If you have fibromyalgia, you’ve probably wondered if there are ways you could modify your diet to improve symptoms such as fatigue and muscle pain.
Research hasn’t shown that there are specific foods that all fibromyalgia patients should avoid or add to their diets. But it may still be worthwhile to take a closer look at how foods impact the way you feel.
“There aren’t many good studies that have looked at how diet can affect fibromyalgia symptoms. But I think we can gather a lot from anecdotal evidence — from what patients tell us,” says Ginevra Liptan, MD, medical director of the Frida Center for Fibromyalgia in Portland, Ore., and author of Figuring Out Fibromyalgia: Current Science and the Most Effective Treatments.
Here are some of the ways doctors say food can play a role in fibromyalgia and tips on how you can tweak your diet to support your overall health.
A Visual Guide to Fibromyalgia
Pay Attention to How Food Makes You Feel
“A lot of people with fibromyalgia have sensitivities to particular foods, but it varies from person to person,” Liptan tells WebMD. “They might be sensitive to MSG, certain preservatives, eggs, gluten, dairy, or other common allergens.”
In fact, in a survey published in the journal Clinical Rheumatology, 42% of fibromyalgia patients said their symptoms worsened after eating certain foods.
A good way to start identifying the foods that may aggravate your symptoms, Liptan and other experts say, is keeping a daily food journal.
“I have some patients keep a food journal for two weeks,” says James McKoy, MD, chief of pain medicine, director of complementary medicine, and staff rheumatologist at Kaiser Permanente in Honolulu. “They write down the foods they ate each day and whether they had symptoms like headaches, indigestion, or fatigue. It can be very helpful because sometimes we see, for instance, that they have more fatigue when they eat a particular food.”
Try Eliminating Certain Foods
If a fibromyalgia patient has a lot of irritable bowel symptoms, Liptan often recommends they try an elimination challenge diet. They stop eating a certain food they suspect they’re sensitive to for six to eight weeks. Then they add it back to their diet and see how they feel. Liptan’s patients most often try eliminating dairy products or foods containing gluten.
“When you discover you’re sensitive to a food and then eliminate it from your diet, it can make a huge difference,” Liptan says. “Some people get a lot of benefit in terms of reduction of pain, but more often we see a reduction in fatigue and an improvement in irritable bowel symptoms like bloating and constipation.”
If you think you might have food sensitivities or allergies, talk with your doctor.
In some cases, they may refer you to an allergist for food allergy testing. You may also want to consult a dietitian to make sure you don’t miss out on essential nutrients when you eliminate certain foods from your diet.
Make It Easier to Eat Healthfully
It makes sense for people with fibromyalgia — just like everyone else — to try to eat a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. A well-balanced diet can give you more energy to stay physically active and can potentially improve your overall health.
If you’re struggling with pain and exhaustion, however, it’s hard to cook nutritious meals. Liptan says she encourages her patients to make it easier on themselves by seeking out healthy foods that don’t require much preparation.
“Buy vegetables that are pre-washed and cut up,” she suggests. “If you have a health food store nearby, go to the deli section and buy small portions of pre-prepared foods like beet salad or quinoa to vary your diet.”
Use Food to Help Fight Fatigue
Choosing the right foods may help you keep your energy level more consistent and prevent fatigue.
“We know anecdotally that certain dietary choices — like eating small meals frequently throughout the day — can help energy levels,” says Ann Vincent, MD, assistant professor of medicine and medical director of Mayo Clinic’s Fibromyalgia Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “It can help to eat a snack with a little protein, for example, when you’re feeling tired at three in the afternoon,” she says.
Make sure you eat breakfast, which should include some protein and whole grains, says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, MPH, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a registered dietician and practicing physician in Sarasota, Fla.
“You could try eating a boiled egg and some oatmeal,” Gerbstadt says. “That will prevent your blood sugar from spiking and will give you the right kind of energy to get you going through the morning, even if your body is aching and you’re feeling tired.”
Of course, diet is not the only factor in how much energy you have. Getting enough sleep and being active during the day can also help.
Check on Your Supplements
Always tell your health care providers about any supplements you’re taking to treat your fibromyalgia. Some supplements can have significant side effects and may interact with medications.
“Ask your doctor if there is the potential for any interactions with the prescription medications you take for fibromyalgia,” Vincent says. “SAMe supplements, for instance, could interact with prescription antidepressants.”
In addition to checking on any possible interactions, your doctor should also be able to help you gauge any claims you might read about what supplements can, or cannot, do for your health.
Focus on Your Overall Well-Being
As you make changes to your diet, keep in mind that people with fibromyalgia tend to benefit most from taking a variety of approaches to managing their symptoms.
Along with leading a healthy lifestyle (including a nutritious diet) and taking any medications your doctor may prescribe for pain or other symptoms, there are many other therapies worth exploring.
“Look into trying things like yoga, massage, and deep-breathing exercises,” says Gerbstadt. “Each individual with fibromyalgia has different symptoms and will need different solutions to get the best possible quality of life.”