Including the Fruit that Works Better Than Aspirin

Do you have chronic pain that has lasted 12 weeks or more? If so, you’re probably popping painkillers. But drugs should be your last resort. Reason: You can knock out some discomfort with drugs, but side effects are common—and the pain is unlikely to go away altogether.

What’s better? Most people don’t ­realize that dietary changes—eating certain foods and avoiding others—can have a big effect on chronic pain, such as joint pain, back and neck pain, headaches and abdominal pain. I’ve seen for myself with patients who have a variety of chronic pain conditions (as well as my own back pain) just how effective dietary changes can be.

Where to start…

More cherries and berries. All fruits contain healthy amounts of antioxidants, which are important for reducing inflammation and pain. Inflammation is associated with tissue swelling, pressure on nerves and decreased circulation, which contribute to pain. Cherries (along with blueberries, cranberries and blackberries) are particularly helpful because they’re rich in anthocyanins, chemicals that relieve pain even more effectively than aspirin. Cherries do have a fairly short season, but frozen cherries and 100% cherry juice offer some of the same benefits, though nothing takes the place of fresh organic produce.

In a study, researchers at University of California-Davis found that men and women who ate a little more than a half pound of cherries a day had a 25% ­reduction in C-reactive ­protein (CRP), a clinical marker for ­inflammation.

Bonus: The vitamin C in cherries and other berries has additional benefits. It’s used by the body to build and repair joint cartilage, important for people with joint pain caused by osteoarthritis. Like anthocyanins, vitamin C also is a potent antioxidant that can reduce CRP.

Give up sugar. By now, many of the hazards of sugar, including weight gain and cardiovascular damage, are well-known—but most people don’t know that consuming sugar increases pain.

What’s the link with chronic pain? A high-sugar diet causes the body to produce advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which trigger massive amounts of inflammation.

And it isn’t only sugar per se that does the damage. The American College of Clinical Nutrition has reported that foods with a high glycemic index—these include white bread, white rice and other “simple” carbohydrates that are quickly converted to glucose during digestion—increase inflammation even in healthy young adults. For those with arthritis or other ongoing painful conditions, even a slight increase in inflammation can greatly increase discomfort.

My advice: Try to eliminate added sugar and processed carbohydrates from your diet. Give up candy, soda, baked goods and highly refined grains. If you really enjoy a bit of sugar in your morning coffee, go for it. Treat yourself to the occasional sweet dessert. But in my experience, people with chronic pain usually do better when they give up sugar altogether.

Cooler cooking. You might struggle with pain control if grilling is one of your favorite rituals. Meats and other foods exposed to prolonged, high-heat cooking—on the grill, in the broiler, pan-frying and deep-fat frying—generate high levels of AGEs. Increased pain is just one of the risks—some research has linked AGEs to heart disease, diabetes and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

You’ll do better with cooler cooking methods, such as simmering and sautéing and moderate-heat (around 350°F) roasting. Slow-cookers are another good choice. I don’t advise patients with chronic pain to give up grilling, broiling or pan-frying altogether. Just remind yourself to use these methods less often—say, once a week. Let your pain be your guide. If it’s getting worse, make bigger changes.

Less alcohol. Actually, no alcohol is the best choice for people with chronic pain. Alcohol irritates intestinal tissue and allows bacteria to pass into the blood more readily. The presence of bacteria will increase ­inflammation even if you don’t develop obvious symptoms of infection.

Listen to your body. Some people can have an occasional beer or a glass of wine without noticing any change in their pain levels. If you’re one of them, go ahead and imbibe on occasion.

Switch to olive oil. The heart-healthy benefits aren’t the only reasons to use extra-virgin olive oil in place of polyunsaturated vegetable oils (such as canola). Olive oil contains a substance called oleocanthol, which interferes with the inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 ­enzymes. People who consume olive oil have lower levels of prostaglandins, the same pain-causing neurotransmitters that are blocked by aspirin.

Use olive oil just as you would other cooking oils—by drizzling some on pasta or salads, for example, or using it when you sauté vegetables or fish.

Eat seafood twice a week. The omega-3 fatty acids in cold-water fish (such as salmon, sardines and trout) are among the most potent ­anti-inflammatory agents. Studies have shown that people who suffer from morning stiffness and joint tenderness do better when they consume more omega-3s. You can get by with fish-oil supplements, but they’re unnecessary if you eat fatty fish at least twice a week.

Drink plenty of water—between eight and 10 glasses a day. It helps the kidneys and liver filter toxins (such as pesticide residues) from the body. Even though the liver breaks down about 95% of the toxins you ingest, the by-products can linger in the blood and other tissues. Water dilutes the concentration and reduces the inflammatory ­effects.

Also helpful: Green tea. It provides extra water along with catechins, antioxidants that reduce inflammation and pain.