The Link Between Chronic Pain, Inflammation and Diet

iPain Foundation

The Link Between Chronic Pain, Inflammation and Diet (According to Science) ; Discover the difference between the Western vs. a plant-based diet for pain management.

As a primary care physician, it’s my job to hear about what is ailing my clients. Chronic pain is a real problem, and I’ve heard numerous patients describe their symptoms in my office.

Some of the things I hear on repeat are:
  • “The pain is relentless and doesn’t quit.”
  • “It’s been a roller coaster ride dealing with this pain.”
  • “I am physically and emotionally drained from this pain.”
  • “I can’t really predict or describe the pain. The best I can say is that it comes out of nowhere and feels like someone or something is stabbing me.”

The hardest part about hearing these stories of chronic pain is not only the true suffering of my patients but the limited treatment options available. This reality comes with a sense of hopelessness, which is never a good feeling, especially since they are coming to me to help them stop the agonizing pain they feel.

If I could go back in time and talk to my patients before they felt the pain, I would’ve shared so many actionable steps they could have taken to mitigate or prevent the pain in the first place. But I’m no time traveler, and so I have to make recommendations with a limited set of options to help them.

What is chronic pain?

It’s pain that you feel beyond a few months and may be tied to a chronic health condition you already have. This type of pain can make it difficult to enjoy regular activities you engage in or even prevent you from participating in them at all. Unfortunately, this type of pain is expensive to treat and is very common in the U.S. and chronic inflammation is tied to chronic pain.

First off, I need to acknowledge that managing chronic pain is very complex and requires a thorough assessment by your healthcare team. If you don’t have a strong healthcare team in place, I recommend doing the research and making phone calls today to create a plan. Remember that you’re responsible for your care, and even though this is a hard step, it’s worth it if you can find a team that cares about you as a person and wants to pursue an appropriate treatment for your pain-needs.

The good news is that there are ways to mitigate chronic inflammation which will, in turn, reduce chronic pain. I would like to share proven ideas that can empower you to look at treatment from a different and unique perspective. I’ll explain the link between the food you eat and the pain you’re experiencing.

How the Western diet might lower your body’s anti-inflammatory defenses

First, talk with your doctor or healthcare team to find out if you have chronic inflammation. Discuss your diet with them and see if there are foods you can cut out or start eating to reduce your symptoms. If you follow the Western diet, you might consume processed meat, sugars, refined grains, and not eat enough fruits and vegetables. While the diet may not increase inflammation directly, it can lower people’s anti-inflammatory defenses (their antioxidant levels).

Then, learn the science behind pain and inflammation. I found a study by Cambridge University Press very helpful for my patients that I wanted to share with you. The findings give way to practical, positive steps you can take to improve your health:

The alternative diet

I’ll encourage my patients to consume several colorful fruits and vegetables throughout the day. Not only do they contain vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, but they help ward off inflammation and oxidative stress. This is encouraging to hear, so I can recommend to my patients that they eat as many vegetables as they want because it’s a natural way to manage pain through their diet alone. Plus, fruits and veggies taste good!

Drink more water

Did you know that when you’re dehydrated, your pain sensitivity increases?

Our pain perception is linked to cortisol, a stress hormone. When we’re stressed, we generate more cortisol in our bloodstream, and it can make us feel more pain throughout the day. Besides aiding our digestion and keeping our skin healthy, drinking water can help us avoid headaches and irritability.

Thirst is a late sign of dehydration, so make sure to take sips of water throughout the day even if you don’t feel thirsty. Also, to improve your hydration habits, one of my best tips is to take a water bottle with you everywhere and have one within easy reach at home. If the thought of drinking a giant bottle of water once or twice a day overwhelms you, try setting a glass at your desk or kitchen table so it tricks your mind into thinking you’re not drinking that much.

Spice it up

One thing that my patients are surprised to hear is that they can find relief in their spice rack. The daily use of spices are useful treatments for chronic pain and inflammation.

My friends know me at the “Ben Rothselberger of Mediterranean Food” for a reason. I love to cook. And when I cook, I love to use spices. And not just any spices. I use turmeric and ginger spices in my cooking which helps me not only add flavor and cut back on my salt intake but also helps with inflammation.  

So when you go into meal-planning mode, work in some spices to give your next dish that zing, and at the same time, help to tone down the pain caused by inflammation.

Divorce bacon and eat more plant-based foods

Bacon may look appetizing and seem harmless at a glance, but many studies show a connection between consuming processed meats and negative health consequences. The Cambridge University Press study I referenced above also talks about eating more animal-based foods than we should. If you’re eating a high amount of red meat, you might be at risk of developing chronic or degenerative diseases, and inflammation.

So if you like to eat your steak, think about eating it less often and consider eating more plant-based foods instead to maintain a healthy balance in your life and reduce inflammation.


The evidence is clear that the key to less pain is less inflammation. I highly encourage you to take the leading role in your pain management, which means you have choices. You can research treatment beyond pain meds such as opioids by looking at your lifestyle and what you are eating. In my professional opinion, making gradual lifestyle changes under the watchful eye of your healthcare team is a cheaper and less invasive option than leaving things up to medicine alone.

Eating the right food to help manage your chronic pain can also reduce your chances of having narcotic addictions and depressive disorders. If you suffer from chronic pain or inflammation, I suggest that you try a plant-based diet, drink plenty of water, and add spice to home-cooked meals to relieve your symptoms.

About the author: Dr. Reyzan Shali – If you want to learn more about healthy eating, visit my website, and/or feel free to connect with me on Instagram and Twitter with the handle @ReyzanShali.

Reyzan Shali

I’m a primary care physician, board certified in Internal Medicine, and practicing in the San Diego area. I’m a mother, wife, sister, aunt, and friend. But first and foremost, I’m a proud Kurdish daughter of two great Kurdish parents from the Kurdistan region of Iraq.

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