Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Using Food to Heal PAIN: Part 2: What Did I Do? Also, Effects on Arthritis, Acute Muscle Strains, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain, Chronic Fatigue, Heart Disease, Diabetes, Cancer!!

Ok, the question you might be asking is what did I ACTUALLY do to treat my neck and back pain with food instead of NSAIDs (Mobic, Ibuprofen, etc)? As you saw in my last post on the power of the anti-inflammatory diet to reduce or reverse pain there is a very long list of both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory foods.   Discussing the literature is one thing, but what did I do in real life?

Well, basically, I used that Anti-Inflammatory Book as a Bible but made a few tweaks of my own (me, doing it "my" way--shocking?!).  

I first gave up all dairy (which actually wasn't that hard because I already wasn't eating cheese & I hadn't drank milk since I was a teenager because it caused recurent sinus infections).  I didn't notice a massive difference in my pain at that point, but it improved enough to make me a believer.  Then I gave up sugar & gluten--holy cow--HUGE improvement!  

Sugar as an agent of inflammation wasn't a huge surprise to me.  Prior to these dietary changes, whenever I started to feel a cold coming on, I would immediately eliminate all sugar from my diet (including fruit) and eat a ton of nutrient-rich vegetables (SPINACH! Kale, broccoli, green beans, collard greens, etc).  If I did that the very first day I started to feel bad (as well as take 1 day dose of 50mg of Zinc & 1000mg Vitamin C), I rarely every progressed to getting the cold or sinus infection I was heading towards.  I honestly can't tell you why I made this choice--I think that probably about 10 years ago I read about improving children's immune systems in Dr. Leo Galland's book "Superimmunity for Kids" & some of that removing sugar to improve the immune system advice was in there!  Either way, it works like clockwork for me despite the fact that I work in a hospital and get exposed to nasty germs every day!  

The whole gluten thing was a surprise to me though...so I had to do a little research.  One of my medical school classmates (and dear friend) had eliminated gluten from her diet because she was getting recurrent sore throats that stopped when she stopped eating it, so I knew that eliminating gluten from my diet would have some effects.  But, since I didn't have celiac disease (a disease that causes the body to reject gluten & cause severe intestinal & other dysfunction), I couldn't quite figure out why I got such a big bump in pain relief with the gluten elimination.  After researching it,  I now just think that maybe it is because wheat gluten isn't what it used to be.  What do I mean by that?  Well, briefly--if I was eating wheat about 50 years ago I wouldn't recognize the wheat we eat today.  Compared to farmer's products in the past, todays wheat is extremely genetically modified--with many natural nutrients depleted over time.  So my body obviously doesn't like our wheat!  I'll be happy to share more about that research in a future post, but I could go on forever about that so lets focus on the PAIN stuff some more.

Around the time I stopped sugar and gluten I also stopped caffeine!!  I cannot believe that I forgot to mention this in my earlier posts!  It was seriously one of the HARDEST things I've ever done.  I felt horrible stopping the caffeine--a headache that didn't budge for a week was so painful to work through.  But once again, on the other side--less pain, more alert brain.  Crazy how this all works!  I should note that the majority of my caffeine consumption was tea.  I didn't really drink much coffee or sodas even before giving up caffeine.  My "no coffee rule" was because back when I was obese I constantly had GERD (reflux/heartburn) and I eventually gave myself a severe case of gastritis that forced me to eliminate the coffee that kept me awake for most of med school!  My "no soda rule" was because sodas actually contain phosphorus which leaches the calcium out of your bones putting you at much higher risk for osteoporosis as you age.  Yup, its true folks--but sometimes its hard to get that message out about such a profitable product!  I'll write in a future post about why diet sodas are particularly bad (they damage your bones AND they change the way you store your fat so it makes it harder to lose weight)!

Tomatoes, Potatoes, Corn & Citrus fruits didn't really seem to alter my pain levels so I kept them in.  I already don't drink b/c we're 12 steppers so no alcohol to eliminate!  

So I marched along without sugar, gluten or caffeine while consciously eating more Omega-3's, nutrient rich veggies on that anti-inflammatory list, berries, garlic, Roobios team (no caffeine), quinoa (my fav) and other grains.  I did this while maintaining a daily professional traction machine & exercise regimen prescribed by my PT for my neck.  I was doing all those PT directed activities before the food changes so I believe I can isolate the food changes as an independent variable (science speak).  In other words, I think I can safely say that the food was the main thing that changed, and after that change, the pain improved enough to get off the daily anti-inflammatory meds (normal people speak)!  

THEN, comes the Vegan thing.  Literally about 2 weeks after giving up meat of all kinds (beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fish etc)--I was pain-free nearly all the time.  I even noticed that in the weeks prior to the initiation of the Vegan program we had been cooking out a lot on the grill (with delicious meat from a local beef farm of course--support local farmers!) & my pain seemed to be a bit higher in those weeks despite the lack of sugar, gluten or caffeine.  Then BOOM--goodbye meat, goodbye pain.

So there you go--thats my story!  Remember of course, my repetitive caveat to read my medical disclaimer below!!! 

Here are a few comments on specific ailments: Arthritis, Acute Muscle Strains, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Pain, Chronic Fatigue, Heart Disease, Diabetes and Cancer.  Please remember that the majority of the findings discussed below are still deemed "inconclusive as effective" in large scale peer-reviewed research studies--however, I believe there is enough quality data (even in small studies) to support at least considering dietary changes for treating or supplementing treatment of the following conditions.  The arthritis data however ARE very well supported in the literature (see the link below).

1) Arthritis:  eliminating anti-inflammatory foods obviously has a major and rapid impact on this inflammatory condition.  There should be no such thing as "I'm growing old at 50 and my joints hurt"--seriously--I mean it--seriously!  I spent over an hour with a patient a few weeks ago who could barely walk due to his arthritis--he committed to making dietary changes & I can't wait to see him walk into the office in a few months.  I am that big a believer in this! 

A few excellent resources on food as medicine for Arthritis include an outstanding article written by Dr. Neal Barnard from the Physicians for Responsible Medicine.  You can read it here: http://www.pcrm.org/health/health-topics/foods-and-arthritis

2) Back strain, sprained ankles, tendonitis etc--all of these are examples of injuries with acute or chronic inflammation.  Basically the body has a very smart response to injury--in non-medical speak: it draws on its own resources to infiltrate the damaged areas, heat them to protect them from bacteria & stimulate the tissue to heal.  So inflammation is a good thing actually.  But when you pile on a bunch of additional sources of inflammation like food and chronic inflammatory diseases like Diabetes or Heart Disease, the inflammation can get out of control & healing can be prolonged.  

When I face those situations, I recommend eliminating every inflammatory food on that list immediately and starting to consume as many of the anti-inflammatory foods as possible.  Watch for yourself and see what happens.  Of course, the foods can only do so much to overcome the power of inflammatory diseases like Diabetes or Heart Disease but if you aren't severely ill with a chronic disease, I'll bet you'll be surprised with how quickly the injury heals and the pain goes away! That is at least my own experience.

3) Fibromyalgia & Chronic Pain Syndrome:  Both of these illnesses trap patients in a body that is extremely hypersensitive to normal stimuli.  What this basically means is that, if you touch a fibromyalgia patient during a flare, they are exceptionally sensitive to touch in particular areas of their bodies that occur in a very specific pattern.  They also are overwhelmed with fatigue (and in most cases, depression).  Chronic Pain patients feel pain when normal people do not--their nerve endings are so damaged that they are hyperactive, creating a seemingly "fake" response on physical exam.  True Chronic Pain Syndrome is very very real, and more common than I would like.  It is also accompanied by fatigue and depression.  

Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain patients are two of the most common patient groups in my specialty AND I believe they are two of the main groups that would benefit greatly from dietary treatment of their disease.  Many of these patients are as obese as I once was, and their bodies are in an overwhelming state of inflammation from the obesity ON TOP of the inflammation from the painful diseases!  I would love to see more doctors treating these patients with an anti-inflammatory, vegan diet before doing anything else (such as add narcotic medications to allow these people to function)!

3) Diabetes, Chronic Fatigue, Heart Disease:   These are all diseases of chronic inflammation.  There is a particular marker of inflammation that the body puts out, its called C-reactive Protein (CRP).  When you measure the CRP in people, the result can be predictive of future heart dysfunction if the measurement is done when the patient is not in an acute state of illness. Once again, inflammatory disease, eliminate inflammatory foods (including  oils & fats according to Dr. Esselstyn) & add anti-inflammatory foods!

4) Cancer:  I will devote a whole post to cancer in the future with regards to prevention & how to use foods for healing in conjunction with treatment by traditional Western Medicine.  I need to do some more research to supplement what I know but I can tell you this much.  First, significant studies have been done that demonstrate a reduction in cancer risk with adoption of an anti-inflammatory diet such as a vegan diet.  Second, any patient going through chemotherapy or radiation can tell you how exhausting and depleted the body feels.  They also do not feel like eating due to severe nausea, even though eating is the one thing that can boost their tolerance of the treatments!  They could possibly benefit a great deal by optimizing their intake of anti-inflammatory foods and eliminating inflammatory foods:

  1. to reduce the activation of cancer cells (as demonstrated in rat models with casein (found in animal products)-- Dr. Colin Campbell's original research)
  2. to provide them with the extra boost they need to manage the chemo and radiation process.  

Ok!  That about wraps it up for this post!  Hope this information is helpful and looking forward to writing more about this in the future!

After I wrote this I found some awesome posts from other bloggers on this topic!  Here are a few excellent ones:  

1)  Healthy Librarian: Using Medical Journals to Guide Your Cooking!
2) Vegan Epicurean (scroll down to the bottom to see her comments on a recent JHU conference!)
3) Healthy Girl's Kitchen: great post on sugar!!!

The medical information on this site is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-physician relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment.  Please consult your health care provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. The Happy Rehab Doc expressly disclaims responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury, or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained in this site.  By visiting this site you agree to the foregoing terms and conditions.


  1. An additional resource! Just read Healthy Girl's Kitchen's most recent blog post on sugar--great post! Check it out: http://healthygirlskitchen.blogspot.com/2011/11/healthy-sugar.html

  2. Thank you for this post!
    I find it always helpfull to read about personal experiences!
    Found you blog via The Happy Healthy Librarian.
    A German reader

  3. Thank you Anonymous in Germany! :-) I love that you are enjoying the posts--I really love writing them! Its nice to be able to share on my personal experiences in a relaxed way because I spend my days being more technical!

    The Happy Healthy Librarian is a blog I read nearly every day---even if she doesn't have a new post! I'm always finding great sources of information! Thanks for joining us :-)

  4. I really enjoyed this post. It is so refreshing to read that a MD is on board with the impact of a whole food plant-based diet. I wish there were more of you! I hope you can inspire some of your fellow physicians. *fingers crossed*

    Thanks for the link my post.


  5. I'm keeping my fingers crossed too Ali!! I have a theory about why the profession isn't embracing plant-based diets....I don't think its close-mindedness as much as a fear that someone will figure out that most of us got absolutely no training in nutrition in med school!! No one likes to admit they don't know everything about something they are expected to know--especially docs! I think as more information gets out there and we lobby for more nutrition education in med school, we'll start to see a change! (I'M HOPING!!!):-)

    Absolutely LOVE your blog--happy to link back to it :-)


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