Over 6 million Americans suffer from fibromyalgia symptoms, and 90 percent of fibromyalgia sufferers are women. It’s still up for debate why far more women get fibromyalgia than men. Some healthcare professionals claim it’s due to decreased serotonin levels in the brains of women.
Unfortunately, people suffering from fibromyalgia struggle with pain, fatigue, depression and other common fibromyalgia symptoms prior to diagnosis. (1)
Much like other chronic conditions, including adrenal fatigue, chronic fatigue syndrome and several rheumatoid conditions, there is not an immediate cure to relieve the often debilitating symptoms. In fact, these conditions share many of the same symptoms and, for some individuals, may occur in tandem.
Common Fibromyalgia Symptoms
The severity of fibromyalgia symptoms varies from person to person, and often, symptoms disappear and then return. Fibromyalgia is characterized by long-term and widespread pain in muscles and connective tissues, without any specific cause.
Research has shown that fibromyalgia may actually amplify pain by affecting the way the brain processes pain signals. (2) In addition to pain, common fibromyalgia symptoms include:
- Memory issues
- Sleep disorders
- Cramping in the lower abdomen
- Tender points
- Chronic pain
- Fibro fog
Are these symptoms of fibromyalgia chronic? In many cases, yes. And while the pain associated with fibromyalgia is challenging for many, “fibro fog” and sleep disorders add to this challenging diagnosis. Sleep disorders are common and may include sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome. Not getting enough sleep contributes to diminished cognitive functioning, depression and anxiety.
In addition, some patients experience morning stiffness, numbness or tingling in the extremities, as well as a heightened sensitivity to loud noises, bright lights and temperature. (3a) Some patients also experience fibromyalgia with other co-existing conditions including TMJ (temporomandibular joint dysfunction), endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome, tension headaches and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Meanwhile, fibromyalgia syndrome (FMS) is a form of fibromyalgia “where pain and stiffness occurs in muscles, tendons, and ligaments throughout the body, accompanied by other generalized symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disruption, mood disorder and cognitive difficulties.” (3b)
Causes of Fibromyalgia Symptoms
It can be difficult to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, as there isn’t a definitive laboratory test. While blood work and other tests may be ordered in order to rule out other conditions, doctors often rely on feedback they receive from the patient.
In general, patients must experience widespread pain or muscle aches that last for at least three months. A physical “tender point” examination may be conducted where the doctor presses 18 specific points to measure pain and tenderness. Tender points include neck, chest, arms, legs near the knee, at the waist and just below the buttocks. (4a)
Some fibromyalgia patients may actually suffer from neuropathy, as a study found that almost half of the patients suffered from small nerve fiber neuropathy. (4b) That is simply nerve pain that is caused by damage to the small nerves which carry pain and other signals from your skin to your brain. Therefore, neuropathic fibromyalgia may be more common than previously known.
While there is neither a definitive nor singular cause for fibromyalgia, it’s been linked to the following (7):
- Allergies to chemicals
- Food sensitivities or allergies
- Hormonal imbalances
- Poor digestion
- Candida overgrowth
- Spinal misalignments
- Neurotransmitter deficiencies
Risk factors for fibromyalgia include genetics, being female, and rheumatoid arthritis or lupus. For some individuals, symptoms begin after a significant psychological stress event, infection, surgery or other physical trauma. Others may have no evidence of a triggering event, and the fibromyalgia symptoms have just accumulated over time. (8)
More recently, one 2017 study found that patients with fibromyalgia (FM) have brains with abnormal hypersensitivity, otherwise known as explosive synchronization (ES). Researchers from the University of Michigan and Pohang University of Science reported that the hypersensitivity fibromyalgia patients experience may be a result from the hypersensitive or hyperactive brain networks.
Researchers analyzed the resting state electroencephalogram (EEG) — the test that records electrical signals of the brain — of 10 female fibromyalgia patients to examine well-known ES conditions within functional brain networks. Then, researchers tested whether a brain network model with ES conditions reacted to external disturbances or electrical stimulation. From this research, external disturbances greatly correlate with chronic pain intensity, and the data supports that networks with ES conditions are more sensitive to disturbances compared to brains without ES networks. Furthermore, explosive synchronization may be a mechanism of fibromyalgia brain hypersensitivity, according to the findings of the study. (5) The model of this test and research can assist future treatments of fibromyalgia that could potentially transform fibromyalgia hypersensitivity networks into stable networks using noninvasive brain modulation therapies. (6)
Treating Fibromyalgia Symptoms
Traditional treatment for fibromyalgia includes nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS), anti-seizure drugs, pain relievers and antidepressants. Lyrica (pregabalin) is one of the most common FDA-approved drug treatments for fibromyalgia. These commonly prescribed fibromyalgia medications don’t cure the disease, and taking them can cause potentially serious side effects.
NSAIDS can cause ulcers, bleeding in the stomach or intestines, digestive upset, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and even life-threatening skin reactions and allergic reactions. (9) While inflammation is a problem, there are better natural alternatives.
Side effects of prescription anti-seizure medications include liver failure, kidney stones, ovarian cysts, along with serious drops in white blood cells and number of platelets, aplastic anemia and cognitive function problems. (10)
Prescription antidepressants can cause weight gain, loss of sexual desire, fatigue, insomnia, blurred vision, agitation, irritability and anxiety. (11) Several of these potential side effects are similar to common symptoms of fibromyalgia. Several supplements are available to help relieve depression and anxiety (see below).
Treating fibromyalgia symptoms naturally requires a healthy diet, changes in lifestyle and complementary treatments. Since fibromyalgia can cause chronic pain and fatigue that is similar to arthritis, some experts may advise a fibromyalgia patient to see a rheumatologist. While there isn’t a cure yet, there are natural treatments that can help ease the symptoms and increase the quality of life for fibromyalgia sufferers.
Fibromyalgia Diet & Natural Treatment
Multiple clinical studies show that treating fibromyalgia symptoms requires a multi-pronged approach that includes changes in diet and nutrition. A collaborative study from researchers in Italy have found that fibromyalgia patients can benefit from specific dietary changes and nutritional supplementation.(12)
This study found that the elimination of gluten has the potential for improving symptoms of fibromyalgia. This result is echoed in another recent study published in Arthritis Research & Therapy, where researchers studied the effect of a one-year gluten-free diet in patients with co-occurring IBS and fibromyalgia. (13)
In fact, one of the subgroups in the study experienced significant improvement in all symptoms and an improvement in quality of life scores.
Of foods to avoid when treating fibromyalgia, gluten is obviously key. Researchers from both the studies above encourage more research and further study of recommended dietary and nutritional changes for fibromyalgia patients.
In addition to eliminating gluten, it’s essential to limit caffeine intake, as it can contribute to restless sleep and insomnia, anxiety, muscle tremors and depression – many of the symptoms fibromyalgia patients experience everyday.
Remember, caffeine lurks not only in coffee, tea and colas but also in energy drinks, non-cola flavored sodas and even some over-the-counter pain medications. Currently, the FDA doesn’t require caffeine to be listed on nutrition labels. This makes it difficult for individuals trying to limit or avoid caffeine.
Be mindful of chocolate bars, as some manufacturers add caffeine to their recipe, as well as diet pills and some deceptive processed foods marketed as “perky” or “morning spark.”
I recommend to all my patients to avoid artificial sweeteners at all costs. Made from dangerous chemicals, many common artificial sweeteners on the market today contain compounds linked to cancer, thyroid conditions, memory loss and seizures.
When fighting the symptoms of fibromyalgia, it’s important to not stimulate further complications and medical conditions. Reducing your body’s toxic burden by eliminating gluten, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, processed foods and partially hydrogenated oils and trans fats, you can make a difference in how you feel and in your quality of life.
Foods to Include in a Fibromyalgia Diet
Now let’s look at a healthy fibromyalgia diet. Replace the foods mentioned above with nutrient-dense clean proteins, raw dairy, fermented foods, organic fruits and vegetables and other foods listed in my healing foods diet.
Many fibromyalgia patients have underlying nutritional deficiencies and may be deficient in key nutrients including vitamins B12, C, and D, as well as folic acid and the essential mineral magnesium. The goal is to reduce inflammation and build the body’s natural defenses. Simply put, this requires a change in diet, a radical change for some people.
Magnesium-Rich Foods: Include lots of green leafy vegetables, pumpkin seeds, yogurt or kefir, almonds, and avocados in your diet to increase magnesium levels. Aim for a minimum of three servings a day of these foods to help ease the pain and discomfort associated with fibromyalgia. (14)
Melatonin-Rich Foods: As sleep disorders are common among fibromyalgia symptoms, increasing the sleep hormone melatonin is recommended. Melatonin supplements are considered generally safe, but it can interact with certain medications, including immunosuppressants, birth control pills, anticoagulants and diabetic prescriptions. (15)
Fortunately, there are many foods you can eat to get the melatonin you need! Melatonin-rich foods include the following:
- Tart/Sour Cherries and Cherry Juice
- Mustard Seed
- Fresh Mint
- Red Wine
Studies show that deficiencies in zinc, magnesium and folate are linked with lower melatonin levels.(16) This is why it’s essential on a fibromyalgia diet to eat foods rich in essential nutrients.
Foods High in Tryptophan: Tryptophan is needed by the body to produce serotonin, which is associated with restful sleep. When people think of tryptophan, they often think of turkey but there are other healthy foods with high tryptophan levels — including nuts, grass-fed dairy, wild fish, free-range chicken, sprouted grain, and sesame seeds — that can help you sleep.
Coconut Oil: Replace all unhealthy fats with coconut oil. Incorporate three to four tablespoons per day into your diet to help reduce joint pain, balance hormones, improve memory and overall brain function.(17)
Fermented Foods and Drinks: Kombucha and other fermented products help to restore a healthy floral balance to the gut. As many sufferers of fibromyalgia also have IBS, it’s important to improve digestion. Sauerkraut and kefir should also be incorporated to the fibromyalgia diet to help relieve ‘fibro fog,’ aches and pains.
Wild Fish: Salmon and tuna are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids and other essential vitamins and minerals. For people with fibromyalgia and other rheumatoid conditions, wild fish and fish oil are essential. In fact, omega-3 supplements can curb stiffness, joint pain, lower depression and improve mental skills. (18)
Turmeric: Add freshly grated turmeric (or curcumin) to your favorite recipes. Curcumin is the active ingredient renowned for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. To help the body absorb it properly, it’s important to consume turmeric with black pepper.
Ginger: This proven strong anti-inflammatory spice helps to relieve pain. In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study in Miami, researchers found study participants given ginger experienced a greater reduction in knee pain than those given acetaminophen. (19)
The group receiving the ginger extract did experience more stomach upset than those receiving the acetaminophen, although digestive upset was mild. Add fresh ginger to salad dressings, marinades and other favorite recipes.
Natural Treatments for Fibromyalgia
Since there is no magic pill that can cure fibromyalgia symptoms, according to Mark J. Pellegrino, MD of Ohio Pain and Rehabilitation Specialists, “A balanced approach is important.” (20)
A healthy diet, lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements are all part of the equation for fighting the symptoms of fibromyalgia.
Here are today’s best supplements for battling fibromyalgia:
Acetyl L-carnitine (1500 mg/day): A small randomized trial tested acetyl L-carnitine and prescription duloxetine (Cymbalta) in 65 women with fibromyalgia. While both led to a general clinical improvement, the study found that the acetyl L-carnitine may improve depression, pain and the overall quality of life in fibromyalgia patients. (21)
Magnesium (500 mg/day): As mentioned above, magnesium deficiencyis often linked to fibromyalgia. Increasing magnesium can help to reduce pain and tenderness. In addition, it helps to increase energy and reduce both anxiety and depression.
Fish Oil (1000 mg/day): Fish oil supplements replace omega-6 fatty acids in the brain with healthy omega-3s. (22) Fish oil is one of nature’s richest sources of omega-3 fatty acids and can help relieve anxiety, depression and improve brain function.
Turmeric & Black Pepper Combo (1000 mg/day): As mentioned above, it’s important to take it with black pepper. Fortunately, there are high-quality combination supplements available. A study recently published in Clinical Nutrition found supplements containing curcuminoids and piperine significantly improves inflammation and oxidative status. (23)
Vitamin D3 (5,000 IU/day): A deficiency in vitamin D is associated with chronic pain in some individuals. One small study found the control group that received the vitamin D supplementation experienced a marked reduction in pain. (24) Researchers believe larger studies are warranted.
Rhodiola and Ashwagandha (500-1000 mg/day); Anxiety, exhaustion, stress and hormone imbalances are common in fibromyalgia patients. Together, these two adaptogens work together to help the body effectively respond to stress.
5-Hydroxytryptophan/5-HTP (50 mg 1-3 times/day): 5-HTP may help to increase deep sleep, while relieving pain. It works by supporting healthy serotonin levels in the brain. It’s made in the body from tryptophan, but is not found in foods high in tryptophan. Supplementation is necessary.
According to a small placebo-controlled study for fibromyalgia and 5-HTP, symptoms of fibromyalgia can be improved with supplements. (25) Supplements of 5-HTP are made from the Griffonia simplicifolia seeds and are safe for most individuals.
Lifestyle Changes for Fibromyalgia
The potential for lifestyle changes to help fibromyalgia symptoms cannot be glossed over. Nonmedical intervention is necessary to relieve symptoms, including a healthy fibromyalgia diet and supplements. Chiropractic care, reducing stress, regular exercise, acupuncture and massage therapy can all be helpful.
Regular Moderate Exercise: For many people in the midst of a fibromyalgia flare, the last thing that sounds appealing is exercise. That is understandable considering the pain and exhaustion. However, regular moderate exercise that includes walking, swimming, biking, yoga and Pilates can help relieve stress and pain.
A study published in the Archives of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation found a strong relationship between physical fitness and fibromyalgia. Higher physical fitness levels are consistently associated with less severe symptoms in women. (26)
Yoga: An eight-week study considering the benefits of yoga in pain relief found that 75-minute yoga sessions, twice per week, reduces pain. In addition, it altered total cortisol levels in women with fibromyalgia and increased mindfulness.(27)
Acupuncture: For over 2,500 years, acupuncture has been used to relieve pain, increase relaxation and so much more. A small study has found that acupuncture is a proven, safe and effective treatment for the immediate reduction of pain in patients with fibromyalgia.(28)
Researchers believe that acupuncture works by restoring normal balance in the body and pain relief comes from the opioid peptides released during the session. Many believe this is the body’s natural response for managing pain. When systems are off-balance and energy isn’t flowing properly, acupuncture can help.
Massage Therapy: Regular massage reduces heart rate, relieves pain, improves range of motion, and lessens anxiety and depression. Weekly massages are recommended for continued relief.
Manual Lymph Drainage Therapy: A small study published in the Journal of Manipulative & Physiological Therapeutics found that MLDT helps moves lymph fluid through the body eliminating toxins and waste in fibromyalgia patients. (29)
Clearing the body of toxins helps to stimulate healing and can relieve many of the symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.
Essential Oils: Essential oils are effective for treating a wide array of conditions and symptoms, including relieving stress and reducing pain. Helicrysum oil is shown to improve circulation, support the healing of nerve tissue and decrease muscle pain. Combine with coconut oil and massage into sore areas.
Lavender oil is known to help relieve emotional stress, improve sleep and reduce anxiety. Use in a homemade muscle rub to relieve pain and in a diffuser in the bedroom to help improve the quality of sleep.
Moist Heat: Moist heat boosts the blood flow to areas of the body in pain, providing relief. Warm baths (with a few drops of essential oils), showers and moist heating pads can help when in pain.
Get Some Sun(!): Aim for a minimum of 10-20 minutes of sunshine each day to naturally increase vitamin D levels. It’s important during the sun exposure to not wear sunscreen, as it can prohibit the rays of sunshine you need.
The big challenge in fibromyalgia treatment is keeping hope alive. Researchers are striving to find the answers needed to treat this debilitating condition. Many of the world’s leading researchers are considering natural fibromyalgia treatments; we have highlighted many of them here.
Consistently, healthcare professionals across the globe recommend complementary treatments that include diet, lifestyle changes and natural supplements. Continue to read about it at the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases (NIAMS). The key is to find the right combination of these elements that works to help you relieve your fibromyalgia symptoms.