Can food trigger fibromyalgia pain?


Morning stiffness, trouble sleeping, headaches, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, or cognitive issues referred to as “fibro fog.” These are just a few symptoms associated with the often misunderstood condition that affects around 5 million adult Americans called fibromyalgia.

This frustrating ailment has few known causes making finding an effective treatment for it tough. There are some medications that may help manage some symptoms of fibromyalgia along with lifestyle changes.  But there may be one promising non-pharmacologic treatment you haven’t thought of – your food choices.

Known as a fibromyalgia diet, this way of eating includes adding certain nutrient-rich foods and subtracting those that may affect the central nervous system.

Possible food triggers of fibromyalgia

It’s been well known that certain foods can affect certain diseases negatively. Excess refined carbohydrate intake worsens diabetes, too much unhealthy fats can clog arteries leading to heart disease, and high amounts of sodium may cause hypertension for some. Even for individuals with fibromyalgia, certain foods may do more harm to the body than good.

That’s why to reduce symptoms of this condition, cutting out certain foods may be one way to do so. Researchers with an Italian study have found that removing excitotoxins – substances, usually, amino acids, which overstimulate neuron receptors – can cause injury or death to brain and nerve cells when eaten in excess, triggering fibromyalgia symptoms. Examples of foods that may need to be avoided include monosodium glutamate (i.e. MSG) and aspartame (the noncaloric sweetener of the same name).

Foods that contain glutamate can enhance the pain in those suffering from fibromyalgia. Processed foods with food additives, as well as some naturally occurring sources of free glutamate like soy sauce, fish sauces, and aged cheese such as parmesan, may also be triggers for symptoms of fibromyalgia. Another trigger may be gelatin. Anyone with fibromyalgia who takes medication contained in a gelatin-containing capsule, should open the gelatin capsule and stir in the contents mixed with a food like applesauce.

Here is a list of other examples of foods to avoid if you have fibromyalgia:

  • Gluten Studies have shown that non-celiac sensitivity may be an underlying cause of fibromyalgia. Patients who followed a gluten-free diet reported improvements such as pain reduction.
  • Refined carbohydrates – White bread, white rice, pastries, cake, cookies, pies, donuts, are examples of foods that can aggravate the pain of fibromyalgia. These foods are digested quickly causing blood sugar levels to spike and then dip. The body converts refined foods into sugars, which promote fatigue, disrupt sleep patterns, and increase pain, in addition to causing weight gain and stress on joints and muscles.
  • Oily, fried foods – Oils such as sunflower, corn, and other vegetable oils often have inflammatory effects on the body worsening fibromyalgia symptoms. Avoid foods containing unhealthy fats, including pizza, cheese, cookies, donuts, and other junk foods.
  • Alcohol – In some research studies, low to moderate alcohol consumption may easy some symptoms while in some patients, it caused flare-ups.
  • Caffeine – Because caffeine can increase heart rate and blood pressure placing additional strain on muscle tissue, it’s best to avoid caffeinated foods and beverages.
  • Dairy – Many people with and without fibromyalgia are lactose-intolerant and experiencing bloating and gas after consuming milk or other dairy products. Eating a dairy-free diet may help reduce some of these symptoms.

Foods to eat for easing fibromyalgia pain

It’s been found that the most important thing a person with fibromyalgia can do is to choose nutrient-packed whole foods.  Certain nutrients can protect against the excitation caused by glutamate additives. Here are some examples:

  • Omega-3 fatty acids – Fatty fish, cod liver oil, walnuts, canola oil, and flax seeds
  • Magnesium – nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables, fish, and whole grains
  • Zinc – meat, shellfish, nuts, and seeds
  • Vitamin D – Fortified cereals, mushrooms, egg yolk, fatty fish such as salmon and sardines
  • Antioxidants – Lemons, garlic, onions, peppers, various fruits, and greens

The best way to think of eating for fibromyalgia is to think the Mediterranean as in the Mediterranean diet. Eat fatty fish (salmon, albacore tuna, herring, mackerel, sardines) twice a week, small portions of lean meat once a week, lots of vegetables and fruit, beans, nuts, and seeds.

In general, food may not be the ultimate cure-all for fibromyalgia since what works for one person may not be helpful for another. But if reducing certain foods helps ease symptoms and pain for you, this could be a treatment plan helping improve quality of life when dealing with this condition.

Can food trigger fibromyalgia pain?
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Dr. David Samadi

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Dr. David Samadi