Nutrition 101 : How to Eat for Fibromyalgia
Diet Cures for Fibromyalgia: Do They Work?
You might be able to improve fibromyalgia symptoms by making healthier food choices.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Farrokh Sohrabi, MD
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Can what you eat help you better manage fibromyalgia? Whether certain dietary changes improve fibromyalgia pain and fatigue is not proven scientifically yet, but many believe that living with fibromyalgia is easier when they stick to a set of dietary choices.
Diet is key in how Jan Chambers, president and founder of the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association, manages her fibromyalgia symptoms. “I believe that food is medicine,” says Chambers. “Everything we eat has an effect on us.”
Here's an example: Chambers realized when she was young that tomatoes increased her joint aches. But it wasn’t until her fibromyalgia emerged after an abdominal surgery that she really began to pay attention to her diet. “By then my body was reacting to foods a lot more strongly than it ever had,” she recalls.
Chambers embarked on an 18-month-long journey to find a diet that would help her manage her fibromyalgia symptoms better. She began with the perspective of food as medicine, an intuition that healthy choices would be those that also reduced the stress on her body, and a passion to learn more about how food affects the body overall.
Ultimately, she changed her diet around certain principles, including eating low-glycemic foods, eliminating nightshade plants (tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes), avoiding sodas, salt, and preservatives, never missing a meal, and taking a good-quality multivitamin. But Chambers' diet isn't a one-size-fits-all dietary recommendation — each person with fibromyalgia may have his or her own unique response to food.
“One type of food may bother one patient but not another,” explains pain management specialist Jacob Jessop, DO, of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “It’s a trial-and-error process to say, ‘I know these are the foods that may be triggers, so I am going to pick those that are healthy and see if I can use them.’” He adds that it’s important to personalize your diet because you don’t want to give up healthy foods, such as the tomatoes that trouble Chambers, based on someone else’s experience with them.
Diets for Living With Fibromyalgia
Here are some diets you might benefit from trying:
Vegan or vegetarian diet.Research suggests that people with fibromyalgia can experience significant improvement in quality of life with a vegetarian or vegan diet. According to one study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, which involved a dietary intervention in 30 fibromyalgia patients, participants saw benefits from four months of a diet involving mostly raw fruits and vegetables, limited grains, flax oil, and carrot juice. “The vegetarian diet still works for people with fibromyalgia,” says one of the original researchers, Michael Donaldson, research director for the Hallelujah Acres Foundation. However, people may need patience to see a benefit. It can take a few weeks for fibromyalgia symptoms to ease and for other allergies and food sensitivities to improve.
Gluten-free diet.Crafting your diet around gluten-free meals could alleviate one potential source of food sensitivity. Gluten is found in wheat products but also in more unexpected sources like barley, rye, and oats. According to Dr. Jessop, people with fibromyalgia may be more likely to have food sensitivities than their peers. If you feel better on this diet, go for it, but it’s not mandatory for improving fibromyalgia symptoms.
Raw food diet.The study cited earlier emphasized raw fruits and veggies or juices. These foods provide fiber and a variety of vitamins and minerals, which are good for just about anyone, including people with fibromyalgia. There’s no data to suggest that raw veggies are better than cooked for people with fibromyalgia. However, one advantage to raw foods is that they do not contain additives like nitrates, MSG, and the artificial sweetener aspartame, all of which can worsen fibromyalgia symptoms for some people.
Food sensitivity/elimination diet.This dietary approach can help you figure out what might be adding to your symptoms. Chambers says she tried it during part of her 18-month journey to find the right diet. Eliminating foods from the nightshade family (tomatoes are just one) has made a significant difference, she says.
Organic food diet.Chambers argues that many people with fibromyalgia have increased chemical sensitivities. She says, for example, that unwashed walnuts can cause sores in her mouth, so she avoids them, theorizing that a chemical in their processing must be setting her off. For this reason, many people with fibromyalgia opt for organic foods when they can — to cut down on chemicals that could trigger fibromyalgia symptoms or add new aggravation.
Low-glycemic diet.Reducing the refined carbohydrates in your diet can help alleviate the cycling between sugar highs and lows that might worsen the fatigue associated with fibromyalgia, says Jessop. Also, he says, exercise is especially important for moderating energy and diet. “One thing that’s definitely been shown to be helpful with fibro is moderate activity and good overall conditioning,” he points out.
Avoiding Diet Stress
There are many aspects to choosing the right diet to try, from your budget to the pleasure you get from eating. When considering changes to your diet, avoid choices that increase your stress level, if you can. In fact, Chambers says that if she could name her diet, it would be something like the “stress-free diet.”
One stress-provoking emotion to avoid is guilt, especially the guilt that comes from indulging in a food you’re trying to avoid to ease fibromyalgia. Although your treat may have a large or small negative effect on your system, guilt will magnify it. So when you indulge in a "forbidden" goodie, just make sure you thoroughly enjoy every single delicious bite, and then get back on track.
Video: What is fibromyalgia and how is it treated?
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