Is Food Really Medicine?
Is there such a thing as a diet to treat fibromyalgia? While there is no consensus on a single diet to treat FMS, research does point us in a few intriguing directions– specifically, symptoms improvements from plant-based vegetarian diet, a low-FODMAP diet and a gluten-free diet.
Fibromyalgia is difficult to treat. Presently, there are only three prescriptions that are approved by the FDA for fibromyalgia (pregabalin, duloxetine and milnacipran). Unfortunately, although these medications can provide partial relief for some people, none are a magic bullet for treating fibromyalgia. That’s why specialists recommend a multidisciplinary approach to FMS treatment. We know that diet plays an important role in preventing and managing many diseases, such as diabetes and autoimmune diseases, so why not fibromyalgia as well?
In this article, I want to lay out the scientific evidence for three different diet approaches to improving fibromyalgia: plant-based, FODMAP and gluten-free. My hope is that this article can serve as a starting point for you to explore how to use food as medicine to improve your symptoms.
Nutrition can be empowering. That might sound overblown. But, unlike prescriptions or appointments with doctors and physical therapists, there is no intermediary between you and what you choose to eat. Food is personal and what you decide to eat is ultimately up to you. For a person living with fibromyalgia, having the ability to make decisions over something as important as nutrition really is empowering. However, changing daily habits can be a challenge, which is why I have included several free and affordable resources for each diet if you are interested in making any changes.
Fibromyalgia and Plant-Based Vegetarian/Vegan Eating
At least three studies have shown that people with fibromyalgia benefit from a plant- based vegetarian or vegan diet. It’s important to stress the plant-based focus of this dietary therapy. It is possible to eat a diet that is vegetarian, but primarily made up of processed, nutrient-poor, junk food. This won’t improve your general health or your fibromyalgia symptoms. Plant-based foods, including fruits, veggies, whole grains, beans and nuts, contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that provide crucial nutritional benefits. It’s quite possible to also obtain balanced macronutrients (carbs, protein and fats) from these plant sources. While vegans and vegetarians both eat plant-based foods, vegetarians also consume dairy, eggs, honey (and sometimes, fish). Vegans do not eat any animal-sourced foods.
Studies have shown that fibromyalgia is linked to high rates of oxidation (damage to tissues caused by particles known as oxidants). Antioxidants neutralize oxidants and serve an important protective function in the body. Researchers hypothesize that consuming a diet rich in antioxidants might help to improve fibromyalgia symptoms. One study showed that fibromyalgia patients on a vegetarian diet had an improved antioxidant status; 70% of participants also reported lower pain levels and increased well-being.
Another benefit of eating vegetarian is weight loss. Carrying extra weight worsens pain, sleep, depression, and other fibromyalgia symptoms. However, it can be very difficult to lose weight when you have a condition that makes moderate exercise painful. If you have struggled unsuccessfully to lose weight, could it be time to consider going vegetarian or vegan?
A recent study of diabetic patients found that, compared to a conventional low-calorie diet, a vegetarian diet was almost twice as effective in reducing body weight. In a separate investigation into the effects of eating vegan on fibromyalgia symptoms, research participants who were overweight had a significant reduction in body mass index, as well as cholesterol levels. This 3-month study found that eating vegan resulted in significant improvements in FMS symtoms: reduced pain levels, and joint stiffness and improved quality of sleep and quality of life.
After my diagnosis, I ate a lot of processed, packaged food because of the convenience. But it cost me a lot in terms of my symptoms getting worse and gaining weight. After I switched to eating plant-based vegetarian, I lost about 20 pounds and found that some of my symptoms improved, including more sustained energy, no low blood sugar crashes and greater ease of movement.
If you are interested in going vegetarian/vegan, or just incorporating more meatless main dishes into your diet, here are a few resources to get started:
- 7 Day Vegetarian Meal Planner from Eating Well, at 1200, 1500 and 2000 calorie levels, with full recipes
- 7 Day Meal Plan and How-To Transition Guide from Choose Veg, a free website that provides resources to help you transition to a straightforward vegetarian diet
- 21 Day Kickstart Program put together by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine is a free online resource for learning to transition to a vegan diet. It includes a 21 day meal plan, grocery lists, webcasts, daily emails with info, etc.
- Plant-Based Primer: The Beginner’s Guide to Starting a Plant-Based Diet from Forks Over Knives, provides many resources for learning to cook healthy plant-based meals for your family
Fibromyalgia and the Low FODMAP Diet
This is a weird sounding diet, right? FODMAP stands for several types of short chain carbohydrate and sugar alcohols. Research has shown that a diet low in FODMAPs is the most effective diet plan for managing Irritable Bowel Syndrome (which includes symptoms like bloating, nausea and changes in bowel movements). In addition, a low FODMAP diet (LFD) can reduce fatigue, lethargy and poor concentration.
Based on these findings, a new study investigated whether reducing FODMAPs in your diet could improve your fibromyalgia symptoms. The results were positive – a statistically significant reduction in body pain and gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as an improvement in quality of life. I find it interesting that these results indicated improvements beyond only G.I. symptoms . Research into probiotics and dietary interventions has been pointing to a gut-brain connection. Since fibromyalgia involves a sensitized nervous system, perhaps one way to dial down the sensitivity could be via the gut? It’s important to note that this was a pilot study, with a small sample size, and further research needs to be done. However, if you have IBS or significant G.I. issues along with fibromyalgia, a low FODMAP diet might help you manage digestive symptoms and reduce your pain!
How Does a Low-FODMAP Diet Work?
For some people, FODMAPS are poorly absorbed in the small intestine. When they pass into the large intestine, they are quickly fermented, which contributes to gas, abdominal bloating and pain. They also attract water into the large intestines through osmosis, which can alter bowel movements. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. These can be further divided into five groups called fructans, galacto-oligosaccharides, lactose, excess fructose and polyols.
Foods that contain FODMAPS include: onions, garlic, mushrooms, apples, lentils, wheat, rye and milk. Importantly, not everyone is triggered by all types of FODMAPs. Instead, the FODMAP diet takes an elimination approach. Initially, all FODMAPs are removed from your diet. Gradually, they are re-introduced one by one so you can determine which ones cause you a negative reaction. Only your FODMAP triggers are permanently removed from your meals.
If you are interested in learning more, you can check out these resources:
- Books like The Complete Low-FODMAP Diet: A Revolutionary Plan for Managing IBS and Other Digestive Disorders by Sue Shephard and Peter Gibson
- Low FODMAP app, created by the university which pioneered this diet (Monash University)
- Find a FODMAP dietician using this registry and tips
Fibromyalgia and the Gluten-Free Diet
It’s impossible to have escaped the gluten-free diet fad that has swept the mainstream in recent years. The evidence is seemingly in every grocery store and on every menu. While it may seem like only a fad, there is a scientific rationale behind why some people may benefit from a gluten-free diet, even if they don’t have celiac disease (CD): “Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is increasingly recognized as a frequent clinical condition with symptoms similar to CD in the absence of the diagnostic features of CD.”
Without getting too deep in the weeds on this topic, gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and similar grains. In some people with a weakened intestinal barrier, consuming gluten triggers an inflammatory immune response. Some of the symptoms of a gluten sensitivity include gastrointestinal problems like bloating, constipation, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting, as well as muscle and joint pain, brain fog and chronic fatigue. Although the clinical markers of gluten sensitivity are different from celiac disease, scientists have uncovered markers of intestinal cell damage and increased immune activity, which normalized after eliminating gluten for six months.
A small pilot study investigated whether fibromyalgia patients with gluten sensitivity improved after beginning a gluten-free diet. Patients with confirmed gluten sensitivity experienced an improvement in pain, fatigue, neurological and gastrointestinal symptoms after beginning a gluten-free diet. Of the 20 participants in the study, fifteen experienced a significant reduction in body wide pain – some shortly after beginning the diet and others after a few months. The authors conclude that this pilot study suggests non-celiac sensitivity may be a treatable cause of fibromyalgia, but that further research needs to be done.
If you are curious whether gluten might be worsening your symptoms, it’s best to begin with a trial elimination diet. This means eliminating all sources of gluten from your diet for several weeks. During this period, keep a food log of what you eat and what your symptoms are each day. Then reintroduce gluten into your diet, and observe whether your symptoms change or worsen. Since more than half of FM/CFS patients see their symptoms improve when they eliminate certain foods, including corn, wheat, dairy, citrus and sugar, you may want to add other foods to your elimination diet.
If you suspect that gluten may be impacting your fibromyalgia, it’s good to rule out celiac disease first. Start by making an appointment with your doctor (and bringing your food log). In order to rule out non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you may want to consider working with an integrative medical doctor, naturopathic doctor, or nutritionist. Although research supports the existence of gluten sensitivity, the mainstream medical profession lags behind when it comes to accepting this condition, so alternative and complementary health professionals may be better to work with during this process.
Here are a few resources to check out if you are interested in going gluten-free:
- 4 Week Gluten Free Meal Plan and Starter Kit by the Gluten Intolerance Group – free printable guide
- Eating Well Beginner’s Guide to Going Gluten Free – scroll down for meal plans at different calorie levels, for example, the 14 Day Meal Plan at 1500 Calories
- How to Go Gluten Free by the Gluten Free Goddess (a great recipe blog)
 Høstmark A, Lystad E, Vellar O, et.al. Reduced plasma fibrinogen, serum peroxides, lipids, and apolipoproteins after a 3-week vegetarian diet. Plant Foods for Human Nutrition. Jan 1993;43(1):55-61.
 Kaartinen K, Lammi K, Hypen M. Vegan diet alleviates fibromyalgia symptoms. Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology. 2000; 29(5): 308-13.
 Marum, A.P. et al. (2016). A low fermentable oligo-di-mono saccharides and polyols (FODMAP) diet reduced pain and improved daily life in fibromyalgia patients. Scandinavian Journal of Pain 13:166-72. http://www.scandinavianjournalpain.com/article/S1877-8860(16)30084-2/fulltext?mobileUi=1
Isasi, C. et al. (2014). Fibromyalgia and non–celiac sensitivity: a description with remission of fibromyalgia. Rheumatology International , 34 (11), 1607-16.
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