A plant-based diet holds promise for helping people with fibromyalgia manage pain and other symptoms, several studies show.
Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread pain, disturbed sleep, and other symptoms. Although it’s relatively common, affecting about five million U.S. adults according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, few effective treatments are available. That leaves patients searching to create a cocktail of lifestyle modifications and holistic remedies to improve their lives and manage pain.
Fortunately, eating a plant-based diet full of fruits and vegetables may hold the promise of relief for some fibromyalgia patients.
Jan Chambers, president of the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Association (NFCPA), says:
“I believe that food is medicine… Everything we eat has an effect on us.”
Plants and vegetables are high in antioxidants and other micronutrients. Including these foods in as many meals as possible helps flood the body with anti-inflammatory substances that are beneficial to health.
In addition to eating a diet rich in plants, abstaining from meat or other animal products helps people with fibromyalgia maximize wellness, according to research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology. Although not many studies examining the effects of a vegan diet on fibromyalgia have been conducted, many of the trials that have been completed have focused specifically on the raw vegan diet.
Patients with fibromyalgia who ate vegan experienced less pain and joint stiffness, and a better night’s sleep, a study found.
The study conducted by Scandinavian researchers was one of those focusing on raw foods. The trial examined 18 people with fibromyalgia who ate a low-sodium, raw vegan diet, and compared them with a control group of 15 patients who continued eating their usual diet, which included meat.
Traditional veganism refers to a diet based on vegetables, fruits, seeds, and nuts, while avoiding any meat or animal products, such as eggs or cheese. This is separate from vegetarianism, which is a diet that doesn’t include meat, but does include eggs, cheese, and milk.
A subset of vegans, known as raw vegans, eat only—or mostly—raw, uncooked food. People subscribing to a raw vegan diet wouldn’t even eat pasta. Instead, they might julienne zucchini, for example, so it resembles noodles. The premise of this diet is the belief that cooking vegetables chemically alters the healthy micronutrients and antioxidants, diminishing their benefits.
Studies show fibromyalgia patients can benefit from a raw vegan diet.
In addition to the Scandinavian research, a study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine also examined a set of fibromyalgia patients who adopted a raw diet.
The study surveyed 26 patients with fibromyalgia who ate a diet of raw fruits and salads, grain products, nuts, seeds, carrot juice, and dehydrated barley grass juice. After up to four months, patients reported a 46% improvement in mean Fibromyalgia Impact Questionnaire scores, which measure the impact of disease through categories such as emotional function, energy levels, and ability to prepare a meal.
Patients eating raw vegan food also experienced improvement in overall quality of life, based on answers from a separate questionnaire, and levels of fatigue. Researchers speculated on the reasons behind the subjects’ improved fibromyalgia symptoms, noting:
“There is likely a synergy of both physiological and psychological factors. The change in diet gave the subjects motivation to take control of their symptoms, to overcome their disabilities and inactivity.”
A raw vegan diet could unlock health benefits for people living with fibromyalgia.
Some experts caution against adopting a raw vegan diet, however. Health journalist and author Christopher Wanjek, who has a master’s from the Harvard School of Public Health, says:
“If you are already vegan or vegetarian, you have nothing to gain and much to lose by going totally or even mostly raw.”
Wanjek says eating raw vegan vastly limits a person’s meal options, making it more difficult to ingest all the necessary nutrients. He also questions the validity of the raw diet’s ultimate premise, that raw foods have vital life energy that’s quashed through cooking.
While overcooking foods can diminish the nutrients they contain, Wanjek says the answer is to steam or lightly sauté or stir-fry, essentially heating without overdoing it.
Carefully consider all the potential health impacts before starting a fully raw diet.
Raw vegans are particularly at risk for dietary deficiencies in vitamins B12 and D, omega 3 fatty acids, iron, selenium, and zinc—all vital nutrients that play a significant role in disease prevention and routine body maintenance. Vitamin B12, for example, helps build DNA and red blood cells.
Many raw vegans also rely too much on fruit, Wanjek adds, and all the acidity may lead to tooth decay.
Even though there’s controversy over the ability of a raw diet to provide the full complement of required nutrients, many experts continue to promote careful dietary choices for those living with fibromyalgia.
Dr. Ginevra Liptan, medical director at the Frida Center for Fibromyalgia in Portland, Ore., says:
“There aren’t many good studies that have looked at how diet can affect fibromyalgia symptoms. But I think we can gather a lot from anecdotal evidence.”
Anecdotally, she adds, food offers powerful ways to give the body the foods it best responds to while avoiding those that trigger pain or other symptoms. Each person is different, and carefully observing how particular foods make you feel is the first step to customizing a diet.
Eliminating a food from your diet for six to eight months helps you determine if it worsens fibromyalgia symptoms.
NFCPA’s Chambers, for example, realized that nightshade vegetables, including tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers worsened her fibromyalgia symptoms, as did high glycemic foods, which increase the body’s blood sugar levels. Experts caution against cutting healthy foods such as tomatoes out from your diet unless you, too have noticed adverse health impacts from them.
In addition to dietary changes, Chambers adopted lifestyle interventions, making sure to eat meals regularly and take a multi-vitamin. However, every person is different, she says, cautioning that the changes she made might not benefit everyone.
Have you ever tried a vegan diet for fibromyalgia?
Image by CityTree via Flickr
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