How targeted nutrition can affect your pain experience

Epigenetics: it’s a bit of a buzzword floating around at the moment, but what does it actually mean, and what does it have to do with chronic pain? Why do you need to know about chronic pain and epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of how environmental factors influence what genes your body ‘’decides to express’’. We all know about our genes – in fact we often resign ourselves to a medical condition or symptom because it’s ‘’in our genes’’. However, it’s also the case that you can have the gene for something but not get the disease. This is because of epigenetics – the way our environmental influences affect our gene expression.

These environmental factors are not just the obvious ones: exposure to radiation from a nuclear disaster, exposure to chemicals in a factory accident, exposure to too many UV rays sunbaking on the beach. Environmental factors start in utero (that is, as a baby in the womb), and don’t stop as long as you are still breathing!

One important chemical processes in our cells that influence epigenetics is DNA methylation. The effects of diet on DNA methylation have been well studied. Your ‘’methylation status’’ greatly affects your likelihood of developing certain conditions that may be ‘’in your genes’’, such as heart disease, cancer and depression. The field of nutrition medicine (practised at Equilibria) focuses on optimising individual health via nutrition, and optimising methylation status is one way we do this.

A 2012 study in the journal Pain Medicine discussed the role of methylation and other epigenetic processes in chronic pain. Specifically, it focussed on how acute pain (which is normal in healing) turns into chronic pain (which is a living nightmare for millions of people). How does epigenetics affect whether your pain will hang around and turn ugly?

Here are three mechanisms whereby improving your epigenetics (such as via nutrition) can reduce the transition of acute pain to chronic pain:

  • By altering your sensitivity to opioids, your natural pain-relieving chemicals
  • By altering the production of inflammatory chemicals, called ‘’cytokines’’
  • By altering how responsive your cells are to steroids (important hormones, such as vitamin D – so there’s a clear nutritional lead already!)

As a physiotherapist and nutrition medicine practitioner immersed in chronic pain, I treat people every day with chronic pelvic pain using not just physical techniques alone, but targeted nutrition strategies. It seems that research is heading more into this area. In the meantime, has your pain been affected by your nutritional status? I would be interested to hear people’s personal stories.


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