Neuropathy or peripheral neuropathy is a condition characterized by damage to the peripheral nervous system. The peripheral nervous system is everything except the brain and spinal cord (the central nervous system), including the motor nerves, the sensory nerves and the autonomic nerves, that controls automatic functions like digestion and heart rate. Neuropathic symptoms can include burning and/or jabbing pain and sensitivity even to light touch. The cause of the nerve damage vary from injury to diabetes. Poor nutrition is a contributing cause in many cases of neuropathy and can be the sole cause of the condition. Eating the right foods can alleviate and in some cases eliminate the symptoms of peripheral neuropathy.
The correlation between neuropathy and nutrition is so strong that the term “vitamine” was used in 1911 for the agent of cure in a study on a form of neuropathy. As R. Andrew Sewell, MD and Lawrence D. Recht, MD relate in an article in eMedicine (updated Nov. 30, 2009), a Dr. Eijkman cured the condition in pigeons by feeding them rice husks. The rice husks were rich in thiamine (otherwise known as vitamin B1), which is what the mystery ingredient was rechristened from “vitamine” in 1936.
According to Sewell and Recht, nutritional neuropathy is either the direct result of vitamin deficiency (usually vitamin B) or the result of metabolic disorders that reduce the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. For example, ethanol interferes with the absorption of vitamin B1, which is one of the reasons that alcoholism can cause peripheral neuropathy.
The B vitamins include B1 (thiamine), B3 (niacin), B6 (pyridoxine), and B12 (cyanocobalamin). The New York Times Health Guide recommends fortified breads, cereals, pasta, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dried beans, peas and soybeans as the best sources of B1. Wheat germ is the preferred whole grain source, and lean pork the best meat source.
For B3 deficiency, eat beef, pork, chicken and yeast products. Liver, kidney, dairy and fish are rich in B12. For B6, eat lots of whole-grain cereals, liver, vegetables and muscle meats (beef, pork, fowl and fish). Use caution with B6 foods, however. According to Sewell and Recht, long-term excessive B6 consumption actually causes sensory neuropathy.
Pantothenic acid (B5) deficiency is rare, according to Sewell and Recht, but it has been linked to the burning-foot syndrome of neuropathy. Yeast, liver and eggs are the best sources, according to Vitamins Diary. Vitamin E, also crucial for nerve health according to the Mayo Clinic, is found in nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, leafy green vegetables and fortified cereals, says the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements.
Proper nutrition is essential for nerve health. If your neuropathy pain is related to nutritional deficiencies, consult your doctor about designing an individualized healthy eating program that will help your condition.