Food and pain – Choosing the right food to reduce pain and inflammation

FruitDid you know that some of the things we eat or drink can make pain and inflammation better or worse?  This is because they have a direct effect on the pH (acid-alkaline balance) of our blood.  This means that some foods make our bodies more acid or alkaline.  Our bodies have mechanisms to keep some functions just at the right level (this is called homoeostasis) and when those go wrong we can become quite sick. For instance, there is an optimum level for blood sugar and, when there is too much sugar, the body releases insulin to bring the sugar down to normal levels. The same happens with salt, fluids, and many other substances – our bodies will strive to bring things back to normal levels whenever there is too much or too little of anything.

    In general, our blood (and the fluid between cells)  need to be slightly alkaline (pH of 7.4) in order to be able to keep healthy and fight diseases. The more acidic it is, the more prone to inflammation it will be. Different types of food make the body more alkaline or acid.However it has nothing to do with how the food tastes – for example lemons, vinegar and oranges are actually alkaline.  Imagine that it is the ‘ashes’ left after the body ‘burns’ the food we eat that are acid or alkaline.

If there is too much acidity and we don’t eat food rich in certain minerals that can buffer the acid (calcium, magnesium, potassium, etc), our bodies need to use those minerals stored in the liver, the gall bladder, muscle tissue and bone to balance its pH. This is a natural and normal process but, if this continues for a long time, our store of buffers start running low leading to a weakening of the ‘storage organs’. For instance, our bones can become weaker (as calcium is leached from them) and muscles can become ‘stiffer’ and sore (common in fibromyalgia). Some types of food have been shown to produce arachidonic acid promoting the release of prostaglandins and other inflammation markers. Any conditions involving inflammation can be helped by an alkaline diet.

Alkaline forming foods should make about 70% of our diet for health maintenance and more to restore health – somewhere around 80% – this varies from person to person according to their metabolism.

In general, the best alkalising diet would consist of

  • most fruits (especially apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, berries, blackberries, melons, cherries, grapes, grapefruits, lemons, oranges and peaches),
  • vegetables (especially onions, Swiss chard (raw), chives, kale, spinach, mustard greens, turnip greens, watercress, spring onions, lettuce, beetroot greens, leeks, collards, cabbage, peas, chicory greens, cress, Chinese cabbage, endive, dandelion greens, carrots, green beans, pumpkin, red sweet peppers, asparagus, sweet potato, peas, Brussels sprouts, squash and cauliflower),
  • fish (especially oily fish such as mackerel, salmon and herring),
  • olive oil (especially extra virgin, unfiltered olive oil), flaxseed oil
  • quinoa,
  • spices, herbs and seasoning (especially chillies, parsley (raw), basil (fresh), sage, marjoram, thyme, oregano, ginger, turmeric, onion and curry powder) and
  • some types of seeds and nuts (walnuts, flax and pumpkin seeds). Some sources recommend the avoidance of all other seeds an nuts as most if not all of them contain n-6 fatty acids, which are pro-inflammatory.

I say ‘in general’ because, for instance, some people are sensitive to plants of the nightshade family (such as potatoes, tomatoes and aubergines) as they contain a chemical called solanine, which can trigger inflammation in those people. Some sources advise that citrus fruits should not be consumed at the same time as any other food. Drinking enough water (especially if it is alkaline) and fluid is also important.

Acid forming foods to be avoided include

  • sugar (probably worse of all – especially refined),
  • red meat,
  • saturated fats and food containing trans (hydrolysed) fats
  • too much coffee and alcohol.

Many people are intolerant of certain foods such as wheat and cow’s milk. Buttermilk, whey, yoghurt and goat’s milk are often acceptable. When food intolerance is present, those foods will also have an acidic effect.

If you want to be sure which is the best anti-inflammatory food for you personally, a good nutritionist or naturopath should be able to help.

There is also some evidence that  other factors  contribute towards blood pH balance such as breathing but this is beyond the scope of this article.

For further information:

1. Interview David Seaman, author of Clinical Nutrition for Pain, Inflammation, and Tissue Healing

2. Look Up IF Ratings (How to use IF ratings is HERE)

3. The Inflammation-Free Diet Plan by Monica Reinagel published by McGraw-Hill


5. “Anti-Inflammatory” Diet May Improve Postprandial Glucose, Cardiovascular Health (Medscape)

6. Dietary suggestions for chronic pain


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