You're as Healthy as the Food You Eat

By Barby Ingle, PNN Columnist  

It’s important that patients with chronic pain conditions maintain a healthy lifestyle, including getting enough sleep, exercising and eating healthy foods. I know this is so much easier said than done.

You are what you eat, right? We hear this often growing up, but what does it really mean? If I have a cupcake or a slice of cheesecake, am I going to live through the night? Over course I am. But day after day of poor eating will have long-term health consequences. And when our health is poor, other aspects of life are also likely to suffer.

Patients with chronic pain and illness typically lead a more sedentary lifestyle. Because we are less active and burn off fewer calories, we are at greater risk for developing other medical problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. I myself have been dealing with poor posture and sudden weight gain and loss. I fall easily and have trouble gripping and holding onto things. 

One area we have more control over is what we eat and who we are eating with. When I’m at home, my spouse cooks meals for me. I used to just let him choose what he wanted to make because I was just happy to have a meal prepared for me.

I have been really working on my eating habits since being diagnosed as "skinny fat" last year. I had to change where I am eating, how I am eating and what I am eating. Although my husband doesn’t eat the same food as me most of the time, my healthier habits have rubbed off on him.

I make a grocery list for what I want to eat, instead of just eating what he prepares for himself. I also now eat about 6 times a day instead of 3 bigger meals and a snack. 


Hopefully those around you are supportive of you making changes in your diet. When they see you make a conscious effort to choose your own meal and set your own portion limits, they may be empowered to pay attention to their own habits. You don’t have to say “no” to everything, just keep indulgences under control, eat smaller portions and be mindful of what you are eating.  

As a former athlete, I know nutrition is crucial for good performance outcomes. But when I got sick, I let all of that go. I had more important challenges to focus on, or so I thought.

Nutrition plays a role in chronic pain and how we prepare our bodies to cope with the stress.  Make sure your doctor is doing frequent blood testing to check for any deficiencies you may develop. A friend of mine developed Hypokalemia, a potassium deficiency that led to a psychological breakdown and two mental hospital stays.

Medications can also affect your liver, kidneys and digestive system. Blood testing can help prevent this from getting out of control and let you know if dietary supplements are needed to counter poor vitamin absorption.  

Maintaining good nutrition and hygiene may be difficult, but are very important. My new reality is that I am disabled and need to ask for help. I have to pay attention to what I eat, my hormones, my vitamins and everything I put on and in my body.

Eating is an important part of our lives and healing is a process. I have to control the parts of my life that I can to be able to live the life that I want.  

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Barby Ingle lives with reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), migralepsy and endometriosis. Barby is a chronic pain educator, patient advocate, and president of the International Pain Foundation. She is also a motivational speaker and best-selling author on pain topics. More information about Barby can be found at her website.  

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Would This Meal Give You a Migraine?

By Pat Anson, Editor

The dinner on the right looks inviting – but to some people prone to migraines it could leave them with a bad headache.

Many migraine sufferers have learned to avoid or limit their consumption of foods and beverages that can cause a migraine attack. Wine, chocolate, coffee, nuts, and milk are often named as likely triggers, but did you know that some diets can actually help prevent migraines?

The role of diet in the treatment and prevention of migraine is poorly understood and somewhat controversial in the field of headache medicine because few rigorous studies have been performed.

In an effort to bring some clarity to the issue, two professors at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine performed a comprehensive review of over 180 research studies on the subject of migraine and diet. Their two-part review, "Diet and Headache" is being published online in Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. You can also see it by clicking here and here.

"One of the most important triggers for headache is the withdrawal of caffeine," says Vincent Martin, MD, a professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine. “Let's say you regularly pound down three or four cups of coffee every morning and you decide to skip your morning routine one day, you will likely have full-fledged caffeine withdrawal headache that day."

Martin and co-author Brinder Vij, MD, an associate professor in the UC Department of Neurology and Rehabilitation Medicine, say there are two different approaches to preventing headaches with diet. The first is an elimination diet that avoids foods and beverages known to trigger headaches. The second approach is to adopt low fat and low carbohydrate diets that may actually help prevent headaches.

"The beauty of these diets is that they not only reduce headaches, but may produce weight loss and prevent heart disease," says Vij.

One of the most promising diets for those with frequent migraine attacks is one that boosts omega-3 fats while reducing omega-6 fatty acids. That means avoiding polyunsaturated vegetable oils (corn, sunflower, safflower, canola and soy) in favor of flaxseed oil. Foods that are rich in omega-3 fats include flaxseed, salmon, halibut, cod and scallops, while foods to avoid would be peanuts and cashews.

Martin and Vij say gluten-free diets are only helpful in lessening headaches if someone suffers from celiac disease, which can be established through a blood test or intestinal biopsy.

Other foods to avoid include anything with monosodium glutamate (MSG), a flavor enhancer used in many processed foods, including frozen or canned foods, soups, snack foods, salad dressing, seasoning salt, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and in some Chinese cooking.

"You eliminate it by eating fewer processed foods," explains Martin. "You eat more natural things such as fresh vegetables, fresh fruits and fresh meats. MSG is most provocative when consumed in liquids such as soups."

About 5 percent migraine suffers are likely to have an attack on days they consume nitrites, a preservative often used in processed meats such as bacon, sausage, ham and lunch meat. The use of both nitrites and MSG has declined, but Martin says checking food labels is a good idea.

Alcohol is another headache trigger for about a third of migraine sufferers, and studies suggest that red wines, especially those with high histamine content, are the worst. Interestingly, one study found that beer was associated with fewer headaches and migraines.

"Persons with headache and migraine have more dietary options than ever. Ultimately a healthy headache diet excludes processed foods, minimizes caffeine and includes a lot of fruits, vegetables, fish and lean meats,” Martin says.

Martin and Vij say identifying dietary triggers is challenging because there are so many different foods and ingredients that migraine sufferers are exposed to. They recommend keeping a food diary to help determine which foods to eliminate.

“It is not reasonable for persons with headache to avoid all know dietary triggers, as individuals may only be susceptible to a small number of foods or beverages,” they wrote. “The triggers could be identified by simple observation if the association is strong or through the use of a food diary if it is less obvious. The ideal would be to use a food diary as part of an app that would then determine statistically if a given food or beverage was associated with headache.”

Migraine affects about three times as many women as men. In addition to headache pain and nausea, migraine can cause vomiting, blurriness or visual disturbances, and sensitivity to light and sound. About half of people living with migraine are undiagnosed.