Fibromyalgia and Food: Things You Need to Know This Holiday Season


Many of us living with fibromyalgia (FM) experience fibrofog, a term used to describe cognitive problems, such as difficulty finding words, dyslexia, or short-term memory loss. Highly associated with FM are the ravaging symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (which can overlap with symptoms of gluten intolerance, leaky gut syndrome, or small bowel intestinal overgrowth) and migraine (a disease characterized by more than an excruciating headache). And, it takes us longer to heal.

Hopefully, you will have a better understanding of how food can sabotage us during the seasons of feast and festivities. 

"A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety."

What Is the Role of Our Digestive System?

The primary function of our digestive system is to break down food and extract important nutrients for cellular energy and metabolism. The bowel is home to a large concentration of chemical messengers that serve as communicators between the body and the brain, like serotonin, which affect our mood, and hormones, enzymes, and bacteria necessary for digestion. What we eat can have a profound effect on our digestive tract, as well as our immune system, neurological health, and healing.

Gluten, Holiday Breads, and Their Roll/Role

We hear a great deal about fibromyalgia and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, often referred to as gluten intolerance. But we need to know what gluten intolerance really is about.

Gluten intolerance is associated with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergy. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes permanent damage to the lining of the intestine because of gluten intolerance. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is characterized by symptoms in the absence of disease. And, wheat allergy is a reaction to gluten proteins found in wheat.

Gluten intolerance is not limited to non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Gluten-containing foods are served in abundance over the holidays, so if you suspect you have a problem, discuss it with your doctor now.
  • Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley.

  • People with gluten sensitivity can experience gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms, fatigue, and headaches. 

  • Celiac disease can lead to leaky gut syndrome, where a breakdown in the integrity of the intestines causes substances that should remain in the intestines to leak into the bloodstream causing a toxic affect on the body. 

  • Non-celiac sensitivity depends on a gluten elimination/challenge diet to make the diagnosis after celiac disease has been ruled out with blood tests or biopsy. Discuss your suspicions with your physician first for an accurate diagnosis.

  • Wheat allergy is diagnosed by skin allergy testing.

We Are Not All Created the Same

We are individually unique. Even though some of us have the same coexisting conditions or holiday traditions related to food, our food triggers are not the same. So, next time you are at a dollar store, pick up a calendar and start tracking your diet and your symptoms. If you notice a trend, eliminate suspected foods and slowly reintroduce them one at a time while monitoring symptoms. Food/symptom tracker apps are also available for smart phones.

  • Preservatives, such as fructose corn syrup, artificial food colorings, and other food additives also affect the gut and overall health.

  • The main ingredient on a food label is listed first.

Yeast Overgrowth — Energy, Headache, and the Way We Think

A small amount of yeast in the body is normal and serves to keep things in balance, but too much yeast (candida) causes problems. Overgrowth can contribute to brainfog, exhaustion, gastro-intestinal symptoms, and severe headache.

Dietary causes of yeast overgrowth are related to over-consumption of refined carbohydrates and sugar and complex foods that convert to sugar in the body. If you don’t remember anything else, remember this, “Candida needs sugar to thrive and multiply.”

Some Things Don’t Change

Our brain needs a certain amount of sugar (glucose) to function; paradoxically, too much sugar has the opposite effect. Too much sugar suppresses our immune system and our ability to heal or fight off the flu or other viruses prevalent around the holiday season. It can cause inflammation of the joints. Over-consumption contributes to many other health problems and can lead to metabolic disorders, heart disease, and more. These things remain the same for everyone.

We Have Choices

We can minimize our symptoms by making the right choices, like avoiding foods with destructive, toxic preservatives. We can make healthy choices by using healthy sugar substitutions such as agave nectar or honey. We can avoid the perils of food and unwanted symptoms by eating, and drinking, a healthy balanced diet. This is especially important for us around the holidays.

As I sit here, I can smell my mother’s homemade chicken and dumplings, a Thanksgiving tradition passed down through generations. I joyfully recall the beginnings of my own traditions, Italian pizzelle cookies and sandbakelser, a Norwegian sugar cookie that my daughter will help me make as we listen to our favorite holiday music. I will skillfully make a Croatian nut bread called povitisa as I remember my mentor, a friend from my distant past. I see us now, standing around her table gingerly teasing the bread dough to the consistency of tissue paper.

It’s important that we savor every morsel and pleasurable memory and prepare to make new ones. If we eat mindfully, the flavor will explode in our mouth and into our being. So I leave you with this:  eat well and remember the impact food can have on your symptoms and your health. Care for your body, mind, and spirit this holiday season.


Celeste Cooper, RN, is an advocate, writer and published author, and she is a person living with chronic pain. She is lead author of Integrative Therapies for Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and Myofascial Pain and Broken Body, Wounded Spirit, Balancing the See Saw of Chronic Pain (a four book series). She spends her time enjoying her family and the rewards she receives from interacting with nature through her writing and photography. You can learn more about Celeste’s writing, advocacy work, helpful tips, and social network connections at

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