Diet and Nutrition

Try a Gluten-Free Diet: It May Ease Fibromyalgia Pain

Several studies have proven that a gluten-free diet can ease fibromyalgia pain.

Try a Gluten-Free Diet: It May Ease Fibromyalgia Pain

Fibromyalgia causes pain all over your body and intense exhaustion. This disease is a common, but painful, condition that affects your bones and muscles, and it is often misdiagnosed and misunderstood. There is no cure for fibromyalgia and only a combination of medication, exercise, healthy habits, and managing stress can ease your symptoms.

Fibromyalgia also causes intestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome and nausea. Studies claim that those with fibromyalgia have a higher risk of irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease than the general public. Turn it around and up to one-third of those with irritable bowel syndrome may develop fibromyalgia.

Irritable bowel syndrome is common, and it affects the large intestine with cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, and diarrhea or constipation or both. You can manage IBS with diet and lifestyle and by avoiding stress. But what do you do when your IBS is caused by fibromyalgia? Now, you have pain in your joints and muscles, as well as in your intestines and stomach.

If you suffer from IBS, you should see your doctor if you have a continuous change in your bowel habits or if there are other signs like weight loss, diarrhea at night, iron deficiency anemia, rectal bleeding, difficulty swallowing, unexplained vomiting, and a continual pain that isn’t calmed down by passing gas or having a bowel movement.

Another possible related intestinal disease is celiac disease. Almost 3 million Americans have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease triggered by eating gluten. Gluten is a protein found most commonly in wheat, barley, and rye. It is the protein that makes dough elastic and chewy.

Symptoms of celiac disease include abdominal pain, nausea, anemia, headaches or general fatigue, bone or joint pain, weight loss, and heartburn. Sound familiar? Celiac disease also destroys the villi in our small intestine. Without fully functioning villi, nutrients in the food you eat cannot be absorbed into your bloodstream. Instead, nutrients just pass through your intestine and are expelled.

Donna Gregory Burch, a columnist, was one of those people who had IBS and celiac disease symptoms with her fibromyalgia diagnosis. She was told to go on a gluten-free diet to improve her symptoms. Her first response? "Fibro can be a living hell of pain and fatigue and everything else. I've already given up part of my life because of this horrible condition. You want me to give up donuts and cake and yeast rolls too? Are you kidding me? My sweet treats are one of the only things that make life bearable!"

Grumbling about her new anti-inflammatory, gluten-free diet, Donna tried it for a couple of months but allowed herself to cheat and eat a gluten-filled snack once a week.

The results? Her doctor scolded her and let her know that by eating gluten once a week her body could not properly heal. She needed to go on a strict gluten-free diet to allow her body to absorb the nutrients from healthy foods. She listened, and after three weeks of not eating gluten, her fibromyalgia pain levels decreased. She had more pain-free days than usual.

Donna felt great, believed in her doctor, and then she cheated. She unknowingly ate salmon with tarragon sauce. On her way home from the restaurant, she became dizzy and nauseous. She immediately knew that she had eaten something with the gluten protein in it.

Donna’s doctor explained that when you eat gluten all the time the body tries to compensate for it. You will feel bloated or tired, and have acid reflux or nausea. However, when you detox from gluten, your body is used to not having the protein, and it reacts strongly if you again eat gluten.

Donna’s realization? The tarragon sauce on the salmon had been thickened with gluten-laden flour. Donna went to bed thinking that it would soon pass, but a pulsating pain came over her entire body. Every part of her body ached with fibro pain.

She found that, although bread and plates of pasta would give her an energy boost, they would also spike her blood sugar and bring on fibro pain.

Studies of Fibromyalgia and Gluten-Sensitivity

In a study done in Spain, about 7% of the patients who had IBS and fibromyalgia also had undiagnosed celiac disease, which is an intolerance to gluten. They needed to change their lifestyles and diets in order to heal their bodies. These patients began to follow a gluten-free diet and quickly experienced changes in their pain levels as well as their digestive health.

Even if you are not diagnosed with celiac disease, and you have fibromyalgia, gluten may still be the reason you have severe fibromyalgia pain. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is being recognized as an actual medical condition causing digestive problems and pain all over. If you do not have diagnosed celiac disease, eat gluten and have symptoms of muscle and joint pain, fatigue, neurological and psychological symptoms you can have gluten sensitivity with your fibromyalgia.

A study in 2013 that included seven fibromyalgia patients with celiac disease found that a gluten-free diet "can simultaneously improve celiac disease and irritable bowel disease/fibromyalgia symptoms and indicate the merit of further research on a larger cohort."

In a 2014 study, 20 people who had fibromyalgia, but did not have celiac disease, were asked to eat a gluten-free diet. The results were astounding:

  • All patients had a decrease in pain,
  • 15 of the 20 participants experienced pain that was not widespread or chronic,
  • 15 patients returned to work and a healthy lifestyle,
  • Three patients who used opioid painkillers for their fibromyalgia pain completely went off their pain meds,
  • Two patients who had psoriatic arthritis went into remission.

Many of the study participants had improvement in symptoms within a month after they stopped eating gluten. For other participants, the results were more gradual but equally as dramatic after they went on gluten-free diets.

However, some of the patients returned to eating gluten after the study. Their pain and digestive symptoms came back with a vengeance.

Another study conducted on 97 fibromyalgia patients with irritable bowel syndrome followed a gluten-free diet for one year. They had a small but very significant improvement in fibromyalgia and IBS symptoms. Study conductors determined that more testing needed to be directed.

Many studies link gluten, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome. With this in mind, it makes sense that if you have a diagnosis of fibromyalgia you may need to be tested for celiac disease and gluten allergies. Wait for testing to come back before you go on a gluten-free diet and then discuss the options with your doctor and a nutritionist.

These are just a few and very small studies, but they are significant. What if giving up gluten-laced products gave you a decrease in fibromyalgia pain? Like Donna, would you be a believer in the benefits of being gluten-free?

It’s not easy to go gluten-free especially when there is temptation all around you. You see yummy bread in the bakery window. Birthday cake and hamburgers on a bun. Even cheese pizza is fantastic but full of gluten. Think of the alternative. By not eating gluten products, you can go through a day without increased fibromyalgia pain.