Millions of us know, either from personal experience or caring for a loved one, that chronic pain is complicated. It is invisible, it's hard to diagnose, and many treatments offer only temporary relief. Examining root causes related to nutrition, lifestyle habits and past experiences can help you address the pain and begin to feel better.
There are 4 pillars -general areas of focus- that I feel can make the most impact in improving pain symptoms: Gut Health, Nutrition, Lifestyle, and Exploring Past Experiences.
Let's break them down.
Pillar 1: Gut Health
Everything start in the gut! The lining of the entire gastro-intestinal system is one of the three primary barriers of our bodies (along with the skin and pulmonary system). It is a single cell thick in the small and large intestine, covered by a layer of thick mucus to actively keep microbes, food particles, and other toxic elements out of our bodies. Just below the GI cells lives the majority of our immune system, designed to capture and destroy foreign agents that may get into the body. An unhealthy gut becomes "leaky" as seen above, microbes, chemicals, bits of food particles enter our system and the immune system is called into action. An immune response leads to inflammation, and if your gut remains unhealthy and leaky for a long period of time, it results in chronic inflammation. This is often experienced as aches, joint pain and stiffness, headaches, and neck tension. As time goes by without treating the GI system, autoimmune disease and other chronic pain diagnoses such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, begin to be diagnosed formally. Treating the GI system is a "root cause" approach to begin to address issues of chronic pain.
Pillar 2: Nutrition
The cells of your body are designed to function with all the building blocks of basic nutrition: the macronutrients in just the right ratios (protein, carbohydrates, and fats), the micronutrients in the appropriate quantities (vitamins and minerals like zinc, potassium, and magnesium), and phytonutrients which are plant-derived chemicals that create beneficial conditions for our bodies (cruciferous veggies create an anti-cancer environment, for example). The nuances to a healthy diet; the proteins should be lean and low in saturated fats, the carbohydrates should be high in fiber and unsaturated fats are an important part of the diet, are messages most of us have heard most of our lives.
The flipside of good nutrition is, well, eating lots of unhealthy foods. These include all your favorites: fast foods, convenience foods, prepared foods, ultra-processed foods translates into fried chicken, hamburgers with cheese, french fries, pastries, cookies, potato chips, sweets and candy, soda and sweetened coffee drinks. No only do these foods fail to provide the healthful nutrients listed above, the are also *pro-inflammatory*. If these foods become a mainstay of your diet, over time they contributed conditions associated with inflammation such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's disease. Chronic inflammation often leads to pain.
Improving your daily nutrition, provide your body with the nutrients that it needs to function properly, is essential to improving the severity of your chronic pain.
Pillar 3: Lifestyle Habits
"Lifestyle Habits" is such a broad term, it needs to be broken down to daily actions in several realms, namely: stress, sleep, movement, and supportive relationships.
We all deal with stressful situations on occasion, but if you find yourself in a heightened state of stress over long periods of time, it is negatively affecting your health and contributing to your chronic pain. Stress management techniques can include simple deep breathing in a rhythm, meditation or prayer, stretching or slow yoga, journaling or listening to your favorite music. Some sort of unplugging and respite from the stress is essential for the body to rest and replenish.
Along those same lines, prioritizing adequate and restful sleep also contributes to the healing and recovery of chronic pain. Your sleep environment should be cool, dark, and quiet. A couple hours before bed, turn off the tv screen and don't eat or drink alcohol or caffeine to ensure you can fall asleep quickly. Instead, try some of those stress reduction tips outline above.
Telling someone who suffers from chronic pain to move more is a tough sell! My motto here is "something more than nothing". If you have trouble standing, then sit and lift your arms overhead or do circles with your shoulders. Lift your knees one by one or stretch by reaching for your toes or twisting side to side. If you can stand, try a 5 or 10 minute YouTube video like Qui Gong or Tai Chi which incorporate gentle movements safe for joints. If you can walk, take a lap around your house. Too easy? Then go down the street. Keep trying to move just a little more within your ability-every system in your body will thank you.
Finally, having loving and supportive relationships is important for chronic pain recovery. If you have someone in your life like this, I'm so glad for you. If you don't, there are some strategies to try to get a little more connected. Is there anyone you know who you could invite over for coffee and just spend time together? Is there a neighbor you could sit with outdoors or take a slow walk with? Is there a support group nearby with others who have the same diagnoses as you? How about an online Facebook group that could offer some community? Sharing your life, and your struggles, is all a part of the healing process.
Pillar 4: Exploring Past Experiences
How a painful experience converts from acute to chronic is the subject of much research, given that millions of Americans suffer from the condition. Some are beginning to explore how other personal life experiences may create conditions that lead to sustained chronic pain more likely in one person rather than another. This concept seems unreal-that the past is related to pain now- so it's important to emphasized that I am not suggesting the pain is "all in your head". But the brain is the organ that is delivering the message that something hurts, and past neural processes may play a role. Genetics also has been found to provide clues to how someone processes pain, and there are diet, lifestyle, and supplement interventions that may help maximize neurochemical brain function when genetic changes are identified through testing.
People who have a history of depression, anxiety or emotional distress might be more likely to have acute pain turn into chronic pain. Someone with stressful childhood experience or has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may also be more likely to be affected with chronic pain in their lifetime. There are approaches to examining these past experiences that may bring some insight and perhaps resolution or clarity that affects overall healing. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found to be helpful and practitioners of this therapy are widely available. There are several digital apps that explore pain, negative emotions and past experience such as Curable and What's Up: A Mental Health app. Exploring this historical aspect of chronic pain is just another tool in the toolbox to alleviate symptoms and find relief. The US Pain Foundation offers a blog for the Best 10 Apps for People With Chronic Pain where you might find a resource that is new and helpful to you.
If you think you'd like to explore working with me with personalized nutrition services, click the button below to schedule an introductory phone call to chat about your goals and nutritional needs. I look forward to connecting!
Lisa Hillmann, MS, RD, LD
Registered Dietitian/ Functional Nutritionist