Chronic pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is out-of-balance. We like to pop an aspirin or something stronger in these cases, but this type of medication doesn’t address the root cause.
We know that acute pain – like the pain caused by hitting your thumb with a hammer – is caused by your body’s reaction to injury. After you damage your thumb, your body launches an amazing cavalry of different cells to heal you up. The influx of these working cells into the area of damage causes inflammation and swelling. A side effect of this swelling and pain is that you won’t use the thumb normally for a while, giving your body the time that it needs to heal.
But chronic pain is something else. In general, chronic pain is defined as pain in a specific area of the body that lasts more than 3 months. If you experience pain for longer than 3 months, your body is out-of-balance and it doesn’t have what it needs to correct the problem.
While getting to the root cause is the goal, what can you do short-term to help your body start to heal?
1. Reduce Your Sugar Intake
I’m a recovering sugar addict. I love desserts of all sorts, bread (breaks down into sugar), fruit, and candy. But sugar initiates the same reaction as hitting your thumb with a hammer. Sugar triggers the release of insulin; if there’s too much sugar and insulin in the bloodstream, the immune system goes ‘on alert’ and you end up with inflammation. And because eating sweets results in a blood sugar low that we generally ‘correct’ with more sugar, the cycle repeats itself, day-in and day-out and the inflammatory fire in your body builds and builds.
As a nation, we also eat way too much sugar. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a range of 25 – 50 grams of sugar per day (6 – 12 teaspoons/day). This is 5 – 10% of daily calorie intake (assuming a 2,000 calorie diet). In 2018, Americans are predicted to consume
around 74 lb sugar per person per year. This translates into between 17 and 18 teaspoons per day!
A substantial amount of sugar can be removed from your meals and snacks by doing the following:
- Drink only water and unsweetened beverages. There can be a lot of sugar hiding in drinks, from sweetened tea to iced mochas, to alcohol. For example, a small (16 oz.) McDonald’s sweet tea contains 21g of sugar – that’s on the low end the of the WHO goal for the day! A gin and tonic – 18 grams.
- Reduce your intake of refined grains. Yes, this includes cookies, cakes, chips, most bread, muffins, etc. The white flour in these goodies is quickly turned into sugar by your body – and most of these products have a significant amount of sugar added. Instead of snacking on these foods, go for fresh veggies instead. And save the cookies and cakes for a special occasion.
It will take some time – maybe a week – for you to stop craving sugar. But once the cravings stop, you are also likely to notice that you feel less pain, particularly in your joints. As an added bonus, you may also feel like you have more energy.
Ginger tea – unsweetened – can help moderate sugar cravings. When you are craving something sweet and you give your body something pungent and spicy, your brain will learn fairly quickly that it’s not getting what it wants!
And avoid sugar substitutes – even though they have no calories, your body still responds to the sweet taste by increasing insulin output, which increases inflammation.
2. Get Enough Magnesium
Most Americans aren’t getting enough magnesium. Government surveys indicate that adults, on average, get between 50 and 60% of their recommended daily allowance. This number doesn’t account for high intakes of calcium (which we see in fortified foods and many supplements), which further increases the body’s need for magnesium.
Magnesium is a vitally important mineral and is a partner in over 300 biochemical reactions within the body. When magnesium isn’t available, these reactions don’t happen or don’t happen well. In particular, magnesium acts as a relaxant. While calcium acts to tense and constrict muscles – both those in your arms and legs as well as those in your digestive tract and heart – magnesium helps the muscles to relax.
In a recent study that I co-authored, individuals taking 500 mg of a time-release dimagnesium malate per day had reduced chronic headaches and migraines, reduced muscle cramps, and reduced cramps during and after workouts. This study also suggested that increasing the body’s supply of magnesium reduced cravings for refined carbohydrates and chocolate!
In another study, 2-weeks of intravenous magnesium, followed by 4 weeks of oral magnesium supplementation resulted in significant reduction in patient-reported lower back pain, as well as an increase in spinal range of motion.
In general, magnesium oxide is not well-absorbed by the body and can cause loose stools. It’s best to look for chelated forms of magnesium – such as magnesium malate, magnesium threonate, or magnesium glycinate – as they are generally better absorbed. The brand that I recommend to clients is Jigsaw Health MagSRT™ because I have the trial results to validate its effectiveness.
Before starting supplements of any type, it’s always a good idea to talk with a professional who can evaluate potential interactions with medicines, and help you figure out the right product and dose.
3. Drink Enough Water
Your body is over 60% water and your body uses water for almost everything! Imagine a desert with caked, cracked dirt and sand – those are your body’s cells when they don’t get enough water.
Water helps keep the volume of your blood consistent, which is important for regulating blood pressure. Not drinking enough water reduces the liquid flowing through your arteries and veins. Your body sees this as an issue and tightens your arteries and pumps your heart faster (and harder) to increase the pressure.
A typical nutritional rule of thumb is to drink half your body weight of water (in ounces). This means if you weigh 150 lb, you need 75 oz water each day. If you weigh 200 lb, you need 100 oz of water each day. It’s not a good idea to go over 100 oz of water per day – too much water can dilute electrolytes and cause other issues.
Research conducted in New Zealand suggests that dehydration amplifies how our brain responds to pain. Effectively, drinking enough water can increase an individual’s pain threshold.
As a researcher, I take a lot of notes. It’s the best way to understand what is changing, and to identify the variables that may be making the change. The same is true when you’re trying to address chronic pain. Always start out with a pain scale of some sort.
A simple evaluation of where your pain lines within a range of 1 – 10 is a good start. 1 indicates no pain, while 10 is excruciating pain. It’s important to just get a “gut check
” for this pain scale, as overthinking it can make this approach more difficult than it needs to be!
I use the Pain Outcome Profile developed by the Academy of Integrative Pain Management. This is a short questionnaire that evaluates pain intensity in addition to how pain is impacting your quality of life.
Either of these evaluations provides an estimate of your baseline (or current) pain. It’s important to document your pain level daily, as pain is very difficult to remember from day-to-day.
Once you’ve completed a baseline pain questionnaire, implement just one of the above recommendations for a couple of weeks. Track what you eat and drink, track your pain, and anything else that may be of interest (i.e., sleep, mood, stress, bowel movements). Documenting does two things:
- It enables you to become more mindful of your body and how it reacts to certain changes (i.e., I’m drinking more water and am now less constipated).
- It allows you to go back and see trends. Maybe you find that you need to drink at least 80 oz. of water a day to minimize headaches or other pain, but with 100 oz. you feel optimal. It’s helpful and important to know this so you can quickly troubleshoot in the future.
If you suffer from chronic pain, we provide a tailored nutrition + lifestyle plan, based on sound science, to help you thrive. We excel at collecting and analyzing data, and evaluating results using unbiased, scientifically-accepted methods. Our top priority is to identify what works for you so you can experience real relief from your chronic pain.
Want to learn more? Let’s talk. Your initial consultation is free.