Healthy lifestyle strategies to ease fibromyalgia symptoms
Fibromyalgia can be very challenging to deal with. Beyond the chronic pain and stiffness, there is fatigue, lack of sleep, and brain fog or “fibro fog.” Plus, it’s often associated with other issues related to mental health and gut health, making the management of symptoms more difficult. Self-care plays a key role in easing the symptoms. The good news is that there are specific steps you can take to help you manage your fibromyalgia.
Fibromyalgia: What it is
Fibromyalgia is one of the most common chronic pain conditions, affecting more women than men. In the U.S., it’s estimated that up to 7.7 percent of women and 4.9 percent of men experience fibromyalgia. These rates are higher than in Europe or South America.
Fibromyalgia is considered to be a “pain regulation” or “neurosensory” disorder because people with fibromyalgia seem to experience more pain and a higher intensity of pain than others, even under gentle pressure. Fibromyalgia causes pain or tenderness that is very sensitive to the touch, can happen just about anywhere throughout the body, and lasts days, weeks, months, or longer. This is thought to be because the brain becomes more sensitive to pain. Fibromyalgia pain can come and go throughout the body in “flares” and it often occurs along with stiffness, fatigue, brain fog -“fibro fog,” and mental health issues. It can feel debilitating and may cause a lot of distress.
Additional symptoms include:
- Sleep dysfunction
- Cognitive complaints
- IBS and irritable bladder
- Unusual sensory patterns (sensory dysesthesia)
- Exercise intolerance
Fibromyalgia: How it is diagnosed
There is no specific test for fibromyalgia. Rather, fibromyalgia is a diagnosed by excluding other conditions and meeting the following criteria:
- Generalized pain, defined as pain in at least 4 of 5 regions, is present.
- Symptoms have been present at a similar level of intensity for at least 3 months.
- Widespread pain index (WPI) ≥ 7 and symptom severity scale (SSS) score ≥ 5 OR WPI of 4–6 and SSS score ≥ 9.
A diagnosis of fibromyalgia is valid irrespective of other diagnoses. Similarly, a diagnosis of fibromyalgia does not exclude the presence of other clinically important illnesses.
Recent research looking into the composition of gut bacteria of individuals with fibromyalgia has identified distinct differences between the gut microbiome in individuals with fibromyalgia compared with those without this condition.
Fibromyalgia: Possible Triggers
The underlying cause of fibromyalgia is not known but triggering events or conditions have been thought to contribute to the development of fibromyalgia. The pain may be triggered and worsened by infections, injury, inflammation, or emotional stress.
Possible triggers include:
- Infection (viral, bacterial, parasitic, etc.)
- Head Injury
- Neurological injury
- Exposure to toxins
- Hormonal imbalances
- Poor mitochondrial function that leads to hypothalamic dysfunction
Fibromyalgia tends to occur in families, however no specific genes have yet been found that predispose someone to getting it. The risk for fibromyalgia is higher in people who experience other conditions such as chronic back pain, lupus, polymyalgia rheumatica, spondyloarthritis, osteoarthritis, inflammatory myopathy, systemic inflammatory arthropathies, hypothyroidism, endometriosis, and IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Fibromyalgia: Steps you can take to manage it
There are many things that you can do to help alleviate these symptoms and reduce the impact of fibromyalgia on your life. These include physical activities, dietary changes, supplements, sleep strategies, and stress management techniques.
While more research is underway, physical exercise is currently considered to be the most effective treatment for fibromyalgia. Cardiovascular fitness training (“cardio”) can ease symptoms by helping with pain and improving sleep. Ideally, doing 30 minutes of cardio three times each week is recommended. Low-impact exercises like walking, biking, stretching, yoga, tai chi, and water-based exercises are helpful.
If regular exercise feels like a lot, simply start low and go slow to create a comfortable routine. It may take time to build up your endurance and the intensity of physical activity that you can do. If you are new to exercise or have additional health conditions, it is best to consult your healthcare practitioner first before starting an exercise regimen.
Eating a healthy and nutritious diet is also highly recommended. While there currently isn’t a huge amount of strong evidence to recommend one specific dietary strategy to help with fibromyalgia symptoms, a few small studies show promising results for the following nutrition recommendations:
- If you are low in vitamin D, taking a supplement can help reduce fibromyalgia pain.
- Additional supplements that may help include Chlorella green algae, Coenzyme Q10, acetyl-L-carnitine, magnesium, iron, vitamins C and E, probiotics, and Nigella sativa (Black cumin) seeds.
- Different types of elimination diets have helped different people, such as the vegetarian diet (eliminates meat, poultry, and fish), vegan diet (eliminates all animal products including dairy and eggs), the low FODMAP diet (reduces intake of short-chain carbohydrates that are fermentable oligo-di-mono-saccharides and polyols), a low calorie diet (reduces calorie intake), gluten-free diet (eliminates the protein gluten), or a diet free from boh MSG (monosodium glutamate) and aspartame (an artificial sweetener).
- The Mediterranean diet has been shown to decrease fatigue and improve moods.
- The replacement of some foods may also help, including replacing non-olive oil fats with olive oil and replacing non-ancient grains with ancient grains such as Khorasan wheat.
Improving sleep patterns and sleep hygiene can also be very helpful if you’re dealing with fibromyalgia. For example, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day and limit stimulants like caffeine and nicotine as much as possible, especially in the evenings. Establish a relaxing nightly routine that may include reduced screen time, dimmed lights, soft music, meditation, and a warm bath. Also, keep your bedroom comfortable for sleeping by keeping it dark, quiet, and cool. If you suspect you may have a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, reach out to your healthcare provider.
Managing stress and moods can also help relieve symptoms. If you experience symptoms of fibromyalgia, pace yourself and balance your need to work and rest by taking breaks when necessary. Also, make time to relax each day and try deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness, and stress reduction techniques. If you feel lonely or isolated, consider joining a support group that you find to be positive and encouraging—one that shares helpful coping techniques.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (with a therapist or counselor) may help by focusing on how thoughts and behaviors affect pain and other symptoms. If you have any mental health concerns such as anxiety or depression, or have experienced significant trauma, seeking professional help is another very important aspect of self-care.
Fibromyalgia: The Functional Medicine approach to managing it
Functional medicine offers a unique approach to the caring for individuals with fibromyalgia. That’s because functional medicine addresses the root causes of fibromyalgia symptoms.
Important aspects of the care that functional medicine provides for fibromyalgia sufferers include:
- Restoring proper cellular metabolism
- Balance the endocrine system
- Correct nutrient deficiencies or functional insufficiencies
- Assess and reduce toxic load
- Assess and reduce oxidative stress and mitochondrial function
Looking for relief from fibromyalgia symptoms?
The functional medicine approach helps to identify the underlying factors that drive your symptoms so that balance and function can be restored to the affected systems in your body. Interested in learning how functional medicine can help you? Contact us!
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