Low back pain is a debilitating condition, affecting millions of Americans. Because pain is so unique and each person experiences it differently, experts are yet to find one perfect cure for this condition. This leaves many sufferers on their own to try and find something to bring them relief.
Medication is one of the remedies that people often turn to, but what if we told you that the answer might be hiding in your pantry, and not inside the medicine cabinet?
Food As Medicine
There is a growing trend that views food as medicine, and that holds that the types of food we eat can either be a form of healing to our bodies, or it can be a source of harm.
There is an Ayurvedic proverb that states, “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is correct, medicine is of no need”. This quote may be a little extreme as there is definitely a time and a place for medicine, but it does remind us that perhaps, before we reach for the medicine, we can take a look at our environment and see if there are answers there first.
And that is what brings us to today’s topic around food and musculo-skeletal conditions, and the fact that there are certain foods to avoid with low back pain.
Causes Of Low Back Pain
According to the Global Burden of Disease data, published by the CDC and updated in 2023, low back pain is the single leading cause of disability worldwide. Experts estimate that as much as 80% of the population will experience back problems at some point in their lives.
Fortunately, most cases of low back pain tend to resolve on their own. If your pain doesn’t resolve quickly, and lasts for 3 or more months, it is then considered to be “chronic”. Generally speaking, if your pain lasts longer than 72 hours, it is a good idea to consult your healthcare provider.
While there are many causes of low back pain (see our blog on ‘common causes of low back pain’), your healthcare professional should be able to advise you on the best course of action to treat your specific condition.
With that being said, there are some things that you can do to help speed up the healing process. This is where inflammation comes in.
When it comes to low back pain, inflammation plays a big part in how we experience pain. Inflammation is our body’s natural defense mechanism to injuries or infections.
In an ideal situation, inflammation is there to help our bodies heal or to stay healthy. Generally, inflammation is meant to last for a short, specific time, to deal with a certain injury or infection. However, if the inflammatory response goes on for too long it can actually end up hurting our bodies instead of healing them.
How Inflammation Happens In The Body
When a foreign body such as a virus, or bacteria, enters our body, our system responds by releasing white blood cells which are specifically designed to attack these foreign bodies.
This response causes an increase of blood flow to that area of the body, resulting in swelling, warmth, and redness. This process can also cause nerves in that area to be stimulated, causing increased pain sensations.
In the right situation, once the body heals from the virus, injury, or bacteria, the inflammation goes away and everything returns to normal. This is commonly known as localized inflammation and can be one cause of low back pain.
Unfortunately, sometimes our bodies are exposed to things that cause inflammation of a more chronic nature. This happens when the inflammatory response lingers and doesn’t go away.
There are several causes of chronic inflammation including untreated injuries or infections, autoimmune disorders (where the body mistakenly attacks itself), and long term exposure to irritants such as chemicals or pollution. Or food.
Research has shown that the food we eat can affect the levels of inflammation found in our bodies. The level of inflammation can be measured using a marker that is found in your blood, called C-reactive protein (CRP). Studies have shown that there are some foods that can increase these CRP levels, raising your risk of chronic inflammation.
Previously, the effects of food on inflammation were mostly thought to be linked to conditions such as heart disease, hypertension and cancer. We now know that inflammation can affect our musculoskeletal system as well.
5 Foods To Avoid With Low Back Pain
This is why we have come to identify certain types of foods that you should avoid if you suffer from low back pain. Here is what the research has found.
Sugary foods are one of the worst culprits when it comes to inflammation. Sugary foods not only cause weight gain, tooth decay, and diabetes, but they can also trigger inflammation in our bodies. If you are struggling with low back pain, it might be worth taking a look at how much sugar you are consuming each day.
Many people eat too much added sugar. In fact, the average American may be eating around 17 teaspoons (71.14 grams) of added sugar per day. The obvious offenders that come to mind might be the delicious donuts that you ate for breakfast, and then the 3pm candy bar and soda needed for the afternoon energy burst to get you through the work day. But there are hidden sugars in our diet, too, that can be just as dangerous.
Savory packaged foods can have even higher levels of sugar than a regular soda or candy bar. Some of these processed foods are even marked as “healthy” which makes them even harder to detect.
Spaghetti sauce, breakfast cereals, breakfast bars and yogurts can contain up to 6 teaspoons (29 grams) of sugar! Food companies also hide sugar by giving it different names like ‘fructose’ and ‘dextrose’.
Avoiding sugar is hard! So if you need to satisfy your sweet tooth, try adding some fresh fruit to your meal. A delicious fruit salad or a juicy apple can help keep those sweet cravings at bay.
Making your own fresh pasta sauce, rather than purchasing sauce in a jar, is a great way to avoid those hidden sugars. If you just don’t have the time to do that (we get it — life can be hectic) then try and make sure that you buy sauces kept in the cold section of your grocery store, and look out for those sneaky new terms ending in ‘ose’.
Most vegetable oils are high in Omega 6 fatty acids. These fatty acids are not necessarily bad for you, if you have them in small amounts. Your body requires a delicate balance between Omega 3 fatty acids and Omega 6 fatty acids. When you have more Omega 6 than Omega 3, this can trigger an inflammatory response.
Canola oil, safflower, soybean and other vegetable oils are both highly refined, and have a very high ratio of Omega 6 fatty acids to Omega 3s. When these oils are heated at very high temperatures, they oxidize, which triggers the inflammatory process and makes them dangerous to our body tissues.
Fortunately there are a whole host of cold-pressed, unrefined oils that make great alternatives for cooking. Olive oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and sesame seed oil are some of the super substitutes available at pretty much any grocery store. And they all work really well for cooking and baking.
Poor red meat. It is always making it onto the list of “bad foods”. Unfortunately there is just no getting around this when it comes to inflammation. Red meat is high in saturated fats which have been proven to cause inflammation in our bodies.
Red meat also contains a substance called Neu5Gc. There is a growing body of scientific research that indicates that because our bodies cannot make this specific type of acid, Neu5Gc, when we encounter it in red meat, our immune system recognizes it as a foreign substance and launches an inflammatory response to it.
While many health experts are touting the immense benefits of a plant-based diet, for those who aren’t ready to take the plunge and give up animal products altogether, wild-caught fish, pastured poultry and pork all make great alternatives to provide a good amount of protein to your diet.
According to Scientific American, refined carbohydrates may be worse for our health than trans fats. Refined carbohydrates such as sugary cereals and mouth watering pizzas are some of the favorite foods found in this group.
Unfortunately the refined carbohydrates in these foods act in a similar way to sugar. They enter the bloodstream quickly, causing a rapid spike in your blood sugar which then triggers the inflammatory response.
Aside from refined grains being inflammatory in nature, they also often contain sugar to help keep them shelf-stable for longer. This means that modern grains tend to have a higher glycemic index, elevating your sugar much higher than unprocessed grains.
We don’t know about you, but avoiding carbs completely can be a challenging thing to do. A good alternative to giving them up entirely is to replace those refined carbs with whole grain alternatives like oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa. These whole grain products take longer to digest and don’t spike your blood sugar the same way that refined carbohydrates do.
A nice glass of wine or a cold beer at the end of a long hard work day might sound like the perfect way to relax and reward yourself but unfortunately it might be having the opposite effect.
Have you ever looked in the mirror the next morning and thought that your face looked sort of puffy? That is a classic sign of inflammation. Recent research suggests that alcohol causes inflammation in the intestines and impairs the body’s ability to regulate that inflammation. This in turn, can affect other parts of the body.
Giving up that relaxing nightcap might be tough so it might be a good time to try out a fun mocktail or have a relaxing cup of tea. Some sparkling water with fresh blackberries and muddled mint might be a fun drink to sample. If you find you just can’t give up your evening libation then try to aim for just one drink each night.
If the thought of giving up these foods is just too difficult, we totally get it. Generally, when making changes to your diet, it is often best to start with small sustainable changes, rather than giving everything up all at once. Making some of these small substitutions over a period of time is a great way to start with an anti-inflammatory diet.
Another thing to try is, instead of focusing on what you have to give up, maybe focus on adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet, while you make some small substitutions one at a time. Some great anti-inflammatory foods you can try adding are:
Seafood : tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, shellfish
Fruits (focusing on blueberries, strawberries and raspberries)
Dark leafy vegetables
Nuts and seeds
Olives and olive oil
Herbs & Spices (ginger, turmeric, garlic, oregano, cinnamon, rosemary, cloves)
The key to reducing your low back pain is to reduce the amount of inflammation in your body, so every little change you can make is a step in the right direction. If you are including a variety of fresh, nutritious foods, and if you know how to read the food labels for some of those sneaky inflammatory ingredients, you will already be on the path to wellness.
Something To Think About
Some new research, just published in 2023 has made the healthcare community think about the benefits of inflammation vs the negative effects. A small study done on dental patients with TMD, found that rather than causing pain, inflammation might help to prevent it.
The researchers found that 'painkillers that work by suppressing inflammation might be counterproductive for relieving pain in the long run'.
Some scientists are considering this new data and have suggested that the results of this study might explain why exercise and physical therapy are highly effective for people with musculoskeletal pain such as low back pain and TMD.
This is obviously just one study and more research needs to be done around this discovery.
No matter what the scientists decide, we do know that there are foods that trigger inflammatory processes in our bodies and that these specific processes do contribute to our experience of pain, so there is no harm in seeing what eliminating or reducing the amount of these foods in your diet can do.
Let us know what your favorite anti-inflammatory foods are, or what successes you have made in swapping out certain foods.
We love hearing success stories!