Neuropathy, or peripheral neuropathy as it’s often called, has a range of symptoms that can affect almost anyone. If you or someone you know has been affected by neuropathy, you’re probably wanting to learn more about the condition and find out what you can do to treat or prevent it.
In this post, we’ll look at neuropathy closer, including what it is, its causes and symptoms, possible treatment options, and how food may be able to help.
What is neuropathy?
Neuropathy occurs when nerves have been damaged. In case it’s been a while since you took biology, nerves are found throughout your body and are responsible for sending and receiving signals and information to and from your brain and other organs.
Basically, nerves are a part of the nervous system and are a vital part of messages being transmitted throughout your body. Normally functioning nerves send signals that inform you when something is hot, when you’re cold, when a body part hurts, and are needed to make your muscles move.
Now that you know what nerves are, you may be able to see how nerve damage and neuropathy could be a serious problem.
In the general population, the prevalence of neuropathy ranges from 1% to 7%, with those over 50 years old being more likely to suffer from the condition.1
Neuropathy can occur in stages. Early stages of neuropathy may be characterized by sensory losses, numbness, or pain while later stages may involve general weakness and atrophy, or loss of muscle mass.
Neuropathy is often referred to as peripheral neuropathy because it commonly affects the hands and feet. The word “peripheral” also refers to the fact that the nerve damage takes place in the peripheral nervous system and outside of the brain and/or spinal cord, which make up the central nervous system.2
When nerves become damaged or dysfunctional, they simply cannot work as they should. This disruption can cause a “kink in the chain” that is nerve signaling which can result in the misfiring of signals, meaning signals can be missing, lacking, or even sent to the wrong place.3
Causes and symptoms of neuropathy
There can be many causes and symptoms of neuropathy.
Neuropathy can come on rather quickly or may appear slowly over time, depending on the cause. Many cases of neuropathy are due to an already present disease, but this is not always the case.
Neuropathy causes include:
- Diabetes – The most common cause of neuropathy, especially if poorly managed.
- Trauma – Car accidents, sports injuries, surgeries gone wrong, and falls can cause nerve damage and resulting neuropathy.
- Autoimmune diseases – Some of these can target nerves and cause neuropathy.
- Circulatory system issues – High blood pressure and other conditions that can cause a lack of oxygen to various parts of the body can lead to nerve damage.
- Hormonal imbalances – Various stages of life cause changes in hormones that can cause swelling around nerves, causing them to become impaired.
- Infections and other illnesses – Viruses can attack nerves and lead to dysfunction.
- Cancer – Some types of tumors may get in the way of various nerves. And chemotherapy drugs often used to treat cancer can also cause neuropathy.
- Nutrient deficiencies – A lack of certain vitamins and minerals could make nerves become damaged or impaired.3 4
While not all these neuropathy causes are avoidable, some (like diabetes and nutrient deficiencies) are. Choosing the right foods for neuropathy prevention could put you at a lower risk of developing the condition (more on this soon).
Like the possible causes of neuropathy, symptoms can also vary. Neuropathy symptoms can occur on a spectrum and may depend on which nerves in your body are damaged.3
Possible symptoms of neuropathy include:
- Tingling in hands and feet
- Muscle weakness
- Muscle twitching
- Inability or trouble feeling touch in hands and feet
- Trouble coordinating certain movements
- Inability or trouble feeling pain
- Inability or trouble feeling temperature changes
- Sweating more than usual
- Gastrointestinal issues
As you can see, neuropathy symptoms have quite the range. Again, the symptoms you may experience from neuropathy will most likely depend on which nerves in your body have become damaged.
The type of treatment you need will also depend on the severity of your neuropathy, which nerves are damaged, and your symptoms.
Treatment options for neuropathy
Before we get into the best foods to choose for neuropathy, let’s look at possible treatment options.
Based on your symptoms, you may or may not need to treat your neuropathy. It’s important that neuropathy be detected early, as this will help you and your doctor determine the best treatment plan.5
Traditional treatments for neuropathy include over-the-counter pain medications, prescription pain medications, other prescription drugs, and the use of braces and splints. Other treatment methods include acupuncture and relaxation techniques.6
As previously discussed, diabetes is the most common cause of peripheral neuropathy. Treating neuropathy caused by diabetes is critical, as not doing so can lead to consequences like foot ulceration and even amputation of limbs.7
A late neuropathy diagnosis for people living with diabetes could mean irreversible damage. Because of this, diabetes management is critical to both treating and avoiding neuropathy in this population.
Similarly, reversing nutritional deficiencies is vital for people suffering from neuropathy due to a lack of certain nutrients. Treating neuropathy without also correcting any nutrient deficiencies present simply won’t fix the problem. Basically, nutrient deficiencies must be corrected.8
Best foods for neuropathy
As with many health issues, nutrition can be an important part of treatment or prevention. Even if you have neuropathy that isn’t due to nutritional deficiencies, you can still benefit from good nutrition.
However, if you have deficiencies in vitamins and minerals that have been found to cause neuropathy—like vitamin B12, copper, vitamin E, vitamin B6, and thiamin—then it’s important that you correct your deficiency.9 Most deficiencies can be corrected by eating more foods rich in the nutrient you’re lacking, but sometimes supplements are warranted.
Briefly, foods high in the nutrients commonly associated with neuropathy include:
- Vitamin B12: meats, fish, eggs, dairy
- Copper: fish, nuts, seeds, whole grains
- Vitamin E: nuts, seeds, vegetable oils, avocados
- Vitamin B6: fish, poultry, potatoes, bananas
- Thiamin: rice, beans, wheat, fish
Aside from reversing nutritional deficiencies, there are foods for neuropathy that have the potential to help you. When pairing these foods with an overall healthy diet and lifestyle, you may be able to reduce neuropathy symptoms or avoid the condition altogether.
In general, the best foods for neuropathy are a balance of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins, and other foods that contain a variety of vitamins and minerals.
Here is a closer look at these types of foods and their potential benefits:
Antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables contain something called phytonutrients, or active compounds that can help prevent diseases and maintain health when consumed regularly. Many phytonutrients are also antioxidants that can fight off potentially harmful substances in your body. Antioxidants are an important part of neuropathy prevention.10
Whole grains are like fruits and vegetables in that they contain phytonutrients and other essential vitamins and minerals. Whole grains also contain fiber, an important component of blood sugar control. Whole grains and other fiber-rich foods are an essential part of blood sugar control in people with diabetes, and, as you now know, managing diabetes is a necessary part of preventing neuropathy.
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Omega-3 fatty acids
You’ve probably heard that omega-3 fatty acids are important, but you may not know exactly why. Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in fatty fish (like tuna, mackerel, and herring) as well as walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, and some plant oils. Omega-3 fats are needed to protect and maintain the outer protective layer of nerves throughout your body.
Another reason omega-3 fatty acids are so good for you is because they are anti-inflammatory and can help improve heart health.11 You may recall that poor circulation, a common symptom of poor heart health, can cause neuropathy. This means eating omega-3 fatty acids and other anti-inflammatory foods can help lower your risk of developing neuropathy.
A vitamin B12 deficiency can be especially troublesome for someone at risk of developing neuropathy. This is because a deficiency in this vitamin, often found in various meats, can lead to nerve damage.12 Your nerves need vitamin B12 for both protection and proper signaling.
It’s especially important to choose lean meats more often than not because they tend to be lower in saturated fat. And while saturated fat can certainly be consumed in moderation, eating too much of it can cause inflammation and a buildup of plaque in your arteries: two factors that could put you at risk of developing neuropathy.
Legumes and other plant-based proteins
Plant-based proteins are another good source of phytonutrients and fiber. There are anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients in foods like beans, nuts, seeds, lentils, and peas that can help combat neuropathy symptoms.
Limiting or avoiding alcohol is another key part of a healthy lifestyle that can lower your risk for neuropathy. Excess alcohol consumption can lead to nutrient deficiencies like the ones associated with neuropathy development because alcohol can block their absorption.13
As with any changes to your diet, it’s best to make small changes over time rather than drastic changes quickly. And it’s imperative to understand that eating a few nutrient-dense foods here and there won’t improve health conditions overnight. Real, positive change takes time.
When to see a doctor
It’s recommended to see a doctor early and as neuropathy symptoms arise.14 People living with diabetes should also seek regular medical care and monitoring to ensure that their diabetes is being well-managed and neuropathy can be avoided.
While neuropathy can be severe, if caught early and treated through any necessary measures, then it is possible to keep symptoms at bay. Proper nutrition can play a role in neuropathy prevention or treatment. Remember that choosing the right foods for neuropathy could put you at a lower risk of developing the condition.
About Brittany Lubeck
Brittany Lubeck is a registered dietitian and nutrition writer. She has a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics, a Master of Science in Clinical Nutrition, and began her career as a clinical dietitian. Brittany has always enjoyed research and loves that she can help people learn more about nutrition through her writing.
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