Fibromyalgia is a chronic condition characterized by widespread pain and tenderness throughout the body. Other common symptoms include sleep difficulties, fatigue, depression, anxiety, cognition and memory problems (known as “fibro fog”), migraine headaches, and digestive problems. A significant percentage of fibromyalgia sufferers alter their diet to relieve symptoms, despite a lack of conclusive evidence that dietary choices can help manage the condition.
However, we do know that a healthful, balanced diet and eating at regular intervals provides your body with the energy and nutrients it needs, which can help combat fatigue. Further, there is a small body of research suggesting certain dietary patterns and nutrients may help relieve some symptoms of fibromyalgia.
A few studies have tested vegetarian and vegan diets, reporting a decline in symptoms, especially pain. Patients on vegetarian diets also lost weight, which could yield even further benefits, as obesity and overweight are associated with aggravated symptoms. There may be a connection between gluten sensitivity and fibromyalgia, and indeed a few studies have shown a gluten-free diet provided some relief, but more research is needed.
Low intakes of the minerals magnesium and zinc have been associated with increased pain. Consuming nutrient-dense sources of magnesium and zinc should be part of any healthful diet, and may hold some promise for fibromyalgia. Magnesium is found in whole grains, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds and beans. Beef, oysters, crab, lobster, pork and fortified breakfast cereals are excellent sources of zinc. Plant foods, like beans and nuts, and dairy foods also supply significant zinc to the diet.
Limited research has shown some promise for omega-3 fatty acid supplementation in alleviating symptoms from fibromyalgia, but the jury is still out. A better option is to eat fish a couple of times a week as it may help, and fish contains a bevy of beneficial nutrients.
The amino acids glutamate and aspartate, found in animal protein (think meat), have been linked to increased pain in fibromyalgia sufferers. Glutamate is in aged cheeses like parmesan and sharp cheddar, and the flavor enhancers monosodium glutamate (MSG), fish sauces, soy sauce, Bragg’s aminos and Worcestershire sauce. The low-calorie sweetener aspartame, found in sugar-free gums, mints, candies and other foods formulated to be low in sugar (i.e., some yogurts), is a common source of aspartate. Avoiding these sources of glutamate and aspartate is worth a try, as they could help provide some relief.
Fibromyalgia patients anecdotally have reported increased or decreased severity of symptoms with various foods. Thus, a useful tool to help those with fibromyalgia identify potential dietary culprits is a food diary. Overall, it is a good idea to nourish the body with healthful whole foods and to keep calories in check, as a balanced diet goes a long way to improve overall health.
Andrea N. Giancoli, M.P.H., R.D.