When you have fibromyalgia you’ll know just how unpredictable it can be and there are times when you never know how your day is going to pan out, let alone if you’re going to get through it in one piece! 

Planning ahead and sticking to a routine definitely helps, but obstacles always show up and particularly so when it comes to the hidden triggers which might be environmental or what we put in and on our bodies.  We all know what to do when our sensitivity to light, noise, smell or touch is triggered, but what can we do about our hidden sensitivities – the ones that may be silently lurking behind the scenes and just waiting to be sparked!

Sensitivities are nervous system reactions to certain stimuli which are either subtle and we don’t always notice them, or they may be triggers that can knock you sideways and you feel it when they do! The problem is that they often only reveal themselves to you once it’s too late. 

This can be a real conundrum for managing fibromyalgia and trying to avoid the dreaded flare-up, especially when your sensitivity switch has triggered off some very weird symptoms but you’re not really certain what the trigger was or how to deal with it.

Whilst trying to do your best to manage fibromyalgia and juggle your life around it, it’s worth noting there’s an endless list of common culprits hidden in the foods we consume. They are mostly hidden chemicals that have the potential to trigger your sensitivities to go into overdrive and result in a surge of stress hormones, just what we don’t need! Here’s just a few to be aware of:

  • Aspartame and other artificial sweeteners are often hidden substitutes for sugar, but are much sweeter in taste, found in numerous food products, diet sodas and hidden in various flavourings. Excessive amounts are toxic to the liver and puts added strain on your digestive system, as well as other problems that results in fatigue and a sluggish liver. It really pays to read food labels and avoid these chemicals if you have fibromyalgia and want to avoid additional health problems.
  • Natural and Artificial Flavourings, the question is one better than the other?  The verdict really depends on whether you are familiar with the minefield of what they all are and if you are  sensitive to any of them.  Many nutrition labels tend to be nondescript to the origin of flavourings and this makes it difficult to determine if they are in fact naturally derived or an artificial chemical synthesized cheaper version. When you consider the variety of natural flavourings such as peppermint, vanilla, fruit, natural meat or fish etc., each of these are full of potential multiple bio-hazards and chemical compounds that don’t sound quite so natural when you read into the small print.  However, despite the industry’s guarantee of rigorous testing to say that they are safe for human consumption, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG)  – this is all well and good but not the case if you have chemical sensitivity to them!  
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) probably the most notable additive flavouring is the sodium salt of glutamic acid which is naturally present in our bodies and in many foods and additives. You can find it on food labels as ingredients such as glutamate, hydrolised, balsamic glaze, soy products, savoury snacks, stock, bouillon and various savoury seasnonings etc. It can be lethal for some people and particularly those who suffer a disorder in the spectrum of Central Sensitization Syndrome, such as fibromyalgia. Intolerance to MSG can cause inflammation, nerve impulse problems, make you edgy, trigger anxiety, it alters neural activity in the brain and in some cases has led to micro-strokes. It’s commonly used in Asian cuisine as well as many processed foods and to me – it’s like poison!
  • Citiric Acid, not to be confused with naturally occurring acid in citrus which is naturally healing. I’m referring to the chemically synthesized type that manufacturers add to numerous processed foods and drinks, such as health drinks, powdered beverages, natural fruit juices, canned and frozen fruit and vegetable products, sweets and even some slimming products contain manufactured citric acid. The effects can show up as inflammation of the lining of the stomach, causing quite a lot of pain, bloating and discomfort as well as many other symptoms and not so good if you suffer with IBS.
  • Gluten belongs to a family of proteins found in grains, such as wheat, barley and rye and is present in most bread products and pasta etc. It’s probably the most commonly eaten protein but in recent decades there’s been a rise in cases of gluten sensitivities and includes many people who suffer with fibromyalgia. However, it has not yet transpired as to the reason or cause for this and makes for a controversial topic. Despite the lack of reasons, gluten intolerance is a real condition and different to other gluten-related conditions such as celiac or wheat allergies.

Symptoms range from person to person and include digestive problems, skin rash, unexplained fatigue, headache and migraine, joint and bone pain. It’s known to increase severity of fibromyalgia symptoms such as widespread muscle pain, depression and brain fog. Gluten is also responsible for numerous symptoms related to how it adversely affects how the body absorbs certain nutrients and can lead to illness such as anaemia. In fact the list is endless and intolerance can show up at any time and create havoc in your body. If you are worried about having sensitivity to gluten, it may be worth eliminating it from your diet for a few weeks to see if it makes any difference. Keep in mind that many of the symptoms aren’t exclusive to gluten intolerance and may be present due to other health conditions or additives in your food.

Sugar has to be up there on top of the list of fibromyalgia agitators and it’s in just about everything but in different types, such as: glucose, (grape sugar, blood sugar, dextrose) fructose, (fruit sugar, honey) sucrose, (table sugar and added sugar containing fructose and glucose), lactose (found in milk, contains glucose and galactose). Most of these are naturally occurring in wholefoods and accompanied by other nutrient and less likely to cause harm, but the one I’m bringing to your attention is the type of manufactured sugar that is added to your foods to make it sweeter or prolong shelf-life. It’s called Added Sugar and is produced by removing it from its original source, combining sucrose and added fructose or corn sugar.

This is the type of sugar type of sugar that is hidden in our foods and is known to cause inflammation in the body, as well as being a major trigger of fibromyalgia flare-ups.

Inflammation is the body’s natural healing process in response to injury or infection and although it is normal for sugar to cause some inflammation in low degrees, when it’s eaten in excess this becomes a different story. To much added sugar found in refined carbohydrates, sweets, beverages and almost every processed junk food, is one of the major causes of what is called “low grade inflammation” which can cause serious harm to your body.

Symptoms show up as increased chronic pain, irregularities in blood sugar levels, mood swings, weight gain, obesity, chronic illness like fibromyalgia and more, also a major cause of more serious illness such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Think twice about your sugar consumption if you have fibromyalgia because added sugar is a substance that is highly addictive that is so difficult to manage. Related article Fibromyalgia and the Benefits of Quitting Sugar.

What does Added Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates do to your Body?

Apart from piling on the pounds and filling your body with empty calories, added sugar depletes your body of vital nutrients that support your immune system, keep your hormones in check and keep your gut in tip top condition. Whilst consuming unnecessary added sugar and refined carbohydrates, this prompts several changes to happen in your body. 

One of these changes is excess production of Age’s which stands for Advanced Glycogen End Products which is when the byproducts of the protein and fat you have eaten combine with the sugar in the bloodstream.  The bottom line is that too much of this results in oxidative stress and inflammation, increased gut permeability and increased pain, as well as other fibromyalgia symptoms such as headache, fatigue, brain fog and low energy reserves.  These could all be reduced or completely eliminated simply by reducing your added sugar intake and replacing with whole food and complex carbohydrate.  These contain healthier type of sugars, fibre and multiple vitamins and minerals that the body needs. They also contain hardly any chemical additives or preservatives.   

Preservatives and What to look out for:

  • Sodium benzoate or benzoic acid is an anti-fungal preservative added to jams, sauces and many processed foods, diet drinks, beverages, cosmetics, mouthwash and toothpaste. Alarmingly it’s also used in many over-the-counter and prescription medications, cough syrup and as a coating on pills to make them easily absorbed after swallowing. If this isn’t enough to give you the heebie-jeebies there is growing concern that overuse of sodium benzoate easily converts into benzene, a well known carcinogen. Other health concerns that have been raised include its ability to activate inflammatory pathways and increases inflammation. It also known to decrease the body’s production of leptin, the appetite suppressing hormone, it can increase oxidative stress and free radical activity that damage cells in the body and increases the risk of chronic disease.
  • Sodium Nitrate is added to products like sausages, cured and packaged or canned meats. This preservative has been a long standing topic for debate due to its cancer causing chemicals.
  • Sodium Sulphite has been reported to cause sensitivity reactions in approximately one in 100 people. It’s used in certain sauces, wine making and added to a variety of processed foods. It has been connected to symptoms such as respiratory problems, shortness of breath and may also cause a nasty skin rash.
  • Sulfur Dioxide (E220) is a preservative found in some types of beer, soft drinks, juices, dried fruit, wine, vinegar and some potato products. It’s known to cause an adverse reaction if you are prone to asthma or hypotension, causing tingling or flushing and at worst anaphylactic shock. Like most preservatives it can deplete your body of essential nutrients.
  • Propyl Paraben (E216) is a preservative commonly used in bread and pastry products, tortillas, food dyes and cross contamination has shown up in dairy products, meats and vegetables. It’s widely used in the cosmetic industry and found in creams, lotions, shampoos and bath products. Alarmingly it has also shown up in some CBD topical applications. It’s commonly known as an endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemical and linked to both male and female infertility, increased menopause symptoms and some cancers.
  • BHA and BHT (E320) are preservatives used in vegetable oils, certain breakfast cereals, chewing gum and certain crisps, some frozen processed meals and it is added to stop food from changing colour and from becoming rancid. It’s known for its adverse effects on the neurological system, which is something we don’t need if we have fibromyalgia, a nervous system disorder and causing central sensitization to noxious stimuli!
  • Stress, although not a chemical, it does produce chemicals in the body that can work against us. We all experience a certain amount of life’s stressors, but when it’s continuous it perpetuates the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin, the chemical messengers involved in your body’s inbuilt survival mechanism, the stress-response – fight-or-flight.  When this remains switched on, the result is too much cortisol circulating in your body, creating internal havoc causing weight gain, fatigue, headaches, muscle weakness, brain fog, irritability, feeling on edge, mood swings and cravings.  If you relate to being a stress eater, it’s worth a read of What’s the Best Diet for Fibromyalgia, (Part One).   

Symptoms of Chemical Sensitivity

Low grade inflammation

Headaches and migraine

Increased muscle and joint Pain

Nausea and digestion problems, bloating, IBS

Extreme Fatigue and lethargy

Stinging, irritated eyes

Breathlessness or wheezing

Sinus problems, facial pain, runny nose, rhinosinusitis

Sore throat and cough, frequent infections

Brain fog, cognitive impairment

Skin rash, itchy and blotchy skin

Sleep disturbance, unrefreshing  sleep

Increased Symptoms of fibromyalgia

What can you do about it?

As you can see, many of these symptoms mirror the symptoms of fibromyalgia and it’s not an easy task to figure out where your symptoms are actually coming from. Neither is it easy to eliminate all these chemicals from your diet because they remain so hidden from us but having awareness of them is at least a step forward to making informed choices.

Start to read Food Labels! One tried and tested method is to keep a symptoms and eating diary which will reveal any emerging patterns and link them to any potential hidden sensitivity triggers from the chemicals lurking in your food.  It’s certainly made me check food labels a bit more diligently and am more mindful to the cleaning products and personal care items I use!

A final note on Inflammation, Fibromyalgia and Cytokines

Over the decades the occurrence of inflammation in fibromyalgia has been a regular topic for debate. With no evidence of fibrous-tissue inflammation, this led to the renaming of fibrositis to fibromyalgia which was frequently referred to as an arthritic type condition. However, it was reported that fibromyalgia does not cause either inflammation or damage to joints and because of this, until recent years, the illness is not considered to be an inflammatory condition. Nevertheless, this does not mean that inflammation is not occurring.

This led the researchers to look elsewhere and further tests revealed that people with fibromyalgia show that several inflammatory markers are present, including high levels of C-reactive protein and pro-inflammatory cytokines.

C-reactive protein is produced in the liver and can be measured in the blood, where levels increase when there is inflammation in the body.  Cytokines act as communicators in the immune system and are either anti-inflammatory (disease fighting) or pro-inflammatory where they promote extensive inflammation and is thought to be a major factor behind heightened and persistent pain.      

On a final note I have to add that when I began this research on food additives and their potential harm they may cause if you have fibromyalgia, has been like entering a  minefield. It’s been  pretty daunting and I’ve only uncovered the tip of the iceberg.  Nonetheless, I  hope this has been helpful and at least given you some food for thought.  In the meantime, I love reading your comments so feel free to leave one,  eat well, breathe easy and keep safe.

Related articles: What’s the Best Diet for Fibromyalgia? (Part One) and What’s the Best Diet for Fibromyalgia? (Part Two)

Author Jok Saunders, found of the Fibro Clinic South West 

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