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Article updated: 9/17/2013 9:34 AM

Chemicals in foods may worsen fibromyalgia symptoms

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By Dr. Patrick Massey

Is there a relationship between poor bowel function and the symptoms of fibromyalgia? According to one medical study, some chemicals found in everyday foods may exacerbate fibromyalgia symptoms. This suggests that there is a strong link between bowel function and the pain associated with fibromyalgia.

Fibromyalgia is a very confusing medical condition. Initially, many in the traditional medical community did not even believe that fibromyalgia was real. There is no test for fibromyalgia and the diagnosis is made by the subjective opinion of the treating physician. Likewise, irritable bowel syndrome has no specific test and also is diagnosed by the subjective opinion of the treating physician.

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What is interesting is that fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome share several risk factors including stress and being female. Some medical studies found that almost 50 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome also are the diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

Although it may seem quite surprising that a chronic pain/fatigue syndrome, such as fibromyalgia can be affected by bowel function, upon closer examination there seems to be a clear connection. The most recent fibromyalgia theories suggest that pain fibers in these patients are hypersensitive and overreact even to the mildest stimulus.

This hyper reactivity is not limited to nerve tissue in the skin. It seems to be systemic throughout the body. Patients with fibromyalgia often complain of other conditions such as bowel issues, depression, insomnia, and decreased memory and cognition.

Interestingly, outside of the central nervous system the greatest concentration of nerve tissue in the body is in the bowels. Nerve tissue is vitally important to how the bowel functions and regulates its own health. It is a reasonable hypothesis that patients addressing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome may reduce some of the stress and symptoms associated with fibromyalgia.

The current study, done at the Oregon Health & Science University, was somewhat unique in its approach. The study was comprised of 57 patients who had the diagnosis of both fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. The hypothesis was that dietary compounds, monosodium glutamate and aspartame irritate the bowel, exacerbating fibromyalgia symptoms. Eliminating these compounds from the diet might improve the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and at the same time improve fibromyalgia symptoms in some patients.

If adding these compounds back to the diet and the symptoms of fibromyalgia returned, that would strongly suggest a connection between irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.

On this diet, 31 participants showed significant improvement (greater than 30 percent) in their fibromyalgia symptoms. These participants were then randomized to receive either placebo or MSG for two weeks. The results demonstrated that there was a significant worsening of fibromyalgia symptoms in those patients when they were taking MSG compared to the placebo, which strongly suggests a link between irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.

There also is medical evidence that indicates changes in diet can significantly improve the pain associated with fibromyalgia. In my clinical experience, improving bowel function is an integral part of fibromyalgia treatment, personally confirming the results of this important study.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Health System. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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