Although fibromyalgia is an often misunderstood disorder, around 5 million Americans currently suffer from this chronic condition. Fibromyalgia (FM) includes a range of shared symptoms, such as achiness, pain, fatigue, brain fog, depression, sleep disturbance, vague intestinal discomfort, and more. But people labeled as having fibromyalgia do not all have the same condition. As a result, they don't all respond to the same standard treatments.
However, no matter what the root cause of your symptoms may be, there are four major natural interventions that seem to help. When you suffer from any form of chronic pain, the last thing you need is an overly complex, hard-to-follow program that adds to your stress. This four-step plan is simple, and in just a few weeks, it can help reduce your pain and inflammation—whatever its cause—revive your low energy, and reintroduce movement in a safe, doable way. As a naturopathic doctor and the author of the new book The Fibro Fix, here's what I recommend:
1. A healthy, anti-inflammatory eating plan
Many pain syndromes are produced by some form of inflammation. Correctly diagnosed "classic" fibromyalgia is a problem arising from deep in the nervous system and brain that causes aberrant pain perception. While this condition is not overtly systemically inflammatory, new evidence has emerged indicating that there might be some accompanying inflammation within the microglia of the brain. It's also very common for people to either suspect or be told that they have fibromyalgia when in reality they do not have actual fibromyalgia but instead have other conditions that are commonly caused, at least in part, by significant inflammation. That is why removing foods that can lead to inflammation is key.
In my more than two decades of experience helping patients recover from an FM diagnosis, I've found that following a Paleo-style diet is often critical to a successful outcome. Focus on organic, fresh, and unprocessed foods and remove field-grass grains (including those containing gluten and gliadin), dairy, and legumes, which can lead to less inflammation and less pain perception.
2. A toxin-lowering lifestyle
Why should a program for chronic pain seek to address toxins? No matter how hard you try to avoid them, toxins are everywhere. As part of its own internal biochemistry, the body also produces toxins that must be cleared. Because of certain metabolic dysfunctions, people with chronic pain and fatigue produce more of these internal toxins while their mechanisms of elimination are often depressed.
And once these toxins, no matter the source, find their way into the body, they become trapped in the organs and tissues, where—among many other kinds of symptoms—they can cause the fatigue and achiness that people who are labeled with FM often experience. They also interfere with energy production at the cellular level. No wonder so many people feel tired!
Whatever the source, type, or cause of your specific pain syndrome, I find that a simple, safe, and effective detoxification program can be helpful. You don't have to do anything special. By eating only whole, fresh, organic foods and taking some detoxification supplements, such as N-acetyl cysteine (NAC) and glutathione, detox happens so gently most people don't even notice it. At the same time, there are some simple things you can do at home to help make detox easier, such as minimizing your use of plastics for food storage (no heating food in the microwave), avoiding the use of unfiltered tap or well water, and trying skin brushing and sauna therapy (if you have one).
3. Gentle exercise and movement
The third element of a successful program is movement—both exercise and relaxation. Not enough exercise on the one hand, and too much exercise on the other, can worsen pain syndromes. Some people also hope to restore their health through getting a lot of rest—but unless you have dealt with the causes of your condition, you can't rest and sleep your way out of chronic pain and fatigue.
Other people try to exercise their way out of chronic pain and fatigue syndromes. I've had patients who were training for triathlons! Not surprisingly, this left them more depleted and exhausted than before. You know the adage "No pain, no gain"? Forget it! It doesn't apply to you.
Instead, low- to moderate-intensity exercises and simple stretches, alternating with rest and relaxation on days when you are feeling fatigued, is the way to go when you are suffering from FM or another chronic pain and fatigue disorder. Exercise with an emphasis on mobility and stretching, using gentle movement exercises, as well as activities such as walking or yoga. But make sure not to engage in activities that overly tax your metabolic system, require a lot of exertion, or leave you out of breath. Instead, if you can tolerate it, jump on a rebounder (mini trampoline) for three to five minutes at a time.
4. Guided imagery.
Breaking out of your vicious cycle of pain and fatigue when you have FM isn't as simple as just putting on a happy face, or "faking it 'til you make it." Establishing new, helpful thought patterns requires time and dedication—but its benefits can be as profound.
Guided imagery is a powerful tool to help you reconnect with optimism, positive thoughts, and all the ways in which your body is working well. According to the Cleveland Clinic, "Guided imagery is a form of focused relaxation that helps create harmony between the mind and body. It's a way of focusing your imagination to create calm, peaceful images in your mind, thereby providing a 'mental escape.'" Research has shown that guided imagery can help reduce depression, pain, stress, and anxiety and deepen your sleep, increase relaxation, and enhance healing and quality of life.
You can harness the power of guided imagery anytime, anywhere, even in the midst of acute stress. It's simply a strategy to help you tune into the part of your mind that holds inner calm and joy. Imagine a relaxing, peaceful setting, and with the image in your mind, focus on your breathing, keeping it deep but calm and unhurried. Picture yourself in a calm and beautiful place. Now, in your imagination, try to incorporate input to all five senses. See the place, hear its natural sounds, feel the breeze on your skin, smell the nearby plants or flowers, taste the water in that nearby brook. Focus on slowing your heart rate and reducing musculoskeletal tension, as if your entire body has turned to Jell-O.