Fibromyalgia (FM) is the chronic pain blight of the 21st century. While FM symptoms were first confirmed in the 1980s and diagnosis guidelines outlined in the 1990s, it’s really in the last twenty years that fibromyalgia has taken hold across the Industrialised West. In the United States alone, there are approximately 10 million sufferers and globally the condition is estimated to affect between 3-6% of the population. Prescription painkillers or anti-inflammatory medication is the norm for most FM patients, but many are increasingly looking for a more chemical-free approach. Here are 5 effective natural ways to heal fibromyalgia.
What is Fibromyalgia?
Fibromyalgia is characterised by debilitating pain experienced throughout the body. Statistically more prevalent in women, it is often accompanied by fatigue, sleep disruption, IBS, low mood, and anxiety. Scientists now believe FM patients share an oversensitivity to pain, because of increased sensory processing.
However, no one really knows what causes fibromyalgia to take hold. Stress seems to be a factor, as is unprocessed childhood trauma. In fact, a difficult or traumatic childhood is now considered a risk factor for getting fibromyalgia in later life.
It’s common for fibromyalgia patients to be prescribed painkillers of anti-inflammatory medication to control their chronic pain. Other drugs include Lyrica, Cymbalta and Savella. But what can you do if you’d like to take a more natural approach to healing fibromyalgia?
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1. The Fibromyalgia Diet
Fibromyalgia is intrinsically linked to inflammation in the body, so for someone with a recent FM diagnosis, taking a good look at your diet is a good place to start. According to Dr Axe, certain foods are considered inflammatory, such as milk products, anything containing sugar, alcohol, coffee, and processed foods and should therefore be excluded in a FM diet. But there are also some whole foods that are not suitable for people with FM, like fructans (wheat, rye, garlic, and onion), galactans (legumes, lentils and soybeans), and fruit with stones (avocados, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, and plums).
Anti-inflammatory foods to include are vegetables (bok choy, carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, summer squash, and winter squash), certain fruit (bananas, berries, cantaloupe, grapes, honeydew melon, kiwi, kumquat, citrus fruits, pineapple, and rhubarb), protein sources (eggs, grass-fed beef and lamb, free-range chicken and turkey, wild-caught fish, and tempeh), breads and grains (Gluten-free oats, GMO-free corn, GMO-free rice, quinoa, sourdough spelt, gluten-free bread, and gluten-free pasta), plus nuts and seeds.
2. Dietary Supplements
Certain dietary supplements have been shown to help ease fibromyalgia symptoms. Top of the list is Magnesium Citrate. A study published in Rheumatology International found that a daily dose of 300 milligrams of magnesium citrate in female FM patients over an eight-week-period brought about an reduction in the number of tender points noted.
Vitamin D deficiency is also thought to be a common factor amongst FM patients. The easiest way to give your vitamin D levels a boost is by spending 20 minutes in the sun without any sunscreen. But for those of us not blessed with a sunny climate, vitamin D can be obtained from foods such as oily fish or a quality supplement.
As well as containing vitamin D, oily fish is a great source of essential fatty acids such as Omega 3, which is considered anti-inflammatory and great for brain function. If you are vegetarian, hemp seed oil is an alternative plant-based source of Omega 3 and 6.
3. CBD Oil
Which brings us smoothly on to CBD oil. Also derived from the hemp plant, CBD is a special compound, known as a cannabinoid, which has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. This is because CBD modulates the production of certain inflammatory proteins called cytokines, which are overproduced in certain autoimmune diseases. Not only that, CBD activates the TRPV-1 receptor, which mediates pain, inflammation and body temperature.
But there is another interesting reason why CBD oil may be effective for fibromyalgia and this relates to a potential deficiency in the body’s endocannabinoid system. Most of us, including many in the medical profession, have never heard of the endocannabinoid system. However, it is a scientifically proven cell communication network of cannabis-like chemicals, produced by the body and called endocannabinoids, and special receptor sites. Its role is to produce balance, or homeostasis, acting rather like a dimmer switch, turning up or down cellular activity as needed.
Unfortunately, the endocannabinoid system can itself become out of balance due to lifestyle factors such as stress, poor diet and sleep problems. When the endocannabinoid system becomes depleted, it is suggested that the body can become over-sensitive to pain. This has been termed Clinical Endocannabinoid Deficiency and is linked to conditions such as fibromyalgia, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, migraines, and Multiple sclerosis. The scientist who developed the theory, Ethan Russo, suggests patients with a sub-optimal endocannabinoid system should consider supplementing with phytocannabinoids from the cannabis plant, such as CBD.
So far, most published scientific papers have found improvements in fibromyalgia patients who have taken medical cannabis in general. But due to the limited legal access to medical cannabis worldwide, many patients are turning to legal CBD oil. In an interview with Endoca, Jo Allen, a British FM sufferer, shared her experience. “CBD has definitely helped,” says Jo. “I’m now off my sleeping tablets. It helped me through withdrawals from Oxynorm and has since helped me reduce them significantly. It is a gentle effect and it’s only when you look back you can say ohh right yes that is better.”
4. Mind-Body Approaches
Our minds and bodies are connected. While this is hardly news for most people, it doesn’t always filter down to our general health practitioners, who often just suppress physical symptoms with drugs.
However, mind-body approaches, such as yoga, meditation and tai chi, offer a way of calming the mind while at the same time having a better relationship with our bodies. There are also added physical benefits, such as improved flexibility, balance and strength. All of which make mind-body approaches of particular interest to fibromyalgia sufferers.
A recent study published in the British Medical Journal found tai chi, a gentle martial art combining flowing movements and balance with breath work, as good as, if not better than, aerobic exercise for people with fibromyalgia. Researchers even went as far as to suggest, “it may be time to rethink what type of exercise is most effective for patients".
Yoga, another mind-body approach incorporating physical postures called Asanas has also brought good results including improved pain, cognitive functioning and cortisol levels after FM patients took part in twice weekly 75 minutes yoga classes over eight weeks.
And finally, acupuncture, the use of needles in specific points of the body’s energetic meridian system, was found to reduce immediate fibromyalgia pain in a controlled, double blind placebo study published in Revista Brasileira De Reumatologia.
5. Heal Past Trauma Through Psychotherapy
In her eponymous ‘You Can Heal Life,’ the late Louise Hay explains how most of our physical illnesses relate to some kind of unprocessed emotion or trauma. She says very plainly: “If we are willing to do the mental work, almost anything can be healed.” Hay suggests that fibromyalgia is a consequence of rigid and stiff thinking, tension, fear, and holding on to the past and suggests the affirmation: ”I am relaxed and safe. My mind is flexible and peaceful, and so is my body. I am free of pain, and all is well!”
While this may seem like an all too simplistic answer, we do now know that unprocessed childhood trauma is a commonality amongst fibromyalgia patients. Indeed, a study by the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School found that 64.7% of fibromyalgia sufferers had a history of abuse (sexual and physical abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction) of greater than 48%, compared to average rate of childhood abuse within the general populace of 25%.
With unresolved trauma now considered a risk factor for developing fibromyalgia, it is little wonder that talking therapies like psychotherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy are investigated as novel ways to reduce FM symptoms. One such study tested a new type of protocol for unresolved trauma and chronic pain on 10 women with fibromyalgia, who had been unresponsive to prescription medication and had a history of trauma. In the therapy: “Some patients emotionally processed childhood trauma, others addressed avoided interpersonal patterns using assertiveness training and role plays, others had corrective experiences with the therapist to alter rigid interpersonal styles, and some brought in family members to experiment with new ways of communicating.” The results were promising: “Two patients showed substantial improvement, four made moderate gains, two showed modest improvement, and two did not benefit,” explained the researchers involved.
Telephone-based Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) was used in another pilot study. One third of fibromyalgia patients who received this form of talking therapy felt “much better” after a few months, with lead researcher Kevin Fontaine saying: “There’s no doubt that cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful in people managing chronic pain.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that with any health condition, a holistic approach is key - and this is particularly the case with fibromyalgia. It is too much to expect that just taking a pill will heal fibromyalgia, when other key contributing factors like unhealed trauma or chronic inflammation are not addressed. So if you are someone with fibromyalgia, be sure to consider all three pillars of your health; your mind, your body and your spirit, in order to give your whole self the best chance of recovery.