Turning Down the Heat: Using Food to Reduce Pain and Inflammation



Inflammation is the body’s response to injury. It is a necessary part of the healing process. If you have an injury causing inflammation, there are a few things you should and probably shouldn’t do.

Inflammation: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The good: inflammation initiates the healing process and is usually self-limiting

The bad: the primary negative effect of inflammation is pain (tissue irritation)

The ugly: using NSAIDs to block pain disrupts the healing process and result in numerous side effects (see below)

Inflammation 101: Rubor, Calor, Dolar, Tumor (Redness, Heat, Pain and Swelling)

The process:

  1. Damaged tissues release chemicals that initiate repair by stimulating the immune system and initiating clotting;
  2. Tissue fluids and white blood cells move toward the damaged area;
  3. Free radicals are produced to stimulate white blood cell accumulation in order to fight bacteria and viruses;
  4. Vasoconstriction (closing) of vessels prevents the spread; and
  5. Vasodilation (opening) of blood vessels brings chemicals to site of injury.

Some of the chemicals involved in inflammation include histamine, tumor necrosis factor, eicosanoids (e.g. prostaglandins) and interleukin. I mention these so you can refer back when I talk about how food can affect inflammation.

Do you take anti-inflammatory medications when you have pain? If so, then read on…

Anti-inflammatory medications:

  • Impede tendon, bone and cartilage repair and delay muscle regeneration
  • May cause side effects including tinnitus, gastric irritation, GI upset and headaches

Used long-term, NSAIDs can lead to inadequately formed connective tissue that is easily re-injured and an increased risk of degenerative joint disease.

Many commonly used anti-inflammatory medications work by blocking enzymes and pro-inflammatory chemicals.  Did you know that certain foods can also affect these same pathways?

Got Pain? Eat these…


Extra-virgin olive oil (XVOO): 3 ½ tbsp = 200 mg Ibuprofen. XVOO contains polyphenols, which act as COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors.

Flaxseed oil: 1-2 tbsp oil or 1-2 capsules daily increase EPA, DHA & anti-inflammatory eicosanoids.

Walnuts:  1.5 oz walnuts/day increase anti-inflammatory prostaglandins PGE-1 and PGE-3.

Fruits & Veggies

Cherries: Drinking 24 oz tart cherry juice per day could reduce pain and damage in muscles induced by exercise.

Pomegranates:                 Drinking 8 – 12 oz. of pomegranate juice per day reduces pro-inflammatory cytokines and eicosanoids        .

Tomato Juice: 16 oz reduces inflammation by affecting TNF-α production.


Ginger: 5g of raw ginger or 0.1-1g of powdered suppresses pro inflammatory cytokines & chemokines.

Curcumin (as supplement 250-500 mg 3x/day between meals): A yellow pigment that is the active component of turmeric; decreases platelet aggregation, cytokines, kinases fibrinolysis and macrophage activity.

Quercetin (as supplement 400 mg 20 minutes before meals 3x/day):  Found in apples, onions, teas, berries, vegetables of the cabbage family, seeds, and nuts; acts as an antihistamine to reduce free radical activity.


Green tea: 36 oz/day contains EGCG, which down-regulates IL-8, macrophages & PGE-             

Dark chocolate: 100 g of dark (70%) chocolate contains polyphenols that increases antioxidant status before exercise and reduces levels of F2-isoprostane 1 hour after exercise.

Red wine: 1-2 glasses/day contain resveratrol, which reduces CRP.

Probiotics: 8 billion live active cultures twice daily; contains beneficial micro flora that balances activity of T-lymphocytes and reduces NF-kB and TNF-8. Check yogurt labels or use supplement.

 Is Organic Worth it?

The Environmental Working Group ( has created a list of foods with the most and least pesticides.

Pesticides increase inflammation because they cause cell damage and produce free radicals.

Dirty dozen* (these are the fruits and veggies you should buy organic whenever possible as they tend to be highest in pesticides): apples, bell peppers, blueberries, celery, cherries, grapes, kale, lettuce, nectarines, peaches, potatoes, strawberries

Clean 15* (these tend to be sprayed less or not at all): onions, avocados, corn, pineapples, mangoes, peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes, honeydew melon

What about food allergies/sensitivities?

Food allergies release pro-inflammatory chemicals, including histamine, chemotactic chemicals, enzymes and eicosanoids, which can result in pain.

While each person’s reaction to food is unique, common food allergies/sensitivities include milk, eggs, wheat, corn, tomatoes, soy, nuts, peanuts, shellfish/fish, citrus, food coloring and preservatives, coffee and chocolate.

10 Tips – What to Eat to Reduce Inflammation:

1.        A variety of fresh, whole, local, seasonal and organic foods

2.        Cold water fish

3.        Lean, free-range, 100% grass-fed meat

4.        Fiber from non-starchy vegetables and fruits

5.        Use XVOO, almond oil, walnut oil, avocado oil, coconut oil; avoid conventional, chemically processed cooking oils

6.        Flavor foods with spices and herbs (e.g. garlic, ginger, onion, turmeric, cayenne)

7.        Snack on raw nuts and seeds

8.        Avoid refined carbohydrates, sugar and high fructose corn syrup

9.        Opt for water or green tea when thirsty

10.      Identify and avoid food allergies/sensitivities

Anti-inflammatory recipes –  visit and click “Recipes”.

About the Author

Dr. Geoff LecovinNaturopathic Physician/Chiropractor/Acupuncturist/Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist/Corrective Exercise Specialist/Performance Enhancement Specialist/Certified Sports Nutritionist/View all posts by Dr. Geoff Lecovin