Foods That Cause Inflammation and Pain

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Did you know that some foods can cause inflammation in the body? Inflammation can lead to pain, so it makes sense to avoid foods that can trigger a flare-up as part of your pain treatment plan.

While many foods fall into this category, I recommend starting with the following five worst offenders.

Known “Trouble Foods”

Do you have certain foods that you know will upset your stomach, provoke a serious headache, or give you other pain-related symptoms? These are what I call “trouble foods.” (Some people, particularly migraine sufferers, also may know them as “trigger foods.”)

Eating a trouble food is like throwing gasoline on a fire when it comes to pain. Whenever you ingest one, your body perceives it an attack and launches a response to ward off the enemy. That response often causes symptoms—such as inflammation—that are associated with pain. So, if you have foods that you know do not agree with you, you must stop eating them, no matter how much you may love them or how healthy they’re supposed to be.


Sugar has many negative effects on the body that make it more difficult to manage and control pain.

Sugar can deplete your body of important minerals, upsetting your overall mineral balance and leading to a build-up of free-radicals in the bloodstream. This, in turn, results in a decrease in the amount of oxygen in the body’s tissues and an increase in free-radical damage. Both conditions can worsen degenerative conditions like arthritis. (Free radicals are a common cause of inflammation.)

Sugar also can depress or even paralyze your immune system, making it harder for your body to fight disease, and it puts a strain on your adrenal glands. A weakened adrenal system has been linked to everything from asthma to depression to headaches, arthritis, candida, and fatigue.

Finally, sugar is known to cause headaches. If you suffer from frequent headaches, stop eating sugar (and artificial sweeteners) for 30 days and see if your headaches diminish. In many people, this simple step can have dramatic results.

Artificial Sweeteners

If you think you can eliminate sugar by switching to an artificial sweetener, like aspartame or sucralose, think again. Artificial sweeteners are not any better. In fact, if you have a lot of pain, they may be worse for you than sugar. The only potential exception to this is saccharin. Recent research shows that saccharin does not have the same inflammatory effects as other artificial sweeteners.

Both aspartame and sucralose have been associated many problems experienced by people living with pain. Aspartame, for example, is associated with:

  • Joint pain
  • Headache
  • Mood swings
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Abdominal pain

Sucralose is associated with:

  • Inflammation of the face
  • Headaches
  • Migraines
  • Rashes
  • Palpitations
  • Joint pain

In my opinion, all pain patients should avoid artificial sweeteners to test whether those substances are contributing to overall pain. You may be able to get significant pain relief.

It will be a challenge, however, to weed them out of your diet. One problem with artificial sweeteners is that they are in so many products—from soda to chewing gum (most sugarless gum contains aspartame). When reading labels, be alert for both trade names and the generic names—like “aspartame” and “sucralose”—on the list of ingredients.

Trans Fats and Saturated Fats

“Trans fat” is the popular term for a product known on food labels as hydrogenated oil. Hydrogenated oil has been linked to many health problems, but for people with pain, it is particularly problematic because of its tendency to cause inflammation.

Trans fat is supposed to be identified on food labels. However, food labels can be deceptive. It’s very important that you read through all of the ingredients to ensure that the word “hydrogenated” does not appear anywhere. If you see hydrogenated anything on a label, don’t eat the product—it contains trans fat.

I also recommend that, as much as possible, you avoid eating saturated fat. Saturated fats not only can increase your risk of heart disease, but they can also increase inflammation and worsen pain. Some of the foods that you’ll find saturated fat in are:

  • Animal products (e.g., fatty beef, pork, poultry skin, butter, and bacon)
  • Whole and 2 percent milk
  • Coconut oil
  • Palm oil and palm kernel oil
  • Many forms of cheese

When it comes to fat, it is much smarter to opt for monounsaturated fats like olive oil. In addition, opt for leaner cuts of meat and fish, skim or low-fat milk, and low-fat dairy products.


What about alcohol and pain? Despite the old adage that a person drinking “is feeling no pain,” alcohol is a substance that most people with pain should avoid. Here’s why:

  • Alcohol can dehydrate the body. Even though alcohol is a liquid, it takes more water in the body to “process” the alcohol than the alcohol contains. The result is a net deficit in water.
  • Alcohol can impair judgment, which may cause you to eat foods or do things you should not do to take care of your pain.
  • Some people find that alcohol is a “trigger food” or a “trouble food” that can automatically launch a pain attack.
  • Many people with chronic pain may be taking medications, and it’s almost never a good idea to combine the two. If you take any drugs at all—prescription or over-the-counter (don’t forget supplements, too)—ask your doctor or pharmacist if you can drink alcohol while taking them.

Of course, cutting a food out of your diet is always easier said than done. Once you’ve made the decision to stop eating something, that’s typically the first food you begin to crave! Be prepared with these five tips on how to control food cravings to maximize your success.

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Meet Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi

Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi is an internationally recognized expert in pain medicine who has spent much of his career studying what pain is, why it occurs, and how best to treat it. That experience has led him to believe strongly that there are often ways to relieve or manage pain which are overlooked or discounted, and that the most effective treatment approaches are always multi-modal.

More About Dr. Joseph Pergolizzi