Gluten-Free Diet May Relieve Neuropathy Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

A small study by British researchers suggests that a strict gluten-free diet may help protect against the nerve pain caused by gluten sensitivity.

"These findings are exciting because it might mean that a relatively simple change in diet could help alleviate painful symptoms tied to gluten neuropathy," said lead author Panagiotis Zis, MD, a senior lecturer at the University of Sheffield. "While our study shows an association between a self-reported gluten-free diet and less pain, it does not show that one causes the other."

Gluten sensitivity has been associated with peripheral neuropathy -- a condition in which peripheral nerves become damaged, causing weakness, numbness and pain in the hands and feet. Diabetic neuropathy can also cause these symptoms, but when diabetes is ruled out and a person is sensitive to gluten – the pain and numbness might be caused by gluten neuropathy.

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The British study involved 60 mostly elderly people who had gluten neuropathy. They were asked about the intensity of their pain, mental health and whether they followed a strict gluten-free diet. About half of the participants had pain with their neuropathy.

People who were following a gluten-free diet were significantly more likely to be free of pain than those who did not. Over half of those without pain were on a gluten-free diet, while 21 percent who were gluten-free still experienced pain.

After adjusting for age, sex and mental health status, researchers found that people following the strict diet were 89 percent less likely to have pain.  

The study also found that people with painful gluten neuropathy scored significantly worse on their mental health assessment, which had a range of zero to 100 with 100 being best. Those with painful gluten neuropathy had an average score of 76, as opposed to the average score of 87 for those with painless gluten neuropathy.

"This study is promising because it shows that a gluten-free diet may help lower the risk of pain for people with gluten neuropathy," Zis said. "More research is needed to confirm these results and to determine whether the gluten-free diet led to the reduction in pain."

Further results of the study will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in April.

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, oats and other cereal grains. Gluten is found in many types of food, including bread, pasta, cereal, sauces and salad dressing.

When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine, causing pain and inflammation. About 1-2% of the population has celiac disease, but most cases go undiagnosed and untreated. Celiac disease is hereditary and runs in families.

People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as headaches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and allergies. Abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements are frequently reported with NCGS, which can make it difficult to distinguish from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Research about the relationship between gluten and chronic pain conditions is rather slim, although there are many anecdotal reports that a gluten free diet reduces pain. In PNN columns, Donna Gregory Burch said going gluten-free helped reduce her fibromyalgia symptoms, while Lisa Ayres found that eliminating gluten quickly relieved her arthritis symptoms.  

Does Changing Your Diet Help With Fibromyalgia?

By Lana Barhum, Columnist

Having lived with fibromyalgia most of my adult life, I know my diet may worsen or improve my pain and other fibromyalgia symptoms. I am not alone in this belief, but the research disagrees. 

Most studies have not shown any specific evidence that fibromyalgia patients should avoid certain foods or add any to their diets to manage symptoms.  Nonetheless, it is still a good idea to take a look at how some foods influence how you feel.

MSG, Gluten and Vitamin D

At least 42% of fibromyalgia patients have reported worsening symptoms after eating certain foods, according to a study in Clinical Rheumatology.  Other studies on fibromyalgia and diet have focused on food additives, gluten, and vitamin D, and found some evidence that they may affect fibromyalgia pain.  

A 2012 study published in Clinical Experimental Rheumatology, assessed fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients who had excluded monosodium glutamate (MSG) and aspartame from their diets.  After four weeks, 84% of the study participants reported their symptoms had improved by about a third.  Adding MSG back into their diets resulted in a return of symptoms.

The researchers concluded that MSG did, in fact, have an adverse effect on some fibromyalgia patients and removing it from their diets was an easy solution.

"This novel research implicates glutamate as a major adverse excitotoxin in some FM (fibromyalgia) patients. Dietary manipulation is a relatively simple and low cost non-pharmacological intervention that warrants further exploration," reported lead author Kathleen  Holton, PhD.

But another study, published in Rheumatology International, found no relationship between MSG and fibromyalgia pain and symptoms.  The researchers reported no symptom improvement in the group that removed MSG and aspartame from their diets and the group that did not.

While there has been little specific evidence pointing to gluten as a fibromyalgia trigger, some research shows patients respond well when they avoid eating gluten.  Spanish researchers reported in Rheumatology International that fibromyalgia patients who removed gluten from their diets showed notable improvements in pain and symptoms.                                                           

There may also be a link between fibromyalgia pain and low levels of vitamin D, according to a 2014 study out of Austria. That research, reported in the journal Pain, found that study participants who took vitamin D supplements experienced less pain and morning fatigue.   

A 2015 report from the journal Pain and Therapy, also makes a case for a link between Vitamin D deficiency and pain. "Significant improvements in assessment of sleep, mood, pain levels, well-being, and various aspects of quality of life with vitamin D supplementation have been shown,” said researchers Elspeth and Edward Shipton.

More research is needed to further determine if diet and fibromyalgia are actually related.  But doctors do agree eating healthy foods can help patients to feel better and tweaking your diet may improve symptoms.

Making Diet Changes

Here are some ways to help you figure out which foods help and which ones hurt.

Keep a Food Journal.  Many people with fibromyalgia have food sensitivities, but specific “trigger” foods will vary from person to person.  A good way to identify which foods worsen fibromyalgia symptoms and pain is to keep a food journal.  If you find your symptoms consistently worsen after eating certain foods, try eliminating those foods from your diet and see if your symptoms improve.

Eat Healthy. It makes sense for everyone to eat healthy, not just people with fibromyalgia.  Eat a diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins. 

A balanced diet will also give you more energy and improve overall health.

Pick the Right Foods. There are certain foods that may help improve fibromyalgia symptoms and minimize flares.  Vitamin D is one, as studies show deficiency can cause joint and muscle pain.

Vitamin D is one, as studies show deficiency can cause joint and muscle pain. Foods rich in vitamin D include fatty fish (tuna and salmon), dairy products fortified with vitamin D (orange juice, milk, and cereal), beef liver, and egg yolks. Foods containing omega 3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish, walnuts and flax seed, may also ease fibromyalgia symptoms by reducing soreness and inflammation.  

My Take

I am strong believer in taking your health into your own hands and experimenting with alternative treatments, including a healthy diet.  Through trial and error, I have figured out which foods help and which foods hurt as I continue to learn how to successfully cope with fibromyalgia. 

Aspartame (Nutrasweet), food additives (especially MSG), sugar, fructose, simple carbohydrates, caffeine, gluten, fried and junk food, dairy and nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes) are all foods that I have either eliminated or minimized from my diet.  Cutting them out of my diet has made fibromyalgia flares less frequent. 

In addition, I take vitamin D supplements, since my levels are often low, and eat foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as fish, walnuts, and eggs, to manage inflammation, as I also suffer from rheumatoid arthritis.

While I don’t know for certain if my diet is the reason for fewer flare-ups, I do know that avoiding certain foods and eating healthy ones benefits my overall health.  And when my body feels healthier, I am better able to cope with fibromyalgia pain and symptoms.

The specific foods that help and hurt will be different for you, but a healthy diet can help you manage fibromyalgia symptoms and pain and improve your health overall.  And, it is definitely worth a try to find out. 

Lana Barhum is a freelance medical writer, patient advocate, legal assistant and mother. Having lived with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia since 2008, Lana uses her experiences to share expert advice on living successfully with chronic illness. She has written for several online health communities, including Alliance Health, Upwell, Mango Health, and The Mighty.

To learn more about Lana, visit 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 represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Wheat Protein Could Worsen Chronic Illness

By Pat Anson, Editor

Gluten isn’t the only reason why some people should avoid eating wheat.

German researchers have discovered a second protein in wheat that triggers inflammation and worsen symptoms of multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and other chronic illnesses. The finding could help explain why some people who are not gluten intolerant and do not have celiac disease still benefit from going on a gluten-free diet.

Researchers say a family of proteins called amylase-trypsin inhibitors (ATIs) make up only about 4% of the protein found in wheat. But they can trigger powerful immune system reactions outside the digestive system, in the lymph nodes, kidneys, spleen and brain.

"As well as contributing to the development of bowel-related inflammatory conditions, we believe that ATIs can promote inflammation of other immune-related chronic conditions outside of the bowel,” said lead researcher, Professor Detlef Schuppan of Johannes Gutenberg University.

“The type of gut inflammation seen in non-celiac gluten sensitivity differs from that caused by celiac disease, and we do not believe that this is triggered by gluten proteins. Instead, we demonstrated that ATIs from wheat, that are also contaminating commercial gluten, activate specific types of immune cells in the gut and other tissues, thereby potentially worsening the symptoms of pre-existing inflammatory illnesses.”

Schuppan presented his findings at United European Gastroenterology Week. He said future clinical studies will explore the role that ATIs play on chronic health conditions in more detail.

"We are hoping that this research can lead us towards being able to recommend an ATI-free diet to help treat a variety of potentially serious immunological disorders," said Schuppan.

Celiac disease is a gastrointestinal inflammation caused by the ingestion of wheat, barley, rye, and other foods containing gluten. About 1-2% of the population has celiac disease, but most cases go undiagnosed and untreated.

People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) may also develop gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as headaches, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and allergies. Abdominal pain and irregular bowel movements are frequently reported with NCGS, which can make it difficult to distinguish from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

The symptoms typically appear after the consumption of gluten-containing food and improve rapidly on a gluten-free diet, even though gluten does not appear to cause the condition. Schuppan says the real culprit may be ATIs.

"Rather than non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which implies that gluten solitarily causes the inflammation, a more precise name for the disease should be considered," he said.

How Going Gluten-Free Changed My Life

By Lisa Ayres, Guest Columnist

I would like to share with readers my life-changing experience after eliminating gluten from my diet.

I had spinal implant surgery for spondylolisthesis about 24 years ago. For those who don’t know, spondylolisthesis is a defect in the spine that causes vertebra to slip to one side of the body. You can have spondylolisthesis without even knowing it. Someone may experience little to no pain and not know they have a “back issue.”

In my case, it got progressively worse as time went on.

After the surgery, I had physical therapy and even became certified in personal training to learn how to care for myself. I also took hydrocodone for pain, up to 3 tablets a day depending on my activities.

About 10 years ago, I also started having arthritis in my hands. They would throb after a few hours of gardening or similar use. I was told it was erosive arthritis. My toes also were affected and caused me a great deal of pain when I was on my feet without thick soled shoes.

My 24-year old daughter suffered from intestinal problems most of her life. After having pizza with friends one day, she came home with stomach cramps and was basically ill. I do a lot of research on issues that crop up in our lives and gluten intolerance kept popping up online as a clear possibility.

As a declaration of solidarity, and to make meals and shopping easier, I joined my daughter in going gluten and casein free. I found out that if one has gluten intolerance, they almost always have casein intolerance also. Casein is found in dairy products. 

LISA AYRES

LISA AYRES

It wasn’t easy for us to rid our diets of both gluten and casein, but to find out if my daughter’s illness was caused by them we had to start somewhere. On April 21, 2015, we cleared our diets and house of all gluten and casein products.

The first initial change was that my daughter appeared to get sicker. Stopping gluten is similar to stopping opioids for some people -- you go through a type of withdrawal. There are many websites, such as MentalHealthDaily.com, where you can learn more about gluten intolerance, withdrawal, and what you can and cannot eat. 

For 8 days she had severe joint pain and flu like symptoms. She said her joints felt worse than the pain she experienced when she broke her foot years before. But, her stomach discomfort began to subside almost immediately after giving up gluten and casein. By the ninth day the withdrawal symptoms vanished and she was feeling wonderful.

I didn’t have stomach problems caused by gluten, but my daughter and I live together and it would be not only unkind to eat restricted foods in front of her, it would be difficult to prepare separate meals, separate work areas, etc. So I changed my diet when she did. 

I had an unanticipated reaction. I had no withdrawal symptoms, but within 48 hours I had what can only be described as miraculous changes.

Due to the arthritis, my hands had a limited range of motion. My fingers were thick with swelling and I hadn’t been able to make a fist with my left hand in at least two years. My right hand also was swollen. The throbbing at night, sometimes without any particularly heavy use, was not only painful but depressing. Activities I had enjoyed were quickly running from my life. I was only 58-years old but felt decades older. The ongoing ache in my back was like an unwelcome guest that I could only get to leave with hydrocodone. 

But 48 hours after going gluten and casein free, I awoke, stretched, and moved my hands freely. My ring felt loose on my finger, the clench of my hands strong and flexible. 

This dietary change is a game changer for me. Plans I had put aside and tried to forget are now possible again. The pain in my back is now mainly managed with Tylenol and then only a couple of times a month. I have only taken hydrocodone twice since dropping gluten from my diet. My depression also has lessened. 

The systemic inflammation caused by the allergic reaction to gluten should not be ignored. A two week elimination diet is the best and only way to see if gluten really is the culprit. Tests currently are not accurate. 

My daughter had an emergency appendectomy and bowel re-section. It was advised by a gastroenterologist that she also get tested for celiac disease. Mind you, this is an experienced doctor.  They did an endoscopy on my daughter and the results were negative. However, the test results page included a disclaimer that if the patient had already cleared their system of gluten and there was no inflammation, the test wouldn’t be accurate for celiac or gluten sensitivity. 

The doctor didn’t tell us that eliminating gluten would “hide” her sensitivity. We only happened to have read the results ourselves. So the test wasn’t needed for her to know to avoid gluten!

Eliminating gluten and casein from your diet is the most accurate way to find out if you have an allergy or sensitivity to them.  I think many people aren’t aware that gluten and casein can cause such reactions. They hear how people are getting tested and clearing them from their diets, but when the results are negative, it feeds into the belief that being gluten-free is just a fad

If you are in pain, remember that gluten causes systemic inflammation which is pressing on sore joints and everything else in your body. You owe it to yourself to be as pain free as possible.

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Lisa Ayres lives in South Florida. She suffers from spondylolisthesis, arthritis, and is gluten and casein intolerant.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

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.

How Going Gluten-Free Helps with Fibromyalgia

By Donna Gregory Burch, Columnist

I know some of you probably rolled your eyes when you read the headline of this story. I know that because I used to do the same thing.

Since being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, I've heard countless people talk about how going gluten-free improved their symptoms.

Whenever I'd hear that, I'd always think the same thing: "Fibro can be a living hell of pain and fatigue and everything else. I've already given up part of my life because of this horrible condition. You want me to give up donuts and cake and yeast rolls too? Are you kidding me? My sweet treats are one of the only things that make life bearable!"

But then my new fibromyalgia doctor ordered me to go on a strict anti-inflammatory, gluten-free diet. During the first two months of the diet, I allowed myself one "cheat" meal a week, which usually involved emptying out the complimentary bread basket at my favorite restaurant or shoving half of a pizza down my throat.

My doctor wasn't happy. He said I was just holding up my progress - that by reintroducing gluten every few days, my body didn't have the opportunity to properly cleanse and heal - and that I would never feel the full effects of the anti-inflammatory diet until I cut out gluten for good.

In my gut, I knew he was right. I'd paid good money for his expertise, and here I was not following his protocol. So, on Thanksgiving, I concluded my meal with a slice of pumpkin pie, and I've been gluten free ever since.

After three weeks of no gluten, my daily pain levels had decreased. I was having more low pain days than usual, with my levels falling between 1-3 on the pain scale.

And then I messed up.

I was really tired one night and didn't feel like cooking dinner. I asked my hubby if we could go out to eat at a new restaurant in town. It was the first time I'd dined out since becoming serious about going gluten free. I chose the salmon and veggies with a tarragon sauce. I thought I was making a good choice.

On the way home, I began having stomach cramps. I felt dizzy and nauseous. I knew I'd been exposed to gluten because I'd had these same gastrointestinal symptoms when I'd enjoyed my "cheat" meals previously.

The human body is so incredibly amazing to me. My doctor explained that when someone eats gluten every day, the body compensates as best it can. You may feel bloated or have acid reflux or feel extremely tired, but you'd never connect that to gluten exposure because it's just part of your day-to-day existence. But when you detox from gluten for several weeks, and then reintroduce it, the body will often react strongly to gluten if you have sensitivity to it.

My reaction to that gluten-laden meal reminded me of when I quit smoking years ago. I quit several times before I was finally successful. Sometimes I'd go days without a cigarette, and when I'd resume my bad habit, those first couple of cigarettes would make me sick-as-a-dog nauseous. I recognized that it was my body's way of telling me, "Stop it! I don't like what you're putting in me!"

And here I was, years later, with my body telling me again, "Stop it! I don't like when you eat gluten!"

As a gluten-free newbie, it took me a few minutes to realize the tarragon sauce on the salmon must have been thickened with flour. I figured I would go to bed with a queasy stomach, sleep it off and that would be the end of it.

But two hours after eating that meal, I started to feel a humming, vibrating pain come over my entire body. My arms, back, legs, hips - everything - ached. It was that same old achy fibro pain that I'd been living with on and off for years, and I was completely miserable.

For the first time, I connected what I ate to how I felt, and I was shocked. Logically, I know eating breads, cookies, pastas and other gluten-laden foods aren't good for me. They give me an energy boost, but then I crash, and I feel worse than before. I know they spike my blood sugar and that I shouldn't eat them because I have a family history of diabetes. I know they make me fat and lethargic.

But I didn't know they were increasing my pain. It was a wake-up call for me.

It turns out all of those fibromites who talk up the benefits of going gluten free might be right. Three small Spanish studies support anecdotal accounts from patients that gluten may increase fibromyalgia pain:

  • A 2014 study involving 20 fibromyalgia patients who followed a gluten-free diet for 16 months found that "the level of widespread chronic pain improved dramatically for all patients; for 15 patients, chronic widespread pain was no longer present, indicating remission of fibromyalgia. Fifteen patients returned to work or normal life. In three patients who had been previously treated in pain units with opioids, these drugs were discontinued. Fatigue, gastrointestinal symptoms, migraine and depression also improved together with pain."
  • A larger 2014 study involving 97 fibromyalgia patients with comorbid irritable bowel syndrome had a "slight but significant improvement in all symptoms" after following a gluten-free diet for one year. "Our findings suggest that further studies of this subject are warranted," reads the study.
  • A 2013 study involving seven fibromyalgia patients with comorbid celiac disease found a gluten-free diet "can simultaneously improve celiac disease and irritable bowel disease/fibromyalgia symptoms, and indicate the merit of further research on a larger cohort."

Yes, I know these are small studies, and none of them are double-blind with control groups. But what if? What if giving up cupcakes could reduce your pain, even just by one-third or one-half? That could be life-changing for many of us with fibro!

I've had one other episode where I was accidentally "glutened" at a restaurant. As with the salmon, I again felt gastrointestinal symptoms on the way home, and again, my pain levels increased for a day or two afterwards. I don't think it was a coincidence.

I am a believer now in the benefits of going gluten free, and from here forward, I will be one of those annoying people on Facebook and in the online support groups who, when someone asks if anything helps with fibromyalgia symptoms, will chime in and say, "My pain is much better since going gluten-free."

No one wants to hear that, and I get it! Giving up gluten is really hard. It seems like it's in almost everything! And who wants to envision a life without birthday cake ... without a juicy hamburger on a bun ... without a slice of gooey cheese pizza ... without Grandma's homemade bread? I hate that my body has betrayed me like this - that it now identifies all of my favorite foods as the enemy and makes me pay for it.

But what I hate worse is living every day in increased pain. Knowing that I'm sensitive to gluten gives me a choice. It gives me power, to some degree, over my fibro symptoms. I can still have that slice of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving, but I know it comes with a price.

Whenever I'm tempted to cheat on my diet, I ask myself, "Is it worth it?" And so far, the answer is no.

Donna Gregory Burch was diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2014 after several years of unexplained symptoms. Donna writes about fibromyalgia research, treatments and other topics in her blog Fed Up with Fatigue, including a related post entitled “10 Great Websites for Going Gluten Free When You Have Fibromyalgia.”.

Donna is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared online and in local newspapers and magazines throughout Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. She lives in Delaware with her husband and their many fur babies.

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