Millions suffer from fibromyalgia, a condition characterized by months of widespread pain, as well as “fatigue, sleep disorders, depression, anxiety, [cloudy thinking], headaches, low back pain,” and other illnesses. It “has an enormous impact on the quality of life…of patients who [may] experience a reduced…capacity to carry on the activities of daily living; every day activity becomes more difficult, more time consuming, or simply impossible.” Its cause is unknown, and there is no effective treatment for this illness.
What can we do for those who suffer? Well, according to the latest review on fibromyalgia and nutrition, a vegetarian diet “could have some beneficial effects.” But, based on what kind of evidence? Well, back in 1991, a survey was sent to a few hundred folks suffering from various chronic pain conditions, including fibromyalgia, asking if they found any success trying different diets. Some folks tried a vegetarian diet; some folks tried a vegan diet. Some reported the various diets helped with pain, stiffness, and swelling.
Vegan diets were reported to reduce disease symptoms more effectively than the vegetarian diet, with rheumatoid arthritis. But, what we needed was to put these diets to the test, in formal studies. First one was in ’93; ten fibromyalgia patients were put on a vegetarian diet for three weeks. The measured levels of oxidation, and inflammation, and cholesterol went down; no surprise.
But, “[o]f interest from a clinical point of view is the positive effect of the treatment upon pain status of most of the patients.” Seven out of ten felt better. They weren’t sure if it was the improved condition of the fibromyalgia patients in this course of treatment with a vegetarian diet, whether it was due to the improvement of their antioxidant status, or what it was about a meat-free diet that seemed to help so much.
A vegan diet was first put to the test in 2000 in Helsinki. You can tell English is not the researchers’ first language, with sentences like “Plants face heavy load of light.” The point they’re making is good, though. “UV light generates [free] radicals in their tissues…All this means [is] that plants must be [very] well prepared to meet the challenges of the oxygen radical stress and contain a broad variety of antioxidant[s].” That’s why plants don’t get sunburned and their DNA damaged, hanging out all day in the sun without any sunblock on.
So, what would happen if you had people “live exclusively on plant items?” In other words, what might be the effects of a “strict vegan diet on the symptoms of fibromyalgia?” In fact, this study used a raw vegan diet. “The rheumatoid patients [said they felt better] when they started to eat [the] living food diet, and the symptoms got worse, when they returned back [to] their previous omnivorous diet.”
But, what about the fibromyalgia patients? “Both groups reported having quite a lot of pain at rest in the beginning of the study, but there was a significant decrease in the [raw vegan] group,” which [gradually] “disappeared after shifting back to the omnivorous diet.” They also found other significant changes, such as improvement in the quality of sleep, reduction of morning stiffness, and improvement in measures of general health.
So, for example, here’s morning stiffness. The light bar represents those about to go on the raw vegan diet, and the dark bar is the omnivorous control group. They started out about the same. But, after about a month and a half, those eating vegan felt significantly less stiff, which continued through the end of the three-month study. And, when they went back to eating their regular diet, the stiffness returned. What about pains at rest? Same thing. So, significant improvements in fibromyalgia stiffness, pain, and general health on a plant-based diet.
The study only lasted three months, but it can be concluded that eating vegan has “beneficial effects on fibromyalgia symptoms at least in the short run.”
- L.-I. Arranz, M.-A. Canela, M. Rafecas. Fibromyalgia and nutrition, what do we know? Rheumatol. Int. 2010 30(11):1417 – 1427
- K. Kaartinen, K. Lammi, M. Hypen, M. Nenonen, O. Hanninen, A. L. Rauma. Vegan diet alleviates fibromyalgia symptoms. Scand. J. Rheumatol. 2000 29(5):308 – 313
- M. Haugen, J. Kjeldsen-Kragh, B. Y. Nordvaag, O. Forre. Diet and disease symptoms in rheumatic diseases–results of a questionnaire based survey. Clin. Rheumatol. 1991 10(4):401 – 407
- A. T. Hostmark, E. Lystad, O. D. Vellar, K. Hovi, J. E. Berg. Reduced plasma fibrinogen, serum peroxides, lipids, and apolipoproteins after a 3-week vegetarian diet. Plant Foods Hum Nutr 1993 43(1):55 – 61
- O. Hänninen, K. Kaartinen, A.L. Rauma, M. Nenonen, R. Torronen, S. Hakkinen, H. Adlercreutz , J. Laakso. Antioxidants in vegan diet and rheumatic disorders. Toxicology 2000 155(1 – 3):45 – 53
Raw vegan diets seem to really help reduce fibromyalgia symptoms. But, what about just a mostly raw diet? That was tried next. “Fibromyalgia engulfs patients in a downward, reinforcing cycle of unrestorative sleep, chronic pain, fatigue, inactivity, and depression.” So, they “tested whether a mostly raw [and actually vegan] diet would significantly improve fibromyalgia symptoms.” And, boy, did it.
FIQ is the standard “survey designed specifically to measure the impact of fibromyalgia on a person’s life.” At the beginning of the study, they were doing pretty bad. By two months, though, they were doing significantly better. And, by the end of the study, at seven months, there were significant improvements in each one of these measures. So, less physical impairment; they were feeling better; less absenteeism; less pain, fatigue, stiffness, anxiety, depression.
“In summary, a diet intervention using a mostly raw, pure vegetarian diet produced dramatic improvements in [fibromyalgia syndrome symptoms].” When this study was reviewed by Current Rheumatology Reports, the editor noted that it “had the most impressive results” of any recent fibromyalgia treatment study—for example, nearly three times the improvement that the Mayo Clinic reported for their fibromyalgia program.
Yes, it was not a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. But, as they note, it’s difficult to design such a study when it comes to diet, since people tend to notice when they switch to a vegan diet.
So, raw vegan diets worked; mostly raw vegan diets worked. Even just eating vegetarian seemed to help. What about just eating mostly vegetarian? That was the one tried most recently. Fibromyalgia symptoms put on a mostly vegetarian diet for two weeks, and did not see any significant improvement.
Bottom line is that the best available science to date suggests eating plant-based diets, whether vegetarian or vegan, may help people with fibromyalgia.
- Høstmark AT, Lystad E, Vellar OD, Hovi K, Berg JE. Reduced plasma fibrinogen, serum peroxides, lipids, and apolipoproteins after a 3-week vegetarian diet. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 1993 Jan;43(1):55-61.
- Kaartinen K, Lammi K, Hypen M, Nenonen M, Hanninen O, Rauma AL. Vegan diet alleviates fibromyalgia symptoms. Scand J Rheumatol. 2000;29(5):308-13.
- Donaldson MS, Speight N, Loomis S. Fibromyalgia syndrome improved using a mostly raw vegetarian diet: an observational study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2001;1:7. Epub 2001 Sep 26.
- Bennett RM. A raw vegetarian diet for patients with fibromyalgia. Curr Rheumatol Rep. 2002 Aug;4(4):284.
- Holton KF, Kindler LL, Jones KD. Potential dietary links to central sensitization in fibromyalgia: past reports and future directions. Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2009 May;35(2):409-20.
- Vandenkerkhof EG, Macdonald HM, Jones GT, Power C, Macfarlane GJ. Diet, lifestyle and chronic widespread pain: results from the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study. Pain Res Manag. 2011 Mar-Apr;16(2):87-92.
- Lamb JJ, Konda VR, Quig DW, Desai A, Minich DM, Bouillon L, Chang JL, Hsi A, Lerman RH, Kornberg J, Bland JS, Tripp ML. A program consisting of a phytonutrient-rich medical food and an elimination diet ameliorated fibromyalgia symptoms and promoted toxic-element detoxification in a pilot trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 2011 Mar-Apr;17(2):36-44.
- Hänninen, Kaartinen K, Rauma AL, Nenonen M, Törrönen R, Häkkinen AS, Adlercreutz H, Laakso J. Antioxidants in vegan diet and rheumatic disorders. Toxicology. 2000 Nov 30;155(1-3):45-53.
- Michalsen A, Riegert M, Lüdtke R, Bäcker M, Langhorst J, Schwickert M, Dobos GJ. Mediterranean diet or extended fasting’s influence on changing the intestinal microflora, immunoglobulin A secretion and clinical outcome in patients with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia: an observational study. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2005 Dec 22;5:22.
- Arranz LI, Canela MA, Rafecas M. Fibromyalgia and nutrition, what do we know? Rheumatol Int. 2010 Sep;30(11):1417-27. Epub 2010 Apr 1.
- Haugen M, Kjeldsen-Kragh J, Nordvåg BY, Førre O. Diet and disease symptoms in rheumatic diseases–results of a questionnaire based survey. Clin Rheumatol. 1991 Dec;10(4):401-7.