In 1993, the magazine Computerworld published a short article titled “Doomsday 2000.” The authors predicted that because of a universally adopted coding shortcut that abbreviated any four-digit year to two digits (i.e., 1993 was rendered “93”), the world’s computer infrastructure would collapse once the new millennium rolled in.
The collapse didn’t happen, thanks to, depending on what you believe, the hundreds of millions of dollars spent upgrading code in the late 90s (whoops, 1990s) or because there was never any real risk of calamity.
But the hype — some would say hysteria — that gripped many as January 1, 2000, was approaching forced the world to consider what would happen if our information networks shut down. Now, imagine if those information networks were inside your body instead.
Your nervous system is kind of like a miniature version of the internet. Your bodily tissue (or fascia) contains approximately 250 million nerve endings, all of which are continuously gathering and sharing electrical impulses back and forth between your brain and the rest of your body. When everything works well, you can just go about your day without giving your nerves a second thought.
But when even a few of those quarter billion nerve endings are damaged or otherwise dysfunctional, you may experience a cascade of calamities throughout your body. Damaged nerves can’t deliver electrical signals optimally, or in some cases at all. This dysfunction can cause pain and a number of other symptoms, including the sensation of pins and needles, muscle problems, and even loss of normal bodily functions like digestion and breathing.
The word for this kind of nerve damage is neuropathy.
Many neurologists recommend surgery or medications as first-line treatments for neuropathy, and in fact, many advanced cases can benefit from this approach. But there’s evidence that some neuropathies, especially in their early stages, could benefit more from what’s in your pantry than what’s in your medicine cabinet.
In this article, we’ll look at neuropathy nutrition and the relationship between what we eat and nerve health.
What Is Neuropathy?
Neuropathy is the medical term for damage to nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord. This damage can cause pain, numbness, weakness, and other uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous symptoms. It’s also called peripheral neuropathy, as it disproportionately affects nerve endings that are located closer to the body’s extremities than the core.
Neuropathy can mess up nerve signals in three ways. It can lead to complete loss of signaling, inappropriate signaling, or distortion of the messages that are sent.
If only one nerve is affected, that’s called mononeuropathy. A common mononeuropathy is carpal tunnel syndrome, which is often caused by repetitive use damage to the median nerve of the arm. Polyneuropathy, which involves multiple nerves (and not talking parrots), is the more common condition.
Types of Neuropathy
There are also subcategories of neuropathy, named for the nerve function they affect.
Motor neuropathy interferes with the movement of the muscles typically under conscious control, such as those used for walking, grasping things, or talking. Examples include muscle weakness or shrinking, or uncontrollable muscle twitching (which is also called fasciculation).
Sensory neuropathy interferes with the transmission of sensory data from the extremities to the brain, such as temperature, the pain from a paper cut (ouch!), the feeling of a light touch, or information about the location of limbs in relation to one another. This can lead to loss of reflexes, coordination, or balance; burns or infections because there’s no impulse to pull away from a hot stove or clean a wound; and feeling pain from stimuli that aren’t actually harmful, such as the weight of a blanket on the feet.
Autonomic neuropathy impairs the brain’s ability to regulate activities that people do not control consciously, such as breathing, digesting food, and heart and gland functions. People who suffer from this type of neuropathy can experience heat intolerance and excessive sweating, light-headedness from low blood pressure, and vision problems, among other things.
Proximal neuropathy is a type of nerve damage centered in the hip, buttock, or thigh. It usually causes pain in just one side of the body.
Focal Nerve Neuropathy
Focal nerve neuropathy affects a single nerve and may cause symptoms such as double vision, weakness on one side of the body, or partial paralysis, and associated pain. This type most often targets nerve endings in the legs, hands, head, or torso.
What Causes Neuropathy?
There are more than 100 different conditions, both inherited and developed, that can lead to neuropathy. But a few of them cause the vast majority of cases.
Neuropathy and Diabetes
Diabetes, both types 1 and 2, commonly causes neuropathy. That’s because high glucose levels can damage the small blood vessels that supply your nerves. As those nerves cannot access the nutrients they need, their fibers suffer damage and they may eventually die. At this writing, there’s no known way to reverse the damage once the nerves have atrophied. But there are many ways to prevent and reverse prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. (I hosted a whole masterclass on the topic with diabetes expert Brenda Davis, RD — to watch it for free click here.)
Neuropathy and Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases cause harm by attacking the body’s own cells and tissues as if they belonged to a foreign invader. Two autoimmune conditions that target the nerves include Guillain-Barré syndrome and celiac disease.
Guillain-Barré syndrome typically presents after a gastrointestinal or respiratory infection, or following a vaccination. For some reason, the immune system responds to these challenges by starting to destroy the myelin sheath that surrounds the axons of many nerve cells. It can then progress to damaging the axons themselves.
Most people recover fully, a process that can last from a few weeks to a few years. But in some cases, the neuropathy progresses to paralysis that can threaten the ability to breathe.
The most common form of neuropathy that accompanies celiac disease involves both motor and sensory nerves. Other autoimmune diseases, including autoimmune thyroid disease, rheumatoid arthritis, systemic lupus erythematosus, and Sjögren’s syndrome, are linked to both neuropathy and celiac disease. Because the nerve damage appears to be triggered by exposure to gluten, symptoms may improve or even resolve on a gluten-free diet.
Neuropathy and Alcoholism
Neuropathy is among the most common negative side effects of chronic alcohol overconsumption. It typically shows up as pain, pins and needles, and lack of muscle control in the lower extremities. Alcohol, it turns out, directly poisons nerves. And the poor nutrition that often accompanies alcoholism is a separate risk factor for neuropathy. Patients who abuse alcohol also tend to consume fewer other calories, and their gastrointestinal tracts struggle to absorb the nutrients they do encounter.
Other Causes of Neuropathy
Toxins other than alcohol can also cause neuropathy, among them mercury, certain types of toxic mold, and chemotherapy drugs. Injury and trauma can also induce neuropathy if it involves compression or crushing of a nerve, as can happen in automobile accidents, falls, sports, and even some medical procedures.
What Vitamins and Minerals Help with Neuropathy?
We know that certain vitamins and minerals are essential for healthy nerve function. And a lot of studies have looked at specific nutrients focused on supplemental forms and doses, but very few have looked at the impact of dietary nutrients on neuropathy. So it makes sense that one of the best ways to reduce your odds of developing neuropathy is to eat a diet rich in the nutrients known to nourish your nerves. But unfortunately, the evidence for this statement is a bit indirect and circumstantial. Therefore, let’s look at the specific nutrients that have been studied, remembering that all of these nutrients are available in foods as well as in supplements.
Vitamin B12 helps your body produce a substance called myelin that shields some nerves and helps them transmit information and sensations faster and more efficiently. You can think of them as the insulation on electrical cables and wires. Getting enough B12 is essential for your health, and specifically for the prevention of neuropathy, which is the most common symptom of B12 deficiency.
Supplementing with B12 (especially in plant-based eaters who have a harder time getting this nutrient from food) can improve peripheral neuropathy, including the forms that are primarily caused by diabetes.
For more on B12, including how to ensure that you’re getting enough along with the best plant-based sources, check out our comprehensive article: Vitamin B12: Why it’s Important and How to Avoid B12 Deficiency.
Vitamin B1, also known as thiamine, is also a critical nutrient for your nerves. Peripheral neuropathy can be caused by a B1 deficiency, something that’s seen as part of the cluster of symptoms associated with beriberi. That’s because B1 plays a key role as a coenzyme in carbohydrate metabolism, which is the main energy supply for nerve fibers. It also protects nerves from oxidative damage.
Supplementing (with food-based thiamine or with a synthetic analogue, benfotiamine) or eating foods rich in B1 can help prevent or treat deficiency and neuropathy. In severe cases, patients may need intravenous thiamine to relieve symptoms.
Another neurological superhero from the B-Vitamin Cinematic Universe is vitamin B3, aka niacin. B3 plays a key role in the development and survival of nerve cells. Studies of rats have shown that supplementation with this family of vitamins can protect against nerve pain and injury, preserve muscle function and vision, and lessen pain and discomfort. (Our view on the use of animals in medical research is here.)
For people who are dealing with ongoing neuropathy, B3 supplementation appears to help only when done in combination with other B vitamins. When neuropathy is associated with cardiovascular disease, there’s research indicating that B3 may work better in conjunction with statins.
For more on the B vitamin family, check out our article: What B Vitamins Do You Need — And What Are The Best Vegan Sources of B Vitamins?
Your central and peripheral nervous systems are both big fans (and avid users) of vitamin E. Deficiency of this nutrient negatively affects both systems and can lead to peripheral neuropathy. That’s because not having enough vitamin E can cause changes in peripheral nerves and hasten the loss of a type of neuron known as a DRG cell. DRG — dorsal root ganglia — cells are of particular importance because they are afferent neurons, conveying information inward from the body to the brain and spinal cord.
A 2014 study found that vitamin E supplementation reduced neuropathic pain in patients with diabetes. And a 2021 study of people with peripheral neuropathy caused by chemotherapy also found that vitamin E supplementation was an effective treatment.
For more on vitamin E, including its health benefits and some possible risks of supplementation (spoiler alert: it’s probably better to get it from food than from pills!), read our article on Vitamin E Benefits: Why it Matters & the Best Places to Find It.
Magnesium is important for the nerves to transmit messages optimally, as well as for neuromuscular coordination. Magnesium plays a bunch of roles in the nervous system, including keeping overexcited nerve cells from self-destructing. In blocking a nerve receptor called N-methyl-d-aspartate (NMDA), magnesium both calms the nervous system and prevents pain hypersensitivity.
Patients with diabetic neuropathy also tend to have lower levels of magnesium in their blood. And a 2015 study of rats showed improved neurological function recovery and enhanced nerve regeneration with a high-magnesium diet.
Find out more about magnesium in our article: All About Magnesium: Health Benefits, Risks, & Magnesium-Rich Foods You Should Know About.
Omega-3s are another nutrient group that’s essential for the development and maintenance of healthy nerves. They can help prevent the death of nerve cells and improve their function by chilling out pro-inflammatory and oxidative stress pathways.
A 2017 study that gave supplements of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA to mice showed that the supplementation sped up their nerve regeneration and, based on observations of a reduction of pain behaviors, reduced their pain as well.
A 2021 study of humans with diabetic neuropathy also found that the lower the plasma DHA levels, the more prevalent multiple neuropathies were. Giving the subjects omega-3 therapy led to greater nerve regeneration.
Find out more about omega-3s in our comprehensive article: Omega-3s: Why Are They Important — And What Are the Best Sources for Your Health?
Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant that your body manufactures in the mitochondria (or energy center) of your cells. It works to eliminate reactive oxygen species (ROS), and helps with neuropathy by improving circulation and enhancing the dilation of blood vessels. It also helps suppress a cytokine called prostaglandin E2, which is a key compound involved in inflammation. By affecting several different pathways of oxidative stress, alpha-lipoic acid may reduce sensory neuropathy pain.
Foods That May Help with Neuropathy
What to Avoid with Neuropathy
Recipes That May Help with Neuropathy
Increasing consumption of healing plant-based foods could be a wonderful and gentle support to anyone who is suffering from (or wants to avoid) nerve pain. With these tasty plant-based recipes, incorporating foods that contain supportive nutrients necessary for your nervous system can be enjoyable, simple, and nourishing for your nerves and your entire body.
Whether enjoyed with your morning tea or as an afternoon pick-me-up, our Matcha Muffins are a testament to the idea that wholesome ingredients can be both delicious and supportive of your well-being. Made with oats, which contain a type of soluble fiber called beta-glucans, these muffins may aid in reducing inflammation and supporting overall nerve health. Their subtle sweetness and earthy undertones create a harmonious flavor blend that will satisfy your sweet cravings without the refined sugar.
Kale Caesar with Tofu Croutons has many vital nutrients that can positively influence the health of your nerves. Kale contains sulforaphane, which may go a long way in reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, providing relief to those experiencing nerve damage and discomfort. The creamy Caesar dressing, nutty walnut parmesan, and crunchy tofu croutons are also brimming with nutrients such as B12, omega-3s, and magnesium — all essential for proper nerve functioning. This wholesome salad is a great go-to meal when you are looking for something consistent to enjoy in your journey toward improved nerve health.
Saffron may not be the first thing you think of when you consider natural remedies to help with pain relief, but it has actually been shown to have therapeutic effects for those living with neuropathy thanks to its anti-inflammatory properties. When combined with sulforaphane-rich cauliflower, this wholesome side dish will not only be a savory delight for you to enjoy but a nourishing experience for your nervous system as well.
Consider Your Diet When Dealing with Neuropathy
Healthy nerves require good nutrition. And without some specific nutrients, neuropathy can develop or become worse. For people with diabetes, it’s particularly important to eat a diet rich in nutrients, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, all of which contain compounds that act like superheroes for our nerves.
On the other hand, some foods, especially those high in sugar and saturated fats, act a bit like neuropathy villains, worsening the problem and causing additional suffering. Once you understand the connection between what’s on your plate and how your nerves feel and function, you can make choices to support your health and quality of life.
Tell us in the comments:
- Have you or anyone you love ever experienced neuropathy?
- What are your favorite foods for neuropathy?
- Which neuropathy-busting recipe will you try next?
Featured Image: iStock.com/Sorapop