For my naturopathic clients, inflammation and associated pain are very common symptoms. Often pain isn’t the reason someone has come to see me but, in taking a “functional medicine” approach to your case, pain will often come up in some way or another. It might be musculoskeletal pain such as sore joints, aching muscles, or sore lower back. Or it could be stomach pain, period pain, heartburn, headaches or some other form of pain.
Maybe the pain is constant or perhaps it comes and goes. Quite often it may not be your number one issue but I estimate that at least ½ of my clients have pain lurking as part of their overall health picture.
Sometimes you have received a diagnosis such as osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia or some other condition. However, often it’s not that clear cut. The pain is kind of vague, hard to pin down and perhaps not even sufficiently severe to seek treatment. Nonetheless, it is frequently present and without even realising it you may be feeling fatigued or exhausted as a result.
Constant or regular pain really saps your energy even if it’s not that extreme.
From a naturopathic perspective, I see pain as a symptom of something else, quite possibly inflammation. Therefore I am looking for the cause or drivers of that inflammation. The goal is to do more than provide symptomatic relief through the use of painkillers. It’s much better for your long-term health and wellbeing to find out what is causing the pain in the first place and see if we can address that once and for all.
Sometimes, the cause is obvious…a strained muscle, a sprained ankle, a headache due to dehydration. These types of pain will usually resolve readily, perhaps with the aid of some manual therapy such as physio or massage and some appropriate rest or treatment. Pain is a messenger from your body and in these cases, the message is fairly clear – drink more water, don’t run on a sprained ankle!
However, in more long-term, insidious cases, pain is still your body’s way of saying “I’m not happy” but the reason may not be as obvious. So, in these cases, it can be helpful to consider what else might be going on.
Possible causes of pain and inflammation
Some of the common causes or exacerbators of inflammation and pain include:
- carrying additional weight – not only does extra weight put more pressure on joints, but fat cells produce chemicals that are inflammatory, contributing to systemic inflammation
- poor sleep, fatigue and/or ongoing stress – these all impact your cortisol production (your natural anti-inflammatory). They also play into hormonal dysfunction and your perception of pain (e.g. A poor night’s sleep will often make your pain feel worse)
- poor nutrition – your diet may be lacking in key anti-inflammatory nutrients (such as magnesium or essential fatty acids) or you could be eating too many foods that promote inflammation (like sugar, fried foods or alcohol for example)
- gut dysfunction leading to poor digestion– which means that even if you are eating foods that are anti-inflammatory, if you aren’t digesting them well, stuff gets into your bloodstream that shouldn’t be there, setting off an inflammatory response by the immune system (and this will often result in fatigue and/or brain fog)
- certain pharmaceutical medications (especially NSAIDs, antibiotics and proton-pump inhibitors) can set you up for systemic inflammation due to the effect they have on your digestion, gut microbiome and the lining of your digestive tract
- toxins such as alcohol, smoking and all the chemicals we are exposed to these days also take their toll on our digestion and detoxification systems, potentially leading to activation of your immune system (which generally includes increased inflammation)
- sedentary lifestyle or other lifestyle factors (e.g. an uncomfortable bed) can affect your posture and structural alignment leading to pressure in the wrong spot or poor circulation and a sluggish lymphatic system (resulting in a build-up of inflammatory chemicals in your bloodstream)
- low vitamin D – an immune regulator as well as a pain modulator
- diagnosed or undiagnosed inflammatory diseases such as irritable bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, coeliac disease or other auto-immune condition
- infections or viruses – either frequently getting ill or perhaps just a sense there is a low-grade lingering virus
- depression – there is a great deal of evidence linking depression to inflammation
A naturopathic approach to pain and inflammation
The good news is that there is much we can do to improve the trajectory of your health, relieve your pain and improve your energy.
The first step is to complete a full naturopathic assessment of your health. This includes a dig into your symptoms, top-to-toe review and diet and lifestyle assessment. We may also do some pathology testing (to assist in finding the source of the fire (aka inflammation).
Then, assuming we have ruled out or addressed any specific illnesses which could be part of your inflammatory picture, we methodically work through the following diet and lifestyle recommendations as they apply to you:
- reduce the inflammatory foods in your diet. This will often start with processed foods, sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine, alcohol and fast food
- increase the anti-inflammatory foods (think fruit and vegetables, oily fish, good quality olive oil for starters)
- based on your symptom picture and possible testing we may need to look at eliminating certain trigger foods (common ones include wheat, dairy, potato, eggplant, tomato, capsicum)
- improve digestion, heal your gut mucosa and restore the healthy gut microbiota
- implement an appropriate weight loss or detoxification plan
- improve sleep through a good sleep routine, sleep herbs and nutrients
- work through a “quit smoking” plan if you are a smoker
- implement an appropriate exercise/activity plan to encourage the body’s own production of endorphins (the natural pain killer)
- address stress and introduce relaxation to help balance the nervous system…enjoyable activities, gentle exercise such as yoga, music, laughter are all great for this as are meditation and breathing exercises
- look at the big picture….is your pain a reflection of something that needs to change in your life….eg your job or relationship
- nutritional supplements when indicated and lacking in your diet – this might include vitamin C, zinc and amino acids for tissue repair, essential fatty acids, vitamin D or magnesium
- Herbal supplements when indicated and not contra-indicated with pharmaceutical medicines can be very helpful to reduce inflammation and heal tissue
- Physiotherapy, massage, acupuncture and even counselling can be helpful too
So, don’t put up with that low level, sometimes annoying, pain. It may not be bad enough to make you take a painkiller or stop what you are doing but it’s still a message from your body that something needs attention.
Pushing through is exhausting.
Address the underlying drivers and enjoy less pain and improved energy.