Chronic pain, fatigue, and depression are three of the many symptoms of fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition which affects an estimated 1 in 20 people to some degree. Sufferers can also experience problems sleeping, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome among other symptoms. While some treatments are available to ease some of these symptoms, according to the NHS, it is very unlikely they will disappear completely.
Fibromyalgia is defined by the NHS as ‘a condition that causes widespread pain all over the body.’ It often takes a long time to diagnose due to its similarity to conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. These conditions, whilst having similar symptoms, can be confirmed or ruled out using blood tests. One symptom which sets fibromyalgia apart from these other conditions is what is commonly known as ‘fibro fog’. This is described by sufferers as feeling as though their brain and head are blocked, and feeling so overwhelmed from processing the pain and mental aspects of the condition, that they struggle to concentrate, absorb information, recall simple memories and sometimes even lose track of conversations mid-sentence.
Fibromyalgia is seven times more common in women than it is in men, typically developing between the ages of 30 and 50 but can affect anyone of any age. It is often unknowingly triggered by a trauma, event, or accident which has caused pain in some way.
Could a plant-based diet be helpful to people suffering with this condition? And what could eschewing animal foods do for treating an extensive, complicated condition such as fibromyalgia?
A well-planned plant-based diet can be beneficial for the vast majority due to the large consumption of fruits, vegetables and grains which are full of the nutrients and vitamins vital for maintaining a healthy body. A much-cited journal published in the latter half of 2016 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics outlined just this. “It is [our position] that appropriately planned vegetarian, including vegan, diets are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. These diets are appropriate for all stages of the life cycle, including pregnancy, lactation, childhood, adolescence, older adulthood, and for athletes.”
So how is Fibromyalgia normally treated?
The NHS website explains that ‘whilst treatment is available in various forms to ease symptoms, it is unlikely for the condition to ever completely disappear’.
Sadly, for the millions of fibromyalgia sufferers in the UK and in the rest of the world who cope with the exhaustion which comes from the illness daily, there is currently no cure. Fibromyalgia is therefore usually treated with a cocktail of prescription medication including muscle relaxants, antidepressants, painkillers, and anti-inflammatories. Whilst these medications can help to control the symptoms, they can only work to a certain extent, not to mention taking excessive amounts of prescription medication over an extended period is considered to be neither healthy nor a viable long term solution.
Doctors and physicians have found however, that a variety of alternative therapies can be beneficial to fibromyalgia sufferers, some even more so than medication. These alternate therapies include acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Though these treatments are not often funded by the NHS and therefore require payment by the patient, some patients who use these therapies have reported substantial relief from their pain.
My personal experience of using a plant-based diet to help control the symptoms of fibromyalgia has been significant; I found that the swellings in my joints reduced significantly within the first month of eating this way. My plant-based diet improved my also energy levels – important as this in turn helps fibromyalgia sufferers to focus and partake in their daily activities with greater ease. This improvement can then significantly improve the mental health of a person who may previously have been struggling to leave the house. If the symptoms of the condition can be improved by diet, and sufferers are able to engage more fully in everyday life, this can really help with mood. Again, in my experience of following a plant-based diet full of fruits and vegetables, the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ days, often mentioned by Fibromyalgia sufferers, have been improved markedly making the good days even better and the bad days more bearable.
My anecdotal experience is backed up by a study brought to attention by vegan charity VivaHealth! This major online resource covers many issues relating to vegan health and nutrition. One particular study, by Lamb et al (2011), tested whether being on a plant-based diet could help the participant’s pain levels. After four weeks the participants were found to have a higher tolerance for pain and a definite decrease in both pain and the stiffness in their joints. This suggests eschewing all animal products from your diet is worth exploring further as a symptom and pain management system, particularly as the benefits come without the adverse or unwanted side effects certain medications and therapies can sometimes cause.
While research on vegan diets and fibromyalgia are currently fairly scarce, there are a couple of other studies worth noting, where researchers looked the effects of a raw plant-based diet on the condition. The studies (Kaartinen et al, 2000, and Donaldson et al, 2001) both revealed a significant reduction in pain, as well as improvements in other facets of emotional, physical, and mental health.
When it comes to general dietary guidelines, some advice is provided by the UK Fibromyalgia website. According to the resource, ‘some research has suggested that eating foods with a low sugar content can be beneficial to fibromyalgia sufferers’. Many plant-based diet staples, including legumes, beans, vegetables, and unrefined grains like quinoa are compatible with a lower sugar diet.
Whilst many fibromyalgia sufferers – including myself – eagerly await long term medical research into cures for the condition, the data that does exist, as well as my own experience, suggests a plant-based diet can have a notable effect on some symptoms, and does so without the dangerous and uncomfortable side effects of some medications.