Nerve damage, also known as peripheral neuropathy, can be a painful condition. The best foods for nerve repair can help improve damage whether due to diabetes, cancer treatment or other causes. Nerve damage is common and can affect a single nerve, nerve bundle or the whole body.
Certain foods can help heal nerve damage, particularly those that are high in B vitamins, as well as omega-3 fatty acids. Keeping your blood sugar stable can also help prevent nerve damage.
According to Harvard Health Publishing, the symptoms caused by nerve damage can feel like pain or tingling and numbness that feels similar to when your limbs "fall asleep" due to a lack of blood flow. However, peripheral neuropathy doesn't go away once you stand up and walk it off. This condition can eventually cause muscles to weaken and atrophy. It's important to talk to your health care provider if you are experiencing these symptoms, especially if you have diabetes.
What Causes Nerve Damage?
The most common cause of nerve damage, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, is diabetes. Uncontrolled diabetes can result in chronic high blood sugar levels that can cause damage to the nerves over time. Controlling blood sugar can help control or limit nerve damage. Some other conditions that can lead to nerve damage include:
- Metabolic disease
- Insufficient levels of specific vitamins such as B1, B6 and B12
- Hepatitis C
- Kidney disease
- Autoimmune disorders
- Poor circulation
Best Foods for Nerve Repair
Since nerve damage is most commonly caused by diabetes, choosing foods that are low in sugar and help to control blood sugar levels are best. The U.S. National Library of Medicine recommends getting control of your blood sugar levels and eliminating alcohol from your diet.
You may have low levels of B vitamins if you are experiencing peripheral neuropathy. Choosing foods high in B vitamins could help your symptoms improve. B12 is one such vitamin that is often low, especially if you eat a plant-based diet without animal products. Foods that are good for nerve repair and high in vitamin B12, according to the USDA, are:
- King crab
For vegetarians and vegans, the following foods can help increase your B12 levels while supplying other essential vitamins and minerals:
- Fortified cereals
- Low-fat milk
- Fortified tofu
- Fortified juice
- Unsweetened soy milk
Your health care provider may also recommend vitamin B12 shots if you are experiencing low levels and cannot get enough through diet alone.
The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy recommends some nutrition fundamentals and foods suitable for nerve repair. Keeping your diet focused on whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids, as well as getting plenty of high-quality protein, will help.
The foundation also encourages consuming less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day and lowering saturated and trans fatty acids. Choosing monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils in place of saturated or trans fats will help. It is also essential to consume foods and drinks that are low in sugar or other sweeteners.
Try an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
The Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy also recommends eating an anti-inflammatory diet to help with nerve damage. Consuming more omega-3 fatty acids can help reduce inflammation. Getting enough high-antioxidant foods and fiber will also help. To get enough omega-3s, try the following:
- Eat 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed per day.
- Consume fatty fish, such as mackerel and salmon, two times per week or more in a 3- to 4-ounce serving size.
- Eat 3 or more ounces of walnuts per day.
A November 2016 review published in Biomed Research International affirms that omega-3 fatty acids can help with nerve pain, including both inflammatory and neuropathic pain. Moreover, omega-3 fatty acids do not interact negatively with the commonly used drugs used to treat nerve pain.
Compounds From Foods Good for Nerves and Muscles
Aside from eating the best foods for nerve damage, there are compounds derived from food that also contribute to pain relief from neuropathy. The November 2016 Biomed Research International review discusses several natural pain relief medicines that target particular nerve receptors to help with neuropathic pain. The most studied compounds are:
Capsaicin, derived from peppers, is one food compound that helps with nerve pain relief. Capsaicin causes pain upon its first injection, but subsequent injections provide pain relief. Another compound found in eggs and milk is called palmitoylethanolamide (PEA).
PEA is a fatty acid amide that has been shown in clinical trials to relieve different types of neuropathic nerve pain, while causing no serious side effects. This treatment works regardless of age, sex or whatever triggered the pain.
A polyphenol compound derived from fruits and vegetables called quercetin helps relieve pain from neuropathy commonly caused by the drug oxaliplatin. Oxaliplatin is used to treat cancer by injection into a vein. The November 2016 Biomed Research International review explains that quercetin helps to prevent the pain caused by oxaliplatin. Quercetin is anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and antinociceptive.
A March 2016 review in Nutrients on quercetin shows its anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties. The studies in the review were mainly in vitro and animal studies but offer a promising look at how quercetin can help with inflammatory pain such as peripheral neuropathy. The review recommends the following sources of dietary quercetin:
- Brassica vegetables
- Seeds, nuts, flowers, barks and leaves
In the United States, the average quercetin intake reported in this review is about 14.90 to 16.39 milligrams per day. To boost your level of quercetin, try eating raw capers. They contain 234 milligrams of quercetin per 100 grams of capers. In the United States, the most popular foods that contain high levels of quercetin, according to the review, are onions, tea and apples.
When choosing tomatoes, opt for organic as they are shown to contain 79 percent more quercetin than conventionally grown varieties. Another great reason to eat tomatoes — lycopene, a compound found in the fruit, also helps to relieve neuropathic pain by providing an analgesic effect. It works specifically to reduce painful neuropathy due to diabetes. The study was done on mice, however, so more research is needed to determine its use in humans.
The November 2016 Biomed Research International study addressed multiple other food compounds found in foods such as citrus fruit, turmeric, Ginkgo biloba and purple fruits such as grapes, blueberries and raspberries.
Is This an Emergency?
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Peripheral Neuropathy"
- USDA: "Top 10 Foods Highest in Vitamin B12 (Cobalamin)"
- USDA: "Top 10 Vitamin B12 Foods for Vegetarians"
- Foundation for Peripheral Neuropathy: "Peripheral Neuropathy Nutrition"
- USDA: "Top 10 Foods Highest in Omega 3 Fatty Acids"
- Biomed Research International: "Food-Derived Natural Compounds for Pain Relief in Neuropathic Pain"
- Pain Physician: "Palmitoylethanolamide, a Special Food for Medical Purposes, in the Treatment of Chronic Pain: A Pooled Data Meta-Analysis"
- Life Sciences: "Lycopene Ameliorates Neuropathic Pain by Upregulating Spinal Astrocytic Connexin 43 Expression"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "When Nerves Get Damaged"
- Nutrients: "Quercetin, Inflammation and Immunity"