Is Neuropathy Exacerbated by Certain Foods?
Research has shown that there are food ingredients that affect symptoms in those who suffer from neuropathy. Common culprits are: gluten, MSG, trans fat, added sugars and artificial sweeteners and alcohol. Let’s take a look at each of them, and why it may be best to limit, or even avoid them.
Gluten is a storage protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It can be found in such common foods as bread, pasta, cake, cookies, pastries, cereal – any food containing white, wheat, cake or baking flour. Although gluten effects range from sensitivity right up to an allergy called “Celiac Disease” (which damages the small intestine and interferes with nutrient absorption), gluten can do more than cause gastrointestinal upset. It can trigger or even worsen neuropathy symptoms.
Although the prevalence of “gluten free” products may make it appear that foods without gluten can be given free reign in your diet, in fact it’s often hidden and more common that you might think!
It’s important to pay careful attention to ingredient lists to look for hidden sources of gluten. Gluten appears even in items like licorice and soy sauce, that both contain small traces of wheat. Other sources that may not be obvious?
- Graham crackers, made from a wheat derivative
- Soy sauce and licorice, both of which contain small traces of wheat
- Malt vinegar, malted milk shakes and beer contain malt, which is most often made from barley
- Corn flakes and rice puffs can contain malt extract – read the label carefully
- Many soups, as they contain flour that is used as a thickener
- Lipsticks, nutritional supplements, Play Dough – can all contain gluten!
The only option if you notice an increase in the tingling or numbness of neuropathy after consuming foods with gluten, is total abstinence. A side benefit of abstinence is that many of the foods containing gluten are also made from refined grains, that cause fluctuations in blood sugar levels and can result in inflammation and resulting nerve pain. Refined grains are often described as high glycemic, and can be ranked on the glycemic index. The glycemic index ranks how quickly, or slowly, foods are digested, absorbed and metabolized in the body. A lower value indicates a food that is digested more slowly, allowing blood sugar levels and insulin release to remain more constant.
Fortunately, there are alternatives: try rice or buckwheat flour, oats, millets, quinoa, and corn- or rice-based cereals. But remember: just because a product is labeled “gluten-free”, does not mean you can consume unlimited quantities – they may have higher amounts of fats and carbohydrates, and are not always enriched or fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Glutamate is an amino acid found in the body and in many foods. Monosodium glutamate, commonly known as MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamate and is isolated from a seaweed called Kombu. MSG is used world-wide in processed and fast foods, and most canned and frozen foods. It can also be labelled as: modified food starch, autolyzed yeast, calcium caseinate, sodium caseinate, hydrolyzed protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, carrageenan, glutamic acid and yeast extract. The presence of sodium is responsible for that puffy, thirsty feeling you may get the day after consuming food with a high concentration of MSG.
Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that stimulates brain cell activity. When plant and animal products are processed, proteins are broken down and the glutamate is released and made available to the body. Taken in high concentrations, the glutamic acid can become toxic and cause nerve damage.
In the 1960s, studies on mice showed that large amounts of MSG caused harmful neurological effects and thus ignited a firestorm of negative publicity around this common ingredient. More human studies are needed to determine if the evidence is purely anecdotal.
Although fats are an essential part of the diet for energy and also to process fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A, D, E and K, not all fats are “good” fats. Trans fats, also found on ingredient lists as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, occur naturally in meat and dairy products, but it’s the ones that are produced artificially by adding hydrogen to vegetable oils to make them solid (i.e. as in margarine) that are difficult for the body to breakdown. Trans fats increase inflammation and can damage the small blood vessels responsible for nourishing the peripheral nerves.
Added Sugars and Artificial Sweeteners
Sugar is added to a multitude of food products in forms including cane sugar and syrup, and high-fructose corn syrup. Consuming a diet high in sugary products causes blood sugar levels to skyrocket – resulting in inflammation and increased nerve pain. Chronic inflammation can cause peripheral neuropathy, and worsen symptoms that already exist. For diabetics, sugary foods play havoc with blood sugar levels and make them even more difficult to regulate. They are high glycemic, causing spikes in blood sugar similar to those caused by refined grains.
Artificial sweeteners, like Aspartame, are not a solution – they can interact with neurons and heighten pain sensitivity.
Although for decades it was thought that the nutritional deficiency resulting from alcohol consumption was the cause of neuropathic pain, more recent studies indicate that alcohol causes a toxic, rather than nutritional, neuropathy.
There was a long-standing assumption that, because symptoms were clinically similar to that of thiamine deficiency (beriberi), they could be grouped in with nutritional diseases. Recent studies (1) have shown that clinical and physiological differences, as well as lack of reversal when treated with thiamine, suggest that it’s alcohol toxicity that cause neuropathy by reducing the levels of nutrients critical to nerve health and by damaging nerve tissue.
Choosing wisely is an important tool – the foods we eat directly affect our nerve health. Reduce or avoid those that can damage the nerves, and talk to your health care team about what’s best for you.
Muscle & Nerve, 2011;43(3):309-16
Mary Armstrong has worked and volunteered for several non-profits. Also see: http://calgaryneuropathy.com/about-us/ to learn more about Mary.