What we eat may not actually make us who we are. But it can influence how we feel.
Durham’s lab studies brain signals. They find ways to block pain involved in migraines, jaw pain and other types of orofacial pain conditions.
But the latest work in Durham’s lab looks at how foods affect pain in our bodies.
Cocoa defends against cardiovascular disease
Durham’s research on nutraceuticals, or foods with health benefits, began with discussions about native people in South America.
The people that consumed a lot of dark chocolate (cocoa) had a lower rate of cardiovascular disease.
“We learned ingredients in cocoa can reduce inflammation, including one compound that’s abundant in aloe vera,” Durham said. “This taught us that people can incorporate foods into their diet, like cocoa, to actually block inflammation and pain signaling involved in the pathology of migraine.”
This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health (DE017805).
Chicken broth as preventative for migraines
Using chicken broth to get well isn’t new. It’s used worldwide. Durham explores what makes the medicine-like food so effective at blocking pain signals.
“Our findings suggest chicken broth changes the bacteria in our guts to favor those bacteria that produce and send molecules out into the rest of the body to help reduce inflammation, quiet the nervous system and block pain overall,” he said.
“More than 90% of the graduate students and people I’ve employed in my lab have come from our programs.”
Such stress can cause the nervous system to become overly alert from being under constant attack. This puts people at risk for developing migraines later in life.
“We’re built for fight or flight, but not excessive worry,” Durham said. “Our research shows that chicken broth can help calm the nervous system to help the gut function well. This is crucial as a healthy gut fuels a healthy brain.”
The power of natural products
Last year, Durham published research with Dr. Yanli Fan, international scholar, on plant products’ ability to block proteins involved in pain signals.
Their collaborative work, partially funded by Missouri State University and the Food Science Construction Project of Central Financial Support for Local University Reform and Development of China and National Natural Science Foundation of China, led to the discovery that several extracts from plants contain protective compounds to help shield the nervous system from inflammation and pain.
However, the most powerful among the natural products is grape seed extract, which is currently the focus of a National Institutes of Health grant. Durham’s lab has found this extract can block pain signals by operating similarly to morphine.
“Morphine works within the spinal cord to shut down pain pathways by putting a lid on pain signals,” Durham said. “We’ve found that grape seed extract works in a similar fashion but without the negative side effects.”
A less pharmaceutical future
Use of plant products, among other options like vagus nerve stimulation, could lead to more drug-free strategies for managing pain. Supported by several grants from electroCore, Inc., Durham’s lab has recently published findings on the benefits of noninvasive vagus nerve stimulation. They found the technique blocked pain signaling similarly to opioids. It enhanced the body’s natural ability to modulate pain levels.
“Natural supplements and alternative strategies not only avoid potential side effects of drug use, they’re also much less likely to result in negative interactions with other medications,” said Sara Woodman, a senior research specialist that collaborates with Durham. “This means the more natural products people can use, the better.”
Durham stresses that patients should still always inform their doctors of any supplements they are taking. This includes natural ones, as any supplements may interact with others or certain medications.
As eliminating use of pharmaceuticals entirely remains difficult, Durham plans to explore an additional option: combining them with nutraceuticals as dietary supplements that can offer health benefits.
“We want to see if blending the two strategies will allow us to lessen pharmaceuticals’ potential for harm but still offer the same benefits,” Durham said. “In this sense, nutraceuticals plus pharmaceuticals would equal better results.”