Nutrition and Chronic Pain

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Eating well can seem like yet another item on a never ending to do list for many people. But for people living with chronic pain, it can be even more daunting.

People living with chronic pain often also experience fatigue, low mood, sleep difficulties, low energy, and weight gain, making basic self-care feel like a burden.

In the face of such symptoms, proper nutrition often goes by the wayside. Which can make fatigue, low energy, and low mood worse. Which can lead to a loss of appetite. Which can…. Well, you get the idea. It’s a cycle that can be difficult to break.

In my work as an OT, and also the co-facilitator of our Chronic Pain Management Program, I have witnessed this cycle first-hand. While it can be so hard to change a routine, proper nutrition can make a world of difference. Just think, you wouldn’t send a kid to school with an empty belly because they’d have a hard time concentrating. So how is someone who has chronic pain supposed to function if they haven’t eaten properly?

I’ve come up with three areas to illustrate the power of proper nutrition and how it can improve function.

Fatigue, mood problems, muscle pain, and more

Magnesium is a wonder mineral. If you can only do one thing to improve your chronic pain symptoms, this is it.

Tips on what to eat:

  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sesame seeds
  • Broccoli
  • Dark chocolate
  • Almonds
  • Summer squash
  • Flax
  • Ginger
  • Salmon
  • Quinoa
  • Black beans
  • Beets
  • Tomatoes


We’ve all heard about sleep hygiene – dimming lights, disconnecting from our smartphones, and practicing meditation – but did you know that your diet can impact your sleep?

Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and  nicotine. Nicotine can be a hard one for people, as smoking can be associated with relaxation, but nicotine is actually a stimulant, so reaching for a cigarette when you can’t sleep may actually keep you awake.

Tips to help you sleep:

  • Limit sugar intake
  • Eat food with calciums, including kale, broccoli, and almonds
  • Eat food rich in magnesium
  • Drink relaxing teas with ingredients like chamomile or valerian



Cortisol plays a big role in your body. In addition to many other things, it is a stress hormone that kicks into gear when there is a perceived threat. Once the threat is gone, cortisol levels lower.

For some people though, cortisol levels are out of whack and remain high, causing their bodies to think that they are always under threat. This continual fight or flight response can increase pain, mood swings, headaches, blood pressure, and disrupt sleep.

Tips to reduce stress

  • Eat small meals throughout the day (every three hours)
  • Eat foods rich in magnesium and calcium
  • Make sure you’re getting enough omega-3s, like winter squash, eggs, chia and hemp seeds, and some types of fish and seafood


That’s all well in good, but where do I begin?

I totally hear what you’re saying. If you or someone you know is living with chronic pain and are struggling to eat, let alone eat well, all of the above information can be a bit overwhelming. I encourage you to start small. Make small, easy changes. Below are some practical tips.

  • Start with breakfast – Buy yogurt or cottage cheese, something easy to prepare and eat that will keep you feeling full.
  • Batch cooking – Invest in a crockpot and make larger batch meals when you have more energy. Portions can be stored in the fridge or freezer and easily heated later on.
  • Precut and pre-prepared healthy options – Look for precut vegetables, and healthy dips (like protein-rich hummus).
  • Stay hydrated – Just one glass of water per day can increase brain function by 14%.
  • Blend something up – Smoothies are a great way to add protein, fruit, and yes, even vegetables into your diet.

If you are still in search of guidance and suffering from chronic pain, our Chronic Pain Management Program in Ottawa, Kingston, and Pembroke is now accepting referrals. Get in touch to find out more.