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Plant-Based Diets for Fibromyalgia

June 27, 2013 by Michael Greger M.D. in News with 15 Comments

Millions suffer from fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by months of widespread pain, often accompanied by fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, cognitive difficulties, headaches, low back pain, and other problems. Its cause is unknown and there is no known cure.

In terms of reducing pain and other fibromyalgia symptoms, according to the latest review,  “Vegetarian diets could have some beneficial effects.” Based on what kind of evidence? In my 5-min video Fibromyalgia vs. Vegetarian & Raw Vegan Diets I review the 20 years of science we have so far, in which vegetarian and raw vegan diets were put to the test.

Both vegetarian and raw vegan diets led to significant improvements in fibromyalgia symptoms, but what about just mostly vegetarian diets or mostly raw vegan diets? That was the subject of my 4-min. follow-up video Fibromyalgia vs. Mostly Raw & Mostly Vegetarian Diets. How plant-based does one’s diet need to be to effectively treat fibromyalgia?

The vegan “Hallelujah diet” appeared to perform the best. When the study was reviewed in the journal Current Rheumatology Reports, the editor noted that it had the most impressive results of any recent fibromyalgia treatment study—three times the improvement that the Mayo Clinic was reporting for their fibromyalgia program. True, it was not a double-blind placebo controlled study, but it’s difficult to design such a study when it comes to diet, since people tend to notice when they’ve been switched to a vegan diet!

Raw vegan diets seemed to help; mostly raw vegan diets seemed to help. Eating vegetarian worked; but what about just eating mostly vegetarian? That was the most recent trial. Fourteen fibromyalgia sufferers were put on a mostly vegetarian Mediterranean diet for two weeks and unfortunately did not see significant improvement.  Maybe the researchers didn’t give it enough time?

Other inflammatory conditions have been successfully treated with semi-vegetarian “flexitarian” diets, though, for example, Dietary Treatment of Crohn’s Disease. Cutting down on meat may also help reduce the risk of cataracts (Preventing Cataracts with Diet), obesity (Thousands of Vegans Studied), hypertension (Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death), metabolic syndrome (Metabolic Syndrome and Plant-Based Diets), and diabetes (How to Prevent Diabetes), though there does appear to be a stepwise drop in risk as one’s diet gets more and more centered around plant foods.

The bottom line is that the best science to date suggests a plant-based diet in its many forms, may help people with fibromyalgia. Just because it’s the best science we have, though, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily very good science. These were all small, poorly controlled, relatively short-term studies—but what’s the downside to giving it a try? Dietary surveys show that people with chronic widespread pain syndromes tend to eat pretty crappy diets, which helps explain their higher rates of other chronic diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease. Even if a healthy diet doesn’t help their fibromyalgia symptoms, at least it may prevent them from falling ill with something else. The last thing someone who feels miserable all day needs is another disease.

Why do plant-based diets help with chronic pain conditions? There may be a number of reasons why vegetarians only have about half the odds of being on painkiller drugs (see Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants). Potentially inflammatory compounds in animal products include Neu5Gc (The Inflammatory Meat Molecule Neu5Gc), endotoxins (The Exogenous Endotoxin Theory), and animal proteins (Diet & Rheumatoid Arthritis).

On the other hand maybe the potassium in plant foods modulates adrenal function? See my video Potassium and Autoimmune Disease. If it is the Anti-Inflammatory Antioxidants, then that could certainly help explain it. See Antioxidant Power of Plant Foods Versus Animal Foods. Either way, I would recommend trying giving a aspartame-free plant-based diet a try (see Aspartame-Induced Fibromyalgia).

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my 2012-2013 year-in-review presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

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Dr. Michael Greger

About Michael Greger M.D.

Michael Greger, M.D., is a physician, author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial. Currently Dr. Greger proudly serves as the Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States.

View all videos by Michael Greger M.D.

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  • Jessica Linn

    Just one problem with this… fibromyalgia is NOT an inflammatory disease.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      Though not traditionally recognized as such (since anti-inflammatory drugs don’t seem to help), new data (like the correlation of fibromyalgia pain with cytokine levels) do indeed suggest an inflammatory component.

      Thanks for leaving a comment Jessica!

  • Monique

    I deal with Lupus and Fibromyalgia. For a year and a half I adhere to the Hallelujah Diet and I can say without a doubt it was the best I felt in the last ten years. I am still a vegetarian, but processed foods are back to being a daily part of my diet. I am working hard to get back to no processed foods because I realize it is one of the keys to feeling better.

  • Catherine J Frompovich

    I think medicine needs to question the role and involvement of microwave frequencies in inflammatory disease and syndromes, since microwaves interact with human body tissue in various physiological ways.

  • Patricia Thompson

    Thank you Dr. Greger for the continued information. I am a 50 year old with Ehler Danlos Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. Over the last 15 years my health was on a downward spiral and despite years of specialists and medicines I was basically disabled. I did not work, I could not do any basic household chores , or garden, in fact I could barely stand to sit or stand for more than 30 minutes at a time. Sleep, what was that. The pain was so intense I had heart palpitations that I was told was a response to intense chronic pain. My liver developed issues as my weight went up and I used bottle after bottle of pain meds, advil, tylonel etc.
    Then I was told I was depressed because I showed my frustration and actually shed tears. I was angry that this was my life.. I started watching things like Forks over Knives, I found your website and others and then made a decision. I became my own specialist and slowly started switching to a plant based existence. I figured it was free to try, had no adverse side effects and was extremely more cost effective. I am now two months meat free, I use an occasional advil but am off all other meds except for a BP pill. for the past 6 months I have removed 90 % off the dairy from my life.. ( working on giving up that morning latte.) I have also removed the manufactured food items.
    The results 50 % of my pain is gone!!! I have returned to work!!!!! I have hope!!!! I did not think I was going to be alive in two more years now I think I will maybe be able to live again.

    While it is hard to learn to eat , cook , shop, change your life completely. And while I still have weight to lose and a liver to improve, high cortisol and many other damages I did to my body to reverse, I have hope. My daughter said to me, “Mom we went to the movie and you could walk and you were not crying from pain when we left,” a small thing to many but huge to someone who has lived with this pain.

    So thank you for all the information and know you are changing peoples futures. Anyone in pain please try getting off meat and dairy and learning what healthy foods to replace them with… you may just get your life back.
    Patricia Thompson

    • kathi richards

      Patricia, you brought tears to my eyes with your story of how you are healing you. If only more people with chronic issues would just try a plant based diet. Have you read “The China Study”? Blessings.

      • Patricia Thompson

        Kathi, I have recently started to read it. I have family members who still do not believe this, even though they watched what I described as my death inch by inch. My eldest had been a vegetarian for several years and I did not listen to her so I understand it is a personal journey for everyone. My youngest and I are now together on the journey as I passed my EDS on to both of my children. I believe they will have a better life than I had. There is nothing to lose by trying it, people just have to be willing to accept that what we grew up believing was wrong. I think if more people tried this most of us could obtain health and not be dependent on “medication”. Thank you for the kind words and better health to all.

    • Lawrence

      Congratulations on your success and thank you for sharing your story. I am sure it will encourage many to try a plant based diet. So, you have only helped yourself but helped others as well.

      • Patricia Thompson

        Lawrence , That would be a wonderful outcome. It is so hard to even think, let alone try and gather the right information when you are in pain or ill. My family lost so much while trying to get answers both financially and to our quality of life, I pray that others will find the information and just approach it with an open mind as I feel so many could be healed so easily.

  • LynnCS

    After a lifetime of all over body pain, and all that comes with it, I am getting some relief by cleaning up my “vegetarian” diet and adopting the McDougall way of eating….except, I am abstaining from the nightshades and gluten, for now. I have to find some answers. I’ve taken a lot of meds and had periods of a couple years at a time mostly in bed. It’s miserable for sure. Having said that, the ordinary veg diet which included all the good whole foods, but some refined and processed foods, prepackaged meals, chips, and dairy….I just couldn’t get better. Coffee is also a problem and so once again, I am weaning off coffee. Not only is the pain of the Fibromyalgia better, but all the other things that go along with it are better and the depression is lifted. I have been able to get off all meds except a single dose of Armour thyroid. I don’t know what it takes for any of us to get IT, but I hope and pray that I never go back to my old eating habits. Love my whole foods. Mostly I love that I can be in so much less pain.

  • TheGardenAddict .

    I am a massage therapist and
    nutritionist. I have worked with many people with fibromyalgia. I used to have
    it and my sisters each have autoimmune diseases. One has rheumatoid arthritis
    and one has lupus. Obviously there is some kind of inherited tendency toward
    inflammatory conditions. I was actually vegetarian when I had the worse
    symptoms of fibromyalgia. I don’t think the
    vegetarian diet caused the problem but I do think that eating grains played a
    role. I went on a raw vegetarian diet starting with a month long juice fast
    that included some soy protein powder from Shaklee. I also started taking food
    based supplements, including lots of garlic.. This saved my life since doctors
    thought I was crazy at first and then diagnosed me with FMS only to prescribe
    anti-depressants. I only took one pill and decided I needed to find a more natural
    way to regain my health since their approach disconnected me from my body and
    did not solve the problem.

    This was over 20 years ago and I now understand better what
    happened. I had Lyme disease all along that was missed the three times that I
    was tested. This challenged my immune system that would normally destroy
    bacteria that should not be in my gut. I developed small intestinal bacterial
    overgrowth. (I would say that about 90% or more of my clients who have FMS have
    SIBO). Going vegetarian improves the gut biome and takes away the possibility
    of undigested meat protein that feeds bad gut bacteria. Going raw vegan takes
    away wheat that also often feeds the bad bacteria and the foods that cause
    inflammatory responses due to leaky gut (grains and dairy). Raw fruits and
    vegetables add much needed antioxidants while not promoting inflammation. Live
    foods have so many benefits that I won’t elaborate upon here. I have found the
    fastest treatments to include reducing inflammation, eating mostly raw and
    vegan (I test for food sensitivities), and treating dysbiosis with herbs,
    fermented food, probiotics and proteolytic enzymes. I also often find heavy
    metal toxicity and so I give nutrients to increase glutathione and metallothionein
    production. Some clients eat a very
    small amount of pasture raised meats and wild caught fish after a number of
    months of the vegan diet and they still keep the pain at bay. The founders of
    the Hallelujah diet are massage clients of mine and are doing a great service
    for improving people’s health. I am part of a raw food movement that started
    over 30 years ago following the teachings of Adi Da based on the books, “The
    eating Gorilla Comes in Peace,” and the “Green Gorilla.”

    Currently, I am helping my sister with RA to treat it with a
    raw vegan diet. She did not listen to me years ago and has been on the usual
    drugs for RA. Enbrel and Methotrexate landed her in the hospital for a month
    with a severe lung infection and congestive heart failure that nearly killed
    her. Instead of drugs, she now has a vita mix blender and is making her green
    smoothies.

    • TheGardenAddict .

      I forgot to mention that I also treat for mitochondrial dysfunction with Co-enzyme Q10, and methylated B-vitamins. I do not supplement with L-carnitine but some people need more for their mitochondria, which is the reason for some red meat and salmon in the diet.

  • Evelyn

    Just on my own I have noticed less pain since I quit eating meat about 3 months ago. Not taking my pain pill nearly as often altho I’m still dealing with the headaches (generic med on that)

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