Dr. Jeannique Norbert, chiropractor, Austin, Texas
You are what you eat. Did you know that this classic saying also relates to the health of your spine? The spine is not something that usually comes to mind when one thinks about nutrition – but it should. Nutrition is important in having a healthy spine. How you eat and exercise (or don’t exercise) starting at a young age will make you more or less likely to have problems with your bones, joints, and connective tissue into adulthood. Good nutrition also helps control pain and disability when we are suffering from many different types of spine conditions and improves our body’s ability to heal during times of injury.
There are 33 vertebrae of the spine. Between each vertebra is a disc made of tough outer cartilage with a fluid center. These discs provide the cushion that allows your backbone to bend and twist. Discs also act like shock absorbers as we walk, run, and jump. Each vertebral segment consists of bone next to bone with a cartilage cushion between. They are tied together with connective tissue, ligaments, and tendons.
When we are young, the bones in our spine are strong, our muscles are limber and our discs are at a healthy height, allowing us to move effortlessly. Participation in athletic activities, though many benefits can be acknowledged, if coupled with poor body mechanics and nutrition, can mark the beginning of disc damage or arthritis in the spine.
Inflammation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Most neck and back pain have roots in inflammation. Inflammation is the term given to describe the body’s response to tissue damage such as bacterial infections, trauma, chemical exposures and dying tissue. The problem is that there are times when the inflammation response isn’t accurate and those chemicals, when released on a continuous basis, without any injury or infection to confront, go from healing damaged sells to harming healthy ones. Inflammation can be a good thing, but when wrong, it’s very wrong.
In human physiology there are two forms of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is actually the good kind; this is what happens when the body responds to an injury by creating an environment that is conducive to healing and tissue repair. For instance, a sprained ankle will suddenly swell, turn pink and become warm to the touch. This is the body responding properly to this injury and sending proper fluids and blood cells to the area of the injury to help repair the damage or fight off the invader.
This biological response is self-regulating and “turns off” when it is no longer needed.
The problem arises when this response (this releasing of chemicals) happens on a continuous basis, when there is no injury or invader to face or oppose. Ideally we want inflammation to come in, hit hard, and go away. When it doesn’t turn off, you get chronic, smoldering inflammation that can eventually cause tissue and cell damage.
What does this mean for my spine?
When it comes to the spine, this inflammation typically occurs in the connective tissues of the ligaments, tendons and vertebral discs of the spine. These important structures of the spine are composed primarily of collagen and cartilage. Often confused, our tendons connect muscle to bone and ligaments connect bone to bone. Both tendons and ligaments provide stability for the spine.
Vertebral discs provide cushion and act as a shock absorber between each vertebrae. Herniated and bulging discs are one of the most common and painful problems one can endure when experience back pain. However, an inflamed ligament or tendon can also cause extreme pain and discomfort. When there is inflammation, pressure or irritation occurs in the nerves of the spine. Reducing the inflammation allows the nerves to quit firing pain signals and therefore brings relief.
MYTH: Joints get damaged as we use them and exercise can aggravate this damage
FALSE: Most believe that joints get damaged as we use them and that exercise or an active lifestyle with sports can aggravate this damage. However, what we commonly think of as joint “wear and tear” is really “cumulative repair deficit” – when we don’t support our body enough to repair the natural damage caused by using them. When used with nutritional joint support and restoring proper joint movement through spinal adjustments, our joints actually benefit and are healed from movement through increased circulation and delivery of nutrients to the joint tissues to promote tissue health and renewal. It is inflammation that causes the tissue changes that create the sensation of pain.
Do your spine and nervous system like the foods you’re eating? Reduce inflammation naturally
Though chiropractic care can greatly improve these types of spinal issues, nutrition is also important. Based on what we know to be the primary causes of chronic inflammation, diet and exercise with the wellness lifestyle may control chronic inflammation and help the body begin to properly regulate inflammation levels.
Eating foods that contain anti-inflammatory properties is extremely beneficial. Also, collagen boosting foods help keep ligaments, tendons and discs flexible. Below are some important nutrients that help support and repair the spine’s ligaments, tendons and vertebral discs.
1. Calcium is the most common mineral in your body but there’s more to calcium than just building healthy bones. Calcium supports functions including nerve conduction, heartbeat regulation, muscle contractions and weight maintenance. In order for your body to properly absorb and use calcium, you also need other essential nutrients, specifically Vitamins D and K. Because calcium is typically found in the same foods that help it absorb in your body, it’s best to get the calcium you need from real food sources, or complex food-based supplements
Found in: Dairy Products, leafy green vegetables (Kale, collard greens, broccoli, okra), almonds, cashews
2. Magnesium is a key mineral for bone density in the spine. Magnesium is required to move calcium into bone and is also needed to make vitamin D active. Magnesium is used for hundreds of reactions throughout the body, and if it is lacking, it will be pulled out of the bones. Your body needs it in order for the muscles to properly contract and relax, so a deficiency can prevent proper muscle strengthening.
Found in: leafy vegetables, fish, beans, Brazil nuts, avocados, bananas
3. Vitamin D is very important for strong bones. Calcium and phosphorus are essential for developing the structure and strength of your bones, and you need vitamin D to absorb these minerals. Even if you eat foods that contain a lot of calcium and phosphorus, without enough vitamin D, you can’t absorb them into your body. The shock absorbing discs in the spine (as described above) have chemical receptors for vitamin D.
Found in: Sunlight, cod liver oil, salmon, tuna, mackerel, mushrooms, egg yolk
4. Vitamin C: We need this vitamin to create collagen, the major protein found in our joints and connective tissue, and for the health of our immune system which, if it goes wrong, can be the cause of joint pain due to autoimmune arthritis. Vitamin C is also essential for the health of spinal discs and bone remodeling (which depends on collagen for its scaffolding). Vitamin C is a moving target: since it is not stored in the body (it is excreted in urine), we need to ingest it every day (in fruits and vegetables or supplements).
Found in: Oranges, Red Peppers, Kale, Brussel Sprouts, Kiwi, Broccoli, Strawberries
– B6: is necessary for hydrochloric acid (HCl) production by the stomach, and HCl in turn is necessary for calcium absorption.
Found in: legumes, vegetables (especially carrots, spinach and peas), potatoes, eggs, fish and sunflower seeds.
– B12: Adequate B12 is critical to maintain the myelin sheath, which surrounds and protects nerves. A deficiency in this vitamin can lead to damage to the myelin sheath and problems with nerve functioning.
Found in: Wild-caught salmon, grass-fed beef, feta cheese, cottage cheese, lamb, sardines
6. Omega-3: Found in fatty fish like sardines, tuna and salmon. Omega-3s are both collagen forming, as well as anti-inflammatory. I personally recommend supplementing with a quality fish oil to get an adequate daily dose.
Found in: cold-water fish (sardines, tuna, salmon), grass -fed meat, fortified eggs, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts
The typical food or food categories linked with chronic inflammation include: dairy, processed or refined sugars, refined grains, vegetable oils, trans-fats, nightshade vegetables (such as potatoes, peppers and eggplant), red meats high in omega-6, egg yolks, soft drinks, alcohol, high fructose corn syrup and chemical food additives.
Good rule of thumb: Seek colorful foods
As a family wellness chiropractor, I incorporate suggestions to increase your family’s health through wellness. Find the most colorful foods, the darker and richer the color of your vegetables the higher the nutrition content. Increase physical activity and spend more time outdoors. The more you move the better you breathe, and increased oxygen to your cells will help your body function better and decrease inflammation.