Low-level, chronic inflammation lies so far below the skin’s surface that you can’t see it or feel it. It’s the result of an immune system in overdrive, damaging healthy tissue and leading to chronic illnesses. Modifying your diet is one of the best things (if not the best) you can do to reduce your body’s inflammation, which can result in decreased neuropathic symptoms. If possible, always try to consume organic foods.
Follow these tips to help keep inflammation as low as possible:
- Eliminate Sources of Gluten
Gluten is a general name for proteins found in wheat, barley and rye, and is linked to inflammation. It can adversely impact the intestinal wall – particles can break through the wall and enter the bloodstream where they don’t belong, leading to an immune response (i.e., inflammation). Gluten has become quite a controversial topic in recent years, with many experts claiming that only those with celiac disease benefit from avoiding and eliminating gluten. However, there are many inflammatory conditions that can benefit from a gluten-free diet, especially those that are autoimmune in nature.
Here, we will try to break down some of the confusion regarding gluten, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity and their relation to peripheral neuropathy:
Celiac disease: A disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten, leading to difficulty in digesting food. Classic celiac disease presents with signs and symptoms of malabsorption such as diarrhea, weight loss and anemia. Individuals with celiac disease have reported neuropathic symptoms even before being diagnosed with celiac: https://www.foundationforpn.org/what-is-peripheral-neuropathy/causes/autoimmune-disease/celiac-disease/
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): A non-specific immune response to gluten that has been clinically recognized as less severe than celiac disease. Symptoms include abdominal pain, fatigue, headaches, tingling/numbness and foggy brain, and typically appear hours or days after gluten has been ingested.
Peripheral neuropathy is common in non-celiac gluten sensitivity: in a study in which people who were diagnosed with “idiopathic” PN and gluten sensitivity, research demonstrated that 89% of those people who removed gluten from their diets had much less pain than those who did not remove gluten. R
There is no nutrient found in gluten-containing foods that we can’t find elsewhere in our diet, and in many cases, eliminating gluten involves cutting out processed food like white bread, pizza, pastries, etc. (And, sorry, gluten-free processed foods are not a substitute for a gluten-free nutrient dense diet.) We recommend trying a whole food, gluten-free diet for at least two weeks to see how you feel, then adjust accordingly.
- Avoid Processed Foods
Per the above guidelines surrounding gluten, it is recommended that you avoid processed foods altogether to achieve optimal health. Even opting for gluten-free bagels and pastries is contraindicated as these foods are still highly-processed. So why avoid processed foods? Processed foods contain some combination of preservatives other than salt (e.g., nitrites), hydrogenated oils, modified starches, protein isolates, flavoring agents, artificial colors, emulsifiers, humectants, non-sugar sweeteners, and/or other cosmetic additives, etc. Examples of processed foods include (but are not limited to) breads, cereals, instant noodles and soups, frozen or shelf-stable ready meals, commercial desserts, salad dressings, soda and other sweetened beverages, reconstituted meat products, etc. Research has shown that these foods are linked to inflammation and heart disease. In a 2019 study in BMJ, researchers tracked more than 105,100 adults for a median follow-up period of five years. They found that there was a 12 percent increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease for every 10 percent increase in the amount of ultra-processed food consumed.
The best advice we can give you is that when shopping for groceries, only choose whole foods (fruits, vegetables, meats) from the perimeter and to avoid most processed food items in the aisles. Unprocessed frozen fruit, vegetables and animal proteins are perfectly fine.
- Ditch the Dairy
Dairy products, especially those made from cow’s milk, can be difficult to digest. About 65% of the human population is lactose intolerant; so it is highly likely that you may be lactose intolerant and not even aware of it. When you’re lactose intolerant, it means you don’t produce the lactase enzyme needed to digest the lactose in milk, which can lead to poor digestion and bloating, gas or cramps. Some people react to the proteins in milk like whey and casein; research has demonstrated that celiacs can exhibit an inflammatory response to casein much like they do to gluten.
Milk and other dairy products can aggravate skin conditions like eczema, atopic dermatitis and acne. It can also be a trigger for asthma and rhinitis in children.
Evidence indicates that milk can trigger an immune response and lead to autoimmune diseases. High amounts of dairy consumption have also been associated with greater levels of inflammatory biomarkers, higher fracture rates, and a higher risk of mortality. Just one cup of milk daily is linked to a 50% increased risk of developing breast cancer.
While we couldn’t find any studies directly linking neuropathic pain to dairy consumption, as stated above, dairy consumption has been linked to inflammation, and chronic inflammation is involved in the pathophysiology of peripheral neuropathy.
Our recommendation is if after getting rid of gluten and processed foods for a couple of weeks and you’re still not seeing improvement, try taking the dairy out of your diet as well for a couple more weeks and wait to see what happens.
- Avoid White, Refined Sugar
It’s no surprise to you that refined sugars are damaging to our health. Excess sugar and refined starches spike insulin levels, can increase our body’s production of inflammatory cytokines, not to mention that sugar is linked to obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, tooth decay, and mood swings.
Thankfully, there are many natural sweeteners available like dates, raw honey, coconut sugar, coconut syrup, maple syrup, etc. And don’t forget about the natural sugars found in fruit, which can be the best dessert of all.
- Mind the Nightshade Family
The nightshade family includes tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, white potatoes, goji berries and tobacco. Nightshades can impact inflammation, particularly arthritis.
If you’re still experiencing neuropathic pain even after having eliminated gluten, processed foods, dairy and refined sugar, try cutting nightshades out for one month and see if it makes a difference.
- Questionable Foods
Everyone’s body is different and how everyone’s body reacts to certain foods is not a black and white answer. The aforementioned recommendations regarding food elimination are more or less universal for those dealing with chronic inflammation. However, when it comes to individual food sensitivities/intolerances, there is great variation, and your specific food intolerances may still be driving your chronic inflammation, even after you have eliminated all the foods above.
Let’s first start with explaining the difference between food allergies and sensitivities/intolerances:
Food Allergy vs. Intolerance
Food Allergy: A food allergy is an immune system reaction that occurs soon after eating a certain food. Even a tiny amount of the allergy-causing food can trigger signs and symptoms such as digestive problems, hives or swollen airways. In some people, a food allergy can cause severe symptoms or even a life-threatening reaction known as anaphylaxis. R
Food Intolerance: Food intolerance (also known as food sensitivity) isn’t like a traditional food allergy—instead, it’s a delayed, unpleasant reaction to food that doesn’t involve anaphylaxis. R
Food intolerances may cause digestive symptoms such as bloating, diarrhea and gas. Although we couldn’t find any studies that link food intolerances with neuropathic pain, research has shown that intolerances to certain foods do also manifest as neurological symptoms, such as migraine headaches. R
Even though food intolerances can cause problematic symptoms, they are generally not considered dangerous. Still, those who have food intolerances may need to avoid the foods that trigger their symptoms.
How to determine if you have an intolerance to a certain food:
- Please refer to this comprehensive online handout from the University of Wisconsin on using food elimination strategies to determine food intolerances.
- Alternatively, you may order an IgG food intolerance/sensitivity test which will test a sample of your blood against common food intolerances. These test kits are now available for at-home use, or you may ask your physician to refer you to a practitioner who can perform this type of testing.
- Load Up on Anti-Inflammatory Foods!
Food elimination doesn’t need to be all gloom and doom; there are plenty of delicious foods out there that not only don’t cause inflammation – they actually fight inflammation!
An anti-inflammatory diet should include these foods:
- Avoid hydrogenated oils and opt for oils like olive and avocado instead. (note: do not cook/stir-fry with olive oil at high temperatures – it oxidizes the food – which creates more inflammation).
- Increase your fiber and antioxidants:
- with green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale, and collards
- fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, and oranges*
- Increase Omega-3 fatty acids:
- from foods such as fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines
- seeds (such as ground flax) and nuts like almonds and walnuts*
*If you test or discover that you have an allergy or intolerance to these foods, please avoid for the time being.
Hippocrates, the Greek founder of Western medicine (and whom the Hippocratic Oath that physicians take upon medical school graduation is based upon), once said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” He knew early on that food was the best medicine, and when it comes to dealing with the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy, his wisdom is no exception.
Source: Academy of Culinary Nutrition