Chronic pain, like magnesium deficiency from a few posts ago, is one of the more common complaints we hear about at NE Community Acupuncture. It can look like back pain, neck pain, muscle aches, headaches, neuropathy and can be triggered by an injury, disease, lifestyle, emotional trauma, or even no "event" at all. It's a sad place to be. Chronic pain can suck the enjoyment out of every day life. It can impact mental focus, daily energy, sleeping habits, work, and can even pull you into a nasty depression.
I've been there. For years Lyme disease had me dealing with tendon issues in my forearms and wrists, arthritis-like symptoms in my elbows and hands, and neuropathy that felt like electricity running up and down my arms. As a professional drummer, there is nothing scarier, nothing more daunting than chronic arm/wrist/hand pain. I fell into a dark place. It made me hate playing drums - something I've loved to do for 22 years. If I couldn't do it without pain, why would I do it at all? I didn't even want to go to my friend's shows. It was hard watching everyone have a great, pain-free time on stage. That's where I wanted to be.
Fast forward. I was over halfway through my studies at the Nutritional Therapy Association when I started to connect some dots. I was already eating SUPER clean on my Lyme protocol (no gluten, no grains, no dairy, no sugar) but I started looking into some even more specialized diets as well as some other aspects of chronic tendonitis/arthritis management. Using what I had learned, I devised my own custom plan to try. The plan focused primarily on gut health and a more refined diet. Within one week of implementing the plan, my pain and inflammation had decreased 90%. No joke.
Now, I realize that everybody is different. Everyone's pain is different - its causes, how and where it manifests, severity; there is no one-size-fits-all diet when it comes to chronic pain. But there are some basic overarching principles that can be especially helpful for most people experiencing pain.
Because there's so much to cover in this topic, I've split this up into two separate posts. In this post we'll focus on how the health of our guts (in particular, our small intestines) can be at the root of our pain and, therefore, the first thing we address when trying to overcome our pain.
Hippocrates, Classical Greek physician and the "father of modern medicine", said, "all disease begins in the gut." This is a cornerstone of the Nutritional Therapist's methodology. So when trying to overcome any health obstacle - in our case, chronic pain - achieving optimal gut health is essential. It starts with proper digestion. I could (and will) do an entire series of posts just on digestion so I'll skip ahead to how it impacts inflammation and pain in the body.
When we aren't digesting properly, we allow large chunks of food to pass through our small intestine. Over time, those large chunks wear away at the lining of the small intestine. That causes it to become hyperpermeable (ever heard of "leaky gut"?) and those chunks of food begin to break through the walls into the blood stream. Once in the blood, that piece of food is recognized as an intruder and our immune system mounts a defense against it. This is the beginning of a food allergy or intolerance. The extra stress on the immune system can cause inflammation (one of the ways the body can corner and destroy invaders) but it's the repeated stress that causes major problems. Over time, as we continue to digest poorly and erode our gut lining, we can throw our immune system into a confused, hyper-reactive state and autoimmune diseases are born. What are some common symptoms of the various autoimmune disease? Joint pain, muscle pain, and inflammation.
Other factors that can alter the integrity of the gut lining include antibiotic use and generally compromised gut flora, environmental and food toxins (pesticides, etc.), stress, and certain prescription and over-the-counter medications.
It's easy to see how compromised gut health can lead to chronic pain. But how can we fix it? First and foremost, we want to boost our digestion. Whether that means calming down before meals, chewing more thoroughly, or getting more acid into our stomachs, we need to be breaking down our food! This will greatly reduce the stress on the gut lining. It also helps to keep unfriendly gut bacteria in check.
Step 2 might seem a little crazy, but bear with me. Throw your over-the-counter pain medications in the garbage. WHAT? There have been TONS of studies published that highlight nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (like Aspirin and Ibuprofen) as direct causes of intestinal permeability, gastric ulcers, and even internal bleeding. Yikes.
I really struggled with this one. How will I make it through my gigs without my ibuprofen? The pain and swelling in my arms is too much! Never fear, there are a handful of really great pain-management products that don't destroy your body from the inside out! My favorite is topical "Arnicare" gel. This is an all natural form of pain/swelling relief made primarily from the arnica plant. It doesn't destroy your gut and isn't nearly as much of a burden on your liver. And it works quickly and effectively. It also comes in tablet form. Other natural pain killers include ginger, curcumin, boswellia, bromelain, evening primrose oil, borage oil, and blackcurrant seed oil.
Step 3 involves patching up that leaky gut. There are a couple ways to achieve this but it is essential that you first remove toxic foods (processed and refined foods, foods fed or sprayed with pesticides and antibiotics), allergic foods (typically wheat and dairy), NSAIDS, and stress from your life.
Once we've removed the stressors, we can begin to rebuild the lining of the gut. Hippocrates also said, "let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food." What he means to say is that we can heal our bodies by giving them the tools they need to rebuild in the form of whole foods. Foods that heal the gut include raw, cultured dairy and fermented vegetables (a double whammy as these also help restore order to the health of your gut's microbiome). My favorite healing food, and possibly the most comprehensive, is bone broth. Bone broth is packed with all sorts of tissue-healing nutrients like collagen, gelatin, glycine, and glutamine. L-Glutamine, an amino acid necessary for the self-repair of the small intestine, is also available in supplement form and can be used if the damage to the gut lining is extensive.
Once we remove stressors and address the health of our guts, we give our bodies a chance to relax and heal. Even if we do nothing else, there's a good chance that our chronic pain will reduce. But to really nip our pain in the butt, there are some dietary factors we need to address. We'll touch on those next time.
Alexander Young NTP
*** The information found on this website should not be construed as medical advice or treatment of medical conditions. Only your healthcare professional can provide you with medical advice. Consult your healthcare professional regarding all matters of your health and before making dietary changes.