Fibromyalgia and food: “thy food shall be thy remedy”(Hippocrates)

Eating can be one of life’s greatest joys. Eating for comfort can have an immediate effect on our moods, and it can often result in guilt. Eating can be a social event, or it can be done in private. Eating is sometimes only done to keep one alive. Eating a specific way is often done to either reduce weight, or gain weight. Eating often reflects cultural and ethnic backgrounds, and can be a way to show love to others. Eating and dieting go hand in hand and can bring about hope. So, is there hope for those who have fibromyalgia that in eating  particular kinds of food, and abstaining from others will bring about much needed relief? Is it realistic to give advice across the realm to those with FMS without taking individual factors into consideration?

Along with exercise, eating specific kinds of foods has become the sensible and popular  approach to good health in the 21st century. Fatty, salty and highly processed foods, as well as caffeine, colas, sugar, aspartame, preservatives and MSG should be avoided as much as possible in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. We hear this advice often( See for example, the book The End of Overeating, by David A. Kessler) . Even more than one alcoholic beverage per day should be avoided. The issue of obesity is becoming a grave concern among health professionals, as is its polar opposite: anorexia. Furthermore, in order to enhance a healthy diet, eating locally and organically is highly recommended. But, what of the people who cannot afford to buy organically, who are often so fatigued that fast foods are easier on the body than hours of food preparation, who are living on a reduced income and cannot afford fresh fruit and vegetables? The literature on fibromyalgia is replete with advice about which foods to eat and which to avoid. Rarely does the literature take into account the challenges that face the sufferer who cannot meet the requirements for healthy eating.

Eating cannot be separated from digestion. Almost all people with fibromyalgia are afflicted with bowel motility issues at some point. It stands to reason that fresh fruit and raw vegetables will help with constipation, yet it is sometimes easier and cheaper to take stool softeners or laxatives than it is to buy and prepare expensive foods, such as fresh fruit. The recent findings that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables is inversely associated with risk of distal colon cancer does not negate the benefits of them for general overall health. Yet, findings are always changing and while the general public may try to stay abreast of  recent research, it is more complex for those of us with FMS and dealing with these challenges can be a full time job. In fact, for some, diarrhea may be more of an issue than constipation, and therefore they may have to restrict high fibre foods.

What then of those of us who are privileged enough that we can afford to eat well, but are dealing with such demons as sugar cravings? As I discuss in another article, the adrenals are responsible for the levels of cortisol in our bodies. Under stress (as many of us are, due to sleep disorders, fatigue and pain) the high levels of cortisol raise the blood glucose levels. It becomes a vicious cycle. With overstimulation and high levels of stress we have a need for good nutrients to avoid adrenal burnout (adrenal exhaustion). Yet the craving for sugar and carbohydrates, not to mention other kinds of junk food, is extremely high, and the more stimulants we consume the higher the levels of cortisol! But, who can deny that these ‘comfort’ foods offer at least some short term appeasement? The challenge is to find a way to deal with these high levels of cortisol in our bodies by eating foods that have been shown to be good for us.

In my book I discuss what I believe to be the cause of fibromyalgia, particularly the gender issue;that is, how society is socially constructed regarding gender and this relationship to FMS. Yet, there is little doubt that eating properly to help bring down the high levels of cortisol is part of the solution, although not the cure. Since it is often the woman who prepares the food I have often asked women with FMS this question: “What works for you?” It seems to me that this is where we should begin, as there are many cultural and social variations of a healthy diet. For some who believe they are specific foods which cause discomfort, for example, wheat or dairy, then avoidance is the answer. For others, allergy testing seems to give them some answers to which foods to avoid, although many do not use the more scientifically appropriate allergy testing approaches and without this level of accuracy can obtain false positives . Others maintain that fasting and reduction of toxins in the body help with digestion and overall well being.

Interestingly, the idea of high incidences of wheat and dairy ‘allergies’ , or ‘intolerances’ have prolifferated in Western society. The British Nutrition Foundation reports that one in five Britons now think they have some food allergies. The Foundation says that actually only a small fraction of these people have an allergy, or intolerance to specific foods. They base this conclusion on many worldwide studies. They regard this cultural phenomenon as ‘trendy’. Some Australian specialists and others in the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology reached similar conclusions.  An article in Harper’s magazine (January 2008)  writes about the effect that this phenomenon has had on children. It is entitled “Everyone’s Gone Nuts: On Allergy Hysteria in America”. No doubt others would disgree with the results of these studies and reports, while continuing to believe they have wheat and dairy allergies.

Even if there isn’t a high incidence of food allergies, specifically wheat or dairy, but people feel better by giving them up, then perhaps it is due to the placebo effect. As has often been shown, the placebo effect can be very helpful and we should not disregard the impact on a person’s life. I personally do not have wheat or dairy intolerances, and I often have warm milk at night  to help with sleep. I enjoy whole grains, particularly early in the day and wheat does not cause any discomfort for me. However, I know many people with FMS and chemical sensitivities who go to great lengths to find wheatless foods and restrict their diets dramatically. We all have to do whatever we think is helpful to us in our daily struggles. One eating program does not fit all. Probably the best advice is to eat in moderation, with a well balanced diet and to avoid fad diets that promise cures.

Finally, some advice from someone (me) who has lived with this experience of eating improperly for our challenges of living with FMS. It is well known that with stress one’s body increases its production of insulin. This can lead to a vicious cycle of eating ‘comfort’ foods, mainly consisting of carbohydrates and sugar, which inflame muscles and cause those of us with FMS to have more pain. This continues the cycle of overeating foods that cause more distress because they bring temporary comfort. We have to be alert to the foods that cause our symptoms to become worse, in particular REFINED SUGAR (candy, cookies, cakes, ice cream!). It is probably the worse for muscle pain, so we must avoid it at all costs. It is an on-going challenge that I personally struggle with on a daily basis! I do love candy, and I am trying to go cold turkey now. But, to-day I have received a lovely gift of the inspiring book by Drs. Roizen and Oz called You on a Diet. It appears there is hope for me, the sugar addict! One trick? Eat more nuts! Stay tuned!

8 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia and food: “thy food shall be thy remedy”(Hippocrates)

  1. Josephine Etowa

    As a researcher in the field of Black women’s health, I am familiar with the issues and complexity of eating “a healthy diet” that Dr Keddy has so clearly articulated in this section. The insights provided here about the contextual issues influencing food decision-making have implications for health care providers especially those who work with women from culturally diversed backgrounds. I strongly agree with Dr.Keddy’s advice on “taking individual factors into consideration” when providing nutritional advice. I look forward to reading the rest of her book!

  2. Virginia Harrie

    Your article ‘Fibromyalgia and food…’ has given me my first, very own ‘aha’ moment in my ongoing journey towards fibromyalgia relief. My brain is reeling with the ideas you’ve expounded and I can’t keep up with the instances I’ve experienced that others have experienced as well. I’m in happy shock! I am so looking forward to reading your book. I would wish for a medical practioner/fibromyalgia sufferer of your ilk in the Kitchener, Ontario area, if for no other reason than to talk about these issues with someone who ‘knows’.
    Thank you for precipitating my epiphany.

  3. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thank you so much for those kind remarks Virginia! I hope that we can meet someday and share stories, because in the storytelling we become partners in breaking the silence that has until recently shrouded fibromyalgia. You made me happy too!

  4. Melynn Skovald

    I am so encouraged by your writings about fibro; many times the frustration and anxiety from flare ups are overwhelming and just finding out about sugar and carbohydrate inflamation properties is an utterly kool coping tool to discover. thank you!.

  5. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Thanks Melynn. Sugar is indeed a terrible addiction and one I have as my own daily challenge!
    After indulging I know my muscle pain will be worse, yet it is a constant struggle! Hope you have good luck with your ‘coping tool’!

  6. Kristy Stanton

    “Probably the best advice is to eat in moderation, with a well balanced diet and to avoid fad diets that promise cures.” – great advice for everybody! Well said, Barbara.

  7. Annette

    Fibromyalgia seems to run in my family. I’ve had it for years as well. Recently, my son was diagnosed with migraine headaches. The pediatrician suggested an elimination diet. To show my support, I also elminated with him. His migraines decreased when he eliminated dairy products. My fibromyalgia has disappeared as a result. I’m in the process of trying to educate those in my family to eliminate dairy as well (not easy when you come from a long line of dairy farmers). I still slip up on my dairy every now and then. I pay dearly for it afterwards and it always brings me back to my confirmation of a dairy allergy.

  8. Barbara Keddy Post author

    I wonder if there are others out there who have had continued success with eliminating certain foods?
    My view still remains that fibro is the result of an overstimulated nervous system and possibly specific foods could be triggers. There is so much we don’t know. I am happy Annette that you have had good results. Best wishes, Barbara

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