Have you ever thought that what you’re eating could be the cause of pain and inflammation in your body? Unfortunately, too many people turn to pills and creams looking for relief, without ever truly addressing the root of their symptoms.

If you suffer from nagging pain, I believe the real answer to feeling better could be right in front of you — on your plate. To understand how certain foods can trigger pain, you first need to understand inflammation and the role that it plays in diet and disease.

Inflammation is a normal immune response that helps protect the body against injury and infection. When you get a bug bite, for example, you might start to notice a bit of swelling and itchiness as your immune system springs into action.

Some conditions commonly associated with inflammation and pain include:

  • Celiac disease
  • Leaky gut syndrome
  • Arthritis
  • Food allergies and sensitivities
  • Lupus
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Gout
  • Headaches/migraines

So how does food play into all of this? About 70% of your immune cells are found in your digestive tract. Not only that, but your diet can have a powerful effect when it comes to mediating the inflammatory response. Certain foods have been shown to ease inflammation while others can set off symptoms and make inflammation worse.

When inflammation is caused in relation to food, inflammation in these types of reactions is caused by the immune complexes being deposited in various tissues in the body. This process takes some time, which can delay the onset of symptoms — by hours or even days, making this kind of immune response tough to identify. If you’re sensitive to the eggs you ate at breakfast, but symptoms don’t show up until after dinner, you’d rarely suspect eggs as the culprit. As a result, these are sometimes referred to as ‘hidden’ food allergies or sensitivities. The symptoms resulting from these reactions depend mostly on where in the body these complexes are deposited. If it’s in the joints, for example, you might get joint pain. If in the blood vessels, you might get a headache. If in the intestine, you might get diarrhea.

Strengthening your immune system by taking control of your diet can be an easy and effective way to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.

Here are my top 8 pain-triggering foods:

1. Dairy

Although most people are born with the ability to digest lactose, the main type of sugar found in cow’s milk, it’s estimated that 75% of people around the world lose this ability at some point. This is the number #1 food sensitivity that comes up with my clients (and my numbers are at 91% of the time!). Consuming dairy products when you’re living with lactose intolerance of food sensitivities may result in symptoms like bloating, abdominal cramps, flatulence or diarrhea.

Research also suggests that dairy consumption should be limited in those with arthritis to decrease inflammation and alleviate symptoms. I would highly recommend switching to a dairy-free diet just to see what happens – it’s worth noting if pain goes away. If you don’t want to go it alone, dairy is one of the foods we avoid on the Attain True Health 21 Day Refresh that starts soon. Join us and be a part of a community that gives up dairy together and supports and encourages each other along the way!

2. Gluten

Gluten-free diets generate a lot of buzz, but many people still don’t understand basic gluten facts. Gluten is a type of protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. Besides hiding out in bread and other wheat products, it also winds up in many salad dressings, deli meats, beer and a host of other common foods too.

For those with celiac disease or a sensitivity to gluten, eating even trace amounts can be a major pain trigger. While more research is still needed, gluten may even cause pain or symptoms in individuals without a sensitivity. Some studies suggest that gluten may increase inflammation and exacerbate leaky gut syndrome by activating a specific protein involved in intestinal permeability. I talk about it all the time but more on leaky gut in next week’s blog. Just know gluten could be a cause of pain and inflammation in your body.

3. Sugar

Sugar is linked to an extensive list of harmful effects on health, from heart disease to cancer. But did you know that your sweet tooth may also be contributing to pain as well?

Some research suggests that a high-sugar diet could cause alterations in your gut microbiome which could promote inflammation and influence your immune system. Loading up on sugar may also increase intestinal permeability, allowing particles to pass through to the bloodstream, triggering leaky gut symptoms, including pain. Being mindful of how much sugar you get on a daily basis is the first step in looking for where you can reduce!

4. Alcohol

While the occasional glass of red wine with your dinner is okay, chronic alcohol consumption may not be so great for your health or your pain levels. Overdoing it can weaken the liver, amp up inflammation and even worsen symptoms of conditions like inflammatory bowel disease.

If you do want to wind down with a drink at the end of the night, be sure to skip the sugary mixers and high-carb beers. Also, remember to keep it in moderation with less than five drinks a week; no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink a day for women.

5. Processed Foods

Unfortunately, ultra-processed foods make up a pretty substantial portion of the modern diet. One study estimates that processed foods account for a whopping 58% of total energy intake in the average American diet. This includes popular items like convenience foods, snack cakes, sodas, juices, potato chips and breakfast cereals.

A diet packed with processed junk could be the culprit behind your chronic pain. A Harvard Medical School study found the traditional Western diet (characterized by a higher intake of red and processed meats, sweets, desserts, French fries and refined grains) was associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers. Other studies show that trans fats, which are frequently found in processed foods, are tied to increased inflammation. For this reason, minimizing your intake of processed foods is consistently recommended to help manage painful conditions like arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.

6. Nightshades

Nightshades are a group of plants from the Solanaceae family which include tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants, chili peppers and bell peppers. While these nutritious veggies are generally healthy and safe for most people, they can trigger a host of adverse symptoms ranging from joint pain to muscle aches and mood swings in people who have a sensitivity.

Unfortunately, current research on nightshade intolerance is extremely limited, and most of the information available is anecdotal. However, testing out an elimination diet or a food sensitivity test may be worthwhile if you think your pain may be worsening after eating nightshades.

7. Meat

Emerging research indicates that limiting your consumption of red and processed meats could be beneficial for your health. Studies show that eating more red and processed meats is associated with increased inflammation.

Some types of meat are also high in purines, compounds that can aggravate gout and cause pain. If you suffer from gout, it’s best to limit your consumption of high-purine meat products like seafood, bacon, turkey, veal and organ meats during flare-ups.

8. Vegetable Oils

Vegetable oils like corn, safflower, and cottonseed oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids, a type of fat that most Americans are eating in excess. While most experts suggest sticking to a 2:1 ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, the typical ratio in the Western diet is closer to 20:1. Omega-6 fatty acids are pro-inflammatory. They can be found in such foods as chips, snack foods, cookies, crackers, and sweets in the American diet as well as in fast food.

If you suffer from chronic pain and think your diet could be at the root of the problem, there are several steps you can take to start on the path towards pain-free living.

I have testing for certain conditions, such as lactose intolerance and food sensitivities. This test is a great way to pinpoint specific problems and identify foods that you should be nixing in your diet.

Unfortunately, detecting other food sensitivities isn’t quite as easy and sometimes requires a bit of detective work. Another way to identify trigger foods is by using an elimination diet. During an elimination diet, foods are cut out completely and then slowly re-introduced over a period of several weeks to determine which foods may be contributing to symptoms and which foods can be safely added back in. The best way to do this and to have support while attempting to eliminate the offending foods is to join us for the Attain True Heath Body and Mind Refresh which begins on April 8th.

Remember: while identifying which foods may be causing your symptoms is important, following an overall healthy diet is just as crucial. Even if you feel just fine after polishing off a bag of candy, for example, that doesn’t mean that you should do it. Pairing a diet rich in whole, unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods with a healthy lifestyle is vital to maximizing health, minimizing inflammation and keeping pain under control.