Inflammation and oxidative stress are the main contributors to chronic pain. Inflammation alerts cells responsible for surveillance and protection to limit tissue damage. Individuals with chronic pain have higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines in their blood and tissues. Eating certain foods and nutrients may lessen inflammation and oxidative stress, leading to pain management.
Here are 10 foods with clinically proven anti-inflammatory properties.
In some observational studies, whole-grain foods have been shown to be associated with decreased levels of circulating inflammatory markers. Although the number of clinical studies on this association is limited, researchers of one randomized crossover trial involving 60 Danish adults at risk for metabolic syndrome showed that those on a whole-grain diet exhibited lower serum inflammatory markers, interleukin (IL)-6 (P = 0.009), and C-reactive protein (CRP; P = 0.003) compared with those on a refined-grain diet. Notably, the consumption of rye was linked to the biggest drop in IL-6.
Furthermore, in a meta-analysis of nine randomized trials (n = 838), experts showed that the consumption of whole grains was negatively correlated with inflammatory markers like CRP, IL-6, tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), and IL-1β.
Olives (and olive oil)
The main source of lipids in the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and has anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant properties. Olive oil is higher in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyphenols than other seed oils, which probably explains why olive oil has more anti-inflammatory benefits than other seed oils, such as flaxseed oil or α-linolenic acid.
For instance, according to the results from one mechanistic study, oleocanthal—a phenolic compound derived from extra-virgin olive oil that induces anti-inflammatory action on the body in a manner similar to ibuprofen—demonstrated more powerful dose-dependent inhibition of the inflammatory enzymes COX-1 and COX-2 than ibuprofen.
Legumes are another big part of the Mediterranean diet, and contain plenty of anti-inflammatory properties. In one crossover study, investigators found that overweight participants with type 2 diabetes experienced a drop in CRP, IL-6, and TNF-α levels during the study period while eating a diet rich in legumes vs eating a diet that involved red meat, regardless of weight change.
Furthermore, in a systematic review of eight studies (n = 464), eating legumes (excluding soybeans) decreased participants’ CRP levels. Of note, other researchers have suggested that soybeans may have anti-inflammatory properties as well.
Yogurt protein and probiotics, such Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, have anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory roles. In several interventional studies, daily yogurt consumption has been shown to prevent gut microbiota alteration, a common consequence of chronic opioid use. Thus, regular inclusion of yogurt in the diet may be a safer alternative approach to treating inflammation in patients with chronic pain.
Spices aren’t just great for flavoring dishes—they have numerous anti-inflammatory benefits as well. For instance, β-caryophyllene—a compound found in many spices including oregano, cinnamon, rosemary, thyme, and black pepper—is a selective agonist of the peripheral cannabinoid receptor type 2 (CB2), which has been shown to play a role in modulating inflammation, especially with neuropathic pain, in animal models. Other researchers have shown that curcumin also has anti-inflammatory properties.
Researchers of both experimental and epidemiological studies have demonstrated that the regular consumption of dairy products has inhibitory effects against the development of certain chronic degenerative diseases characterized by low levels of inflammation, such as metabolic syndrome. Moreover, cheeses high in whey, such as cottage cheese, have strong antioxidant properties.
In a randomized, controlled, crossover trial based on a comparison of saturated fat in the form of cheese vs saturated fat from plant sources (ie, a vegan diet), CRP levels after meals were lower in those eating cheese.
Red wine contains many active molecules that combat inflammation and oxidative stress—especially flavonoids such as quercetin and myricetin, catechin and epicatechin, proanthocyanidins, anthocyanidins, and resveratrol. These bioactive molecules mediate increased expression of nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide-dependent deacetylase SIRT1—a protein that controls the production of insulin, glucose, and lipids, as well as cell survival. Furthermore, according to findings from in vivo and animal studies, flavonoids can inhibit the expression of isoforms of nitric oxide (NO) synthase, COX, and lipoxygenase—which lead to the production of a large amount of NO, prostanoids, leukotrienes, and other inflammatory mediators such as cytokines, chemokines, and adhesion molecules.
Dark chocolate (minimum 70% of cocoa solids) decreases NO production and oxidative stress due to its high flavonoid content. Regularly indulging in small doses of dark chocolate can reduce inflammation as measured by serum CRP concentrations, according to the results of a prospective Italian study.
Bluefish, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna, and swordfish contain loads of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), which have anti-inflammatory properties. Researchers of one study showed that taking 1,200-2,400 mg/d of omega-3 essential fatty acids (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), which are found in fish-oil supplements, reduced inflammatory pain in a manner comparable to ibuprofen.
Plenty of research supports the anti-inflammatory effects of various types of nuts, including walnuts and pistachios. Walnuts, for instance, contain macronutrients, micronutrients, and other components that can diminish inflammation and endothelial function, including essential fatty acids, omega-3 PUFA, magnesium, L-arginine, and some antioxidants. The increased consumption of alpha-linoleic acid derived from nuts improves anti-inflammatory effects by inhibiting the peripheral production of IL-6, IL-1β, and TNF-α.
And one potentially pro-inflammatory food to avoid…
Finally, you may be wondering about eggs. While eggs may be good for heart health, they are also high in cholesterol and the pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid. Coupled with cholesterol, inflammation can increase the risk for heart attack and stroke. Although eggs contain a variety of bioactive substances, including B vitamins, minerals, choline, proteins, carotenoids, and phospholipids, patients with chronic pain should probably limit their egg consumption.