found to have an anti-inflammatory effect in rats. Another study showed that one compound in ginger had a pain relieving effect in mice.
- Turmeric contains curcumin, a strong anti-inflammatory compound. One study found that people with rheumatoid arthritis who took curcumin supplements daily had reduced tenderness and swelling of their joints.
- Garlic contains organosulfur compounds that may reduce inflammation in the body. Garlic may also help protect against cardiovascular disease by improving cholesterol levels and lowering blood pressure.
- Olive oil mainly contains a monounsaturated fat known as oleic acid. This healthy fat has been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. Monounsaturated fats are also resistant to heat, which makes them ideal for cooking.
- Tomatoes contain the anti-inflammatory carotenoid called lycopene. This is also found in red grapefruit, red watermelon and guava, as well as in salmon, shrimp and other seafood.
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet
You could focus on just adding those nine foods to your meals. But if you have chronic back pain, an even better approach might be to try the anti-inflammatory diet
or Mediterranean diet
. Both of these eating styles are rich in anti-inflammatory foods.
In addition to the nine foods above, these diets include many more, including spinach, kale, collards, broccoli, walnuts, almonds, cherries, avocados, and dark chocolate.
Zive points out that the anti-inflammatory benefits of these diets is not just because of what foods are in them, but also because of what’s absent—in particular, highly processed foods, which can cause inflammation.
These processed foods include white bread, baked goods, fried foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, processed meats like hot dogs and trans fats like margarine. Cutting back on these as you boost your intake of anti-inflammatory foods will give you better results overall.
On top of that, Zive recommends other healthy lifestyle changes known to decrease inflammation and stress. Doing this may help reduce your pain level even more. And even though all these changes aren’t as easy as taking a pill, they come with few side effects.
“There is no magic pill to transform ourselves into healthy and well individuals without pain,” says Zive. “But there is a solution, and that is to eat healthy, exercise, get enough sleep, and reduce stress.”
Updated: June 5, 2021