If you are one of the approximately 16 million us adults who suffer from chronic low back pain, you may be at your wits end as to how to get back to doing all of the things you loved to do before your back pain started. Many people have tried what feels like almost every gadget on the market to try and get some relief from their pain. So it might surprise you to know that a possible answer could be closer than you think. In this week’s blog we are going to take a look at the pain relief hiding in your pantry and check out how your diet affects back pain.
Before we go foraging in the fridge for answers, we first need to look at a biological process called inflammation. Inflammation is a process that happens when your body’s white blood cells start trying to protect your body from infections or injuries. This is a natural response designed to help with healing.
But sometimes, your immune system can trigger the alarm to fight off an infection when there is no real attack. This is when inflammation stops being helpful and can actually be harmful to your body. Some instances where this occurs is when you develop an autoimmune disease or you develop an allergic reaction to something. Chronic inflammation often results from lifestyle factors such as stress, diet, or a lack of exercise.
How Do We Track Inflammation?
While scientists are still figuring out just how what we eat affects our body’s inflammatory responses, there is a growing body of data that we can look at and rely on when trying to see how we can help, or hinder, the inflammatory process.
One way that we can identify the presence of inflammation in our bodies is to track a substance called C-reactive protein, CRP. CRP is a marker for inflammation that is produced in the liver and shows up in blood tests. CRP doesn’t tell you what caused the inflammation — just that there is inflammation present in your body.
Research has shown that what we eat can affect the levels of CRP found in our bodies. Some foods, like sugar and processed foods, have been shown to release inflammatory messengers that raise the risk of developing inflammation. Other foods, such as fruits and vegetables, have been shown to have the opposite effect, and can actually help your body fight against inflammation.
How Does Inflammation Affect Our Bodies?
When it comes to inflammation and its effect on our bodies there is a wealth of data regarding its effects on health issues like obesity, Alzheimers, and diabetes. In a study published in the journal Nutrients in June 2019, scientists took a look at the effects of specific foods on those issues. They found that people who ate pro-inflammatory foods, like red meat, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates, were at twice the risk of developing cancer. Another study, published in a meta-analysis in Clinical Nutrition that same year stated that a ‘pro-inflammatory diet seems to increase the risk of mortality overall by 23 percent.’
So How Does Inflammation Affect Your Back?
When it comes to chronic pain, much of it is the result of chronic inflammation. Dr Fred Tabung, a visiting researcher with the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health states that ‘the evidence is quite strong that your diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation’. That inflammation affects not only the usual things like heart disease and diabetes, but it affects our tissues, our organs, and our muscles. The chronic activation leaves your muscles in a constant state of tension, which ends up causing loss of mobility and increased pain sensations.
How Does Your Diet Impact Inflammation?
According to Dr Tabung, “Your diet can help support your immune system by having it turn on and turn off at the appropriate times,” he says. “Yet a poor diet can alter your immune system, so it acts abnormally, and can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation."
While we still don’t know exactly how diet contributes to inflammation, there is growing interest in the roles that deficiencies in various micronutrients — like zinc, selenium, iron, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E have in altering immune system functions. On the positive side, when we look at a healthy immunity-building diet, it seems that foods rich in a group of antioxidants, known as polyphenols, can have an anti-inflammatory effect that helps reduce inflammation and lowers our perceptions of pain.
So What Is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Oftentimes, when people talk about an anti-inflammatory diet, they are not referring to a formal diet plan outlining exactly what to eat, or how much to eat. Nutritionists like to think of the anti-inflammatory diet as a lifestyle, rather than a restrictive eating plan. Brittany Scanniello, RD, a Boulder, Colorado-based nutritionist says that “an anti-inflammatory diet is an eating plan that works to reduce or minimize low-grade inflammation within our bodies”.
The anti-inflammatory diet is focused around preventing, or reducing, chronic inflammation in the body in order to reduce, or prevent, various health issues, such as arthritis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, stroke, and heart disease. It can also help with low back pain. The focus is on fruits, vegetables, plants, lean protein, healthy fats, as well as nuts and seeds.
The anti-inflammatory lifestyle focuses on some simple healthy principles:
Inflammatory Foods To Avoid:
Reduce processed meats. Data has shown that processed meats often contain chemicals like nitrates that can cause colon cancer, among other health concerns.
Eat less red meat. Red meat is known to be inflammatory and has been linked to the buildup of plaque in arteries, causing high cholesterol and heart disease.
Reduce or eliminate processed foods. Deep fried foods, refined carbohydrates, and sugary foods like cereals and snacks can all cause increases in inflammation.
Swap out processed oils for more natural fats. Reducing your use of margarine and vegetable oils, and replacing them with healthier fats such as olive oil, or grapeseed oil can have a positive effect on your arteries.
Anti-inflammatory Foods To Look For:
Plants. Fruits and vegetables are full of fiber and antioxidants. These are the type of anti-inflammatory nutrients that your body needs.
Omega-3s. Omega-3s are healthy fats found in foods like salmon, flaxseed, soy and nuts. Research suggests that they can help regulate the pain that often accompanies inflammation, help with improving your arteries’ health, and can improve brain health, too.
Anti-oxidants. Antioxidants are molecules that fight free radicals in your body. Free radicals are responsible for things like aging and inflammation. They also help to prevent or repair some types of cell and tissue damage. Dark berries like blackberries and blueberries are high in antioxidants. Dark, leafy vegetables like spinach and kale are great options, too. Certain spices, such as turmeric, garlic and ginger and great ways to add antioxidants to a meal and can pack a powerful punch.
Embracing An Anti-Inflammatory Lifestyle
The great news about the anti-inflammatory lifestyle is that it doesn’t aim to be restrictive. It is more about embracing foods that are naturally good for you, and that are delicious. January is already so full of posts telling us what not to eat and how bad we have been. We don't need to hear more of that.
Adopting an anti-inflammatory lifestyle is more about embracing delicious, natural foods and giving them to your body as an act of love and kindness. Giving it food to heal it, not to hurt it, and not depriving it along the way. If cutting out certain foods is not where you are at right now, just adding some of these wonderful nutrients can do your body, and your back pain, a world of good.