Nutrition Column – Coping with Fibromyalgia Symptoms

Think back to the last time you had a bad case of the flu. Every muscle shouted out in pain, and you felt like someone had pulled the plug on your power supply. That’s what someone with fibromyalgia syndrome feels like on most days. Fibromyalgia literally means pain in the muscles, ligaments and tendons.

Some 3 percent to 6 percent of Americans suffer from fibromyalgia. While the cause is unknown, it seems to affect women more often than men and can strike at any age. The symptoms, which vary in intensity from one person to another and from one day to another, seem to come and go over time. Because the symptoms can be so similar to those of chronic fatigue syndrome and Gulf War syndrome, some experts believe all three syndromes are derivations on each other.

Currently, there is no specific or standardized therapy for fibromyalgia patients. Still, certain dietary and lifestyle changes may help ease some of the symptoms. As recommended for most everyone, people with fibromyalgia can benefit from eating balanced diets that include plenty of fruits and vegetables. The trace elements, vitamins and minerals supplied by fruits and vegetables are especially important to help maintain and repair muscles. In addition, the fiber provided by fruits and vegetables may help improve sluggish digestive systems, a problem for some fibromyalgia sufferers. Some patients with fibromyalgia seem to benefit from following a vegetarian diet.

Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as cold-water fish, DHA-enriched eggs and ground flaxseed, may also be of benefit. Researchers continue to investigate the potential link between omega-3 fatty acids and a reduction in arthritic pain.     

Patients with fibromyalgia often report that their symptoms are aggravated by certain foods. In one study, the foods most frequently reported by patients as culprits were meat, wine, alcohol, coffee, sweets, chocolate, citrus fruits and apples. However, there was no objective measurement to confirm the findings.

Some doctors recommend an elimination trial to see if specific foods are provoking symptoms. This usually involves removing all suspected allergens from one’s diet for two weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time every three days to see if symptoms get worse.

Regular, gentle physical activity, including stretching, can also help maintain muscle tone and reduce stiffness. It is thought that exercising helps by regulating the growth hormone that maintains good muscle and soft tissue health as well as by assisting in deep sleep. Exhaustion is a common complaint by many fibromyalgia sufferers. Daily exercise can help induce deep sleep and decrease restlessness. As with any exercise program, it’s important to start slowly and build gradually. If you have fibromyalgia and aren’t used to regular physical activity, it’s generally recommended that you start with just three to five minutes of exercise per day and gradually work up to 20 to 30 minutes daily as tolerated. Popular types of exercise include walking, water aerobics and bicycling.

Since stress may aggravate symptoms, try meditation or yoga to help deal with mental stress. Also, try to keep regular sleeping and waking hours. Although there is no cure for fibromyalgia, eating a healthful diet, engaging in regular physical activity and managing stress and sleep may help alleviate some of the symptoms.

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by Pat Kendall, Ph.D., R.D., Food Science and Human Nutrition Specialist, Colorado State University, Cooperative Extension