Woman suffering from back pain

Best Foods for Back Pain? Try Antioxidants

Best Foods for Back Pain? Try Antioxidants

By Megan Grant
Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

Did you know that a bad diet can be a real pain in the back…literally? It's true: What you include (or don't include) in your daily nutrition could have an impact on your lower back pain. A new study of nearly 18,000 participants published in BMC Public Health found a connection between reduced back pain and a higher intake of antioxidants like vitamins A, C, and E, along with minerals like selenium and zinc. And, sure enough, participants with the least amount of these antioxidants in their diets were most likely to report lower back pain.

More specifically, participants who consumed the most antioxidants were nearly 12% less likely to experience lower back pain than those who consumed the lowest amount of antioxidants. This association was even stronger for females: almost 20%.

Do antioxidants reduce pain?

How exactly are antioxidants able to have an impact on pain and discomfort? Well, we need to talk about inflammation first! Inflammation is a bit of a conundrum because it's good for your body when needed and bad when left unmanaged.

For example, let's look at how inflammation works in situations like an injury or arthritis. In both cases, inflammation causes increased blood flow that brings immune system cells to the problematic area. The increased blood flow and immune cells "deployed" are an important part of the healing process, but it can also cause pain signals to make their way to the brain. With an injury, even though the area becomes warm and sensitive to the touch, a healthy inflammatory response leads to healing.

But when your body is unable to resolve inflammation properly, injuries can heal poorly, and in other cases, inflammation can become a vicious cycle. For example, when your body deals with arthritis, the inflammation process is associated more with an overactive immune system than healing because the immune cells that are delivered to the area, like joints, can damage healthy tissue, increasing inflammation (and, of course, send pain signals to the brain).

While inflammation is necessary, certain antioxidants can help to take the edge off a little, helping the body better manage inflammation. For instance, vitamins C and E have anti-inflammatory properties that may (indirectly) contribute to pain relief. If you can reduce inflammation, you might be able to reduce pain.

Antioxidants and pain management

The research certainly is intriguing. One meta-analysis indicated that antioxidant intake might help alleviate pelvic pain from endometriosis. Another meta-analysis found that these antioxidants could support pain relief due to fibromyalgia. One review of antioxidants suggested that they could help prevent muscle damage and soreness—music to the ears of dedicated gym-goers who might sometimes overexert themselves! They may even help bring comfort to people dealing with chronic pancreatitis.

We want to note that correlation doesn't equal causation. While antioxidants may be helpful in certain cases, this most recent study of antioxidants and back pain was an observation, and it would be inaccurate to say that antioxidants can eliminate your back pain. It's a very complex and multifaceted relationship, so the best thing you can do is speak with your healthcare provider about determining the underlying cause of your pain and what the best treatment protocol is.

What antioxidant foods and vitamins are good for lower back pain?

So, you now understand that an anti-inflammatory diet may potentially provide lower back pain relief. What specifically should you be consuming? In general, aim for a diet that's rich in vitamins, minerals, healthy fats (like olive oil and avocados), and antioxidants. This is great for your overall wellness and could be useful for pain management as part of a bigger treatment plan.

More specifically, here are several things you might consider adding to your nutrition plan:

  1. Ginger: It has anti-inflammatory properties and the potential to reduce muscle pain after intense exercise. Try boiling it to make tea or use it in meat or rice recipes for a nice little kick and burst of flavor.
  2. Vitex negundo: Has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  3. Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA): This compound has well-documented anti-inflammatory effects that can aid in pain management, joint health, sleep, and recovery.
  4. Fiber: Adding this nutrient can help reduce inflammation, which may then help ease back pain. High-fiber foods include fruits (especially berries), vegetables (like leafy greens such as spinach, as well as broccoli), beans, and unprocessed whole grains, like quinoa, barley, and bulgar. Yes, carbohydrates can be good for you!
  5. Vitamins, especially vitamin D: The sunshine vitamin is an antioxidant and has anti-inflammatory effects. You can find it in mushrooms, salmon, sardines, and tuna. Other foods can help you get additional vitamins in your diet. For instance, yogurt has vitamins A, B, and B12. Citrus fruits and peppers are excellent for getting more vitamin C.
  6. Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3s can help reduce substances related to inflammation, like cytokines. Black sesame seeds are a rich source of antioxidants, perhaps because they contain healthy fatty acids. To get more healthy fats, look to fish (like salmon and sardines), nuts, seeds, and eggs.
  7. Turmeric: Turmeric's superpower is the curcumin it contains, which holds anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Many delicious recipes use turmeric, and you can even use it in tea or to make golden milk, which is said to have calming effects, making it great to sip on before bed.
  8. Boswellia: And last but certainly not least, Boswellia (native to India) can help inhibit pro-inflammatory enzymes in the body. Look for a high-quality dietary extract.

You might find the Mediterranean diet helpful if you're looking for a more holistic approach. That's because following this eating pattern (as closely as you can) has been associated with pain improvement, maybe because it focuses on plant-based food and incorporates healthy fats. It includes moderate amounts of dairy, eggs, poultry, and very little red meat. Pro tip: You can check if you have a nutrient imbalance with a lab test.

Vitamin D, 25-Hydroxy Blood Test

Lifestyle and lower back relief

It's a fact that focusing on healthy lifestyle habits can only help you in your pain management journey. For instance, whole foods will always trump overly processed foods because (among other reasons) the latter can change the bacteria in your gut, ultimately leading to inflammation.

However, do keep in mind that while lifestyle changes and a healthy diet might be enough for some people to experience pain relief, for others, medical intervention—in addition to a healthy lifestyle—might be needed. Pain management is highly individualized. Speak with your healthcare provider for more guidance!

Finally, we want to remind you that there is no such thing as the "perfect" diet. Trying to eliminate all packaged foods is nearly impossible these days because much of what we eat is processed to some degree. Additionally, you don't need to completely deprive yourself of the food you love unless you have a medical reason to do so. Rather, aim for progress over perfection, and pay close attention to how the food you eat makes you feel.



About Our Story Sources

The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.