Follow these rules of thumb to create a diet that can help ease fibromyalgia symptoms.

Alyssa Langer

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"Fibromyalgia" means pain of the muscles and connective tissue. However, this chronic pain disorder causes a wide variety of often debilitating symptoms, such as memory issues, muscle weakness and bowel disturbances. Treatment focuses on easing pain and improving quality of life, so a healthy, balanced diet is an important part of the overall lifestyle and treatment plan.

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What Is Fibromyalgia?

Fibromyalgia is a chronic disorder characterized by widespread pain, tenderness, fatigue and memory issues, as well as anxiety and depression. According to the Arthritis Foundation, fibromyalgia affects more than 3.7 million Americans. Middle-aged women are more likely to develop the condition, but men, younger women and children are also susceptible.

Symptoms and signs of fibromyalgia cannot be measured by tests or seen on any imaging tools, so a diagnosis is often difficult. Likewise, the condition is frequently misdiagnosed and improperly treated.

Unfortunately, fibromyalgia has no cure, but medications can help minimize symptoms and improve overall quality of life. Many individuals with the condition also find relief in lifestyle changes, including exercise, physical and/or occupational therapy, reducing stress and eating a healthier diet.

While a person's diet is not a direct cause of fibromyalgia, certain foods may help alleviate symptoms and other foods may trigger symptoms.

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These guidelines can help you structure a diet that may help ease symptoms of fibromyalgia.

Put Plenty of Plants on Your Plate

A small study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Rheumatology showed that vegan diets may be beneficial for fibromyalgia patients, at least short-term. The study followed 18 fibromyalgia patients during a three-month intervention period. Half of the people adhered to a strict vegan diet, and the other half continued an omnivorous diet. Those following the vegan diet noted improved sleep quality and reduced joint stiffness and pain. Many participants who were overweight were able to reduce their body mass indexes (BMI).

Another study from BMC Complementary Alternative Medicine had similar findings. It concluded that fibromyalgia symptoms may be relieved by a mostly raw, vegetarian diet.

You don't have to go all-out vegan or strictly vegetarian, but aim to eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to ensure you get a wide array of important antioxidants. Plus, eating fresh fruits and veggies, as opposed to processed foods full of potentially irritating preservatives, can help improve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Similarly, you may want to opt for organic produce when possible to avoid consuming pesticides that may trigger pain.

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Focus on Vitamin D

A vitamin D deficiency can cause muscle weakness and bone pain, which may make symptoms of fibromyalgia worse. Ask your doctor to check your vitamin D status regularly, and discuss a supplement if your levels are below optimum.

It's also a good idea to eat vitamin D-rich foods daily. Vitamin D can be found in fatty fish, eggs, and fortified products like cereal, milk and orange juice.

According to a study in the journal Pain, people who have higher vitamin D levels may experience less pain than people with lower levels. In the study, 30 women living with fibromyalgia were divided between two groups: one that took a placebo medication and one that received oral vitamin D supplements. After six months, the group that had received vitamin D reported feeling less pain than the placebo group. This was a small study, however, so more research is needed.

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Say Yes to Fish

Omega-3 fatty acids are lauded for their ability to improve heart health and reduce inflammation, and it's thought that this nutrient could also help reduce stiffness and soreness in people with fibromyalgia. You can find this healthy fat in certain fish like salmon, as well as some nuts and seeds.

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Foods to Avoid if You Have Fibromyalgia

In a study published in Clinical Rheumatology, 42 percent of the 65 patients with fibromyalgia surveyed said their symptoms were aggravated after eating certain foods. Avoiding some foods may help you reduce symptoms of fibromyalgia or prevent them altogether.

Cut the Coffee and Processed Foods

Though a shot of espresso may seem extra tempting to those with fatigue, many doctors actually recommend that people living with fibromyalgia limit their caffeine intake. Coffee and caffeine in general can make it harder to get a good night's sleep, which may make symptoms of fatigue worse.

Also, try to avoid foods that are highly processed, full of refined sugar, fried, or found in a vending machine. This may sound obvious but, generally speaking, these foods tend to be high in saturated and trans fats, carbohydrates and sodium. While they will deliver a quick burst of energy, they will ultimately lead to a crash that will just worsen fatigue and tiredness. These foods also offer little in the way of nutrition and are full of calories, which can lead to weight gain. Carrying extra weight can worsen fibromyalgia pain and lethargy, too.

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Avoid Gluten and Limit Dairy

People living with fibromyalgia may be more prone to a gluten sensitivity. Gluten, a protein in wheat and some other grains, is often present in foods like bread, pasta and crackers, but is also a component of many food ingredients, including thickeners for some ice creams and salad dressings. It's very important to read ingredient labels if you're avoiding gluten in your diet.

Similar to gluten, people with fibromyalgia may be more likely to develop a lactose intolerance, or sensitivity to the natural sugar in dairy products. Remember, however, that low-fat dairy can be an important part of a healthy diet. Not all dairy products may cause symptoms or upset your stomach. Certain foods, such as yogurt, are often tolerated better by those with a lactose intolerance.

Keep Reading: A Gluten-Free Foods List

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Keep an Eye on Additives

Some food additives can act as triggers for people with fibromyalgia, so beware of ingredients like monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is often used in processed foods, fast food and Chinese food, Watch out for certain artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, too. MSG has been known to cause headaches in some individuals, and artificial sweeteners can trigger IBS symptoms, including stomach cramps and diarrhea.

A study published in Clinical and Experimental Rheumatology found that MSG may exacerbate fibromyalgia symptoms in some patients. In a four-week study, 37 fibromyalgia patients (all of them had also been diagnosed with IBS) ate an MSG- and aspartame-free diet. At the end of the month, 84 percent of participants reported that their symptoms had improved.

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Say No to Nightshades

Overall, the more veggies you eat, the better, if you're living with fibromyalgia. However, one group of vegetables, the nightshade family, seems to irritate some people with the chronic pain condition. If this is the case for you, limit your intake of these veggies-eggplant, potatoes and tomatoes are among the nightshade family members-but don't forget to compensate with other vegetables, as they're nutrient-dense and full of important antioxidants.

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How to Create a Fibromyalgia Diet That's Right for You

As far as a fibromyalgia diet goes, one of the best things you can do is keep a food diary. It's difficult to remember and keep track of everything you eat in a day-let alone a week or month-to detect patterns of potentially problematic foods. Having a diet history written down will be a helpful tool for you and a dietitian if you decide to consult one. The diary can help you two detect trends, find out which foods are bothersome and which foods don't cause any issues.

Under a dietitian's supervision, you may want to experiment with eliminating a certain food or a food group you suspect may be a trigger. Most dietitians recommend eliminating these foods or groups of food for a few weeks to see if there's a noticeable difference in how you feel and what you experience when you eat.

The Bottom Line: Though there is no one medical cure or healing diet to alleviate fibromyalgia pain currently, taking a closer look at your food choices, ideally with a registered dietitian, and making some adjustments may help improve symptoms­-and lead to a healthier diet and lifestyle overall.

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