If you’ve had a chance to read my book, The 7-Day Back Pain Cure, you know that back pain is complicated. It almost always comes from multiple, interlocked causes — all of which need to be identified and addressed in order to truly treat the cause of the pain.
The hidden cause that surprises most people is DIET. Believe it or not, what you eat can have a huge effect on your level of pain. Here’s some info to help you get started fixing your diet and fighting your pain.
Most of us, on a daily basis, eat too much of foods that increase the likelihood of back pain, and too little of what prevents it. The effects can often slow down the digestive system, blood flow, or transportation of waste. What you may not realize is that these secondary effects can have a direct effect on back pain.
Your body depends on food and water for energy, healing, cleansing, and your very survival. These are the only things your body has to help it perform optimally.
I’m not just talking about eating “healthy” here, to lose weight, for instance, or to trim unwanted belly fat to relieve pressure from your back. Of course, that may help, but it’s only part of the story.
Most people think of food in terms of “healthiness”— healthful food versus junk food, for example. You may think of foods that make you fat as unhealthful and foods that keep your body lean and strong as healthful.
While conceptually this thinking is mostly correct, there’s an entirely different way to look at food that’s relevant for back pain. Instead of the traditional notion of eating healthful versus unhealthful foods, you also want to think of foods in terms of their ability to enhance or reduce pain.
It’s true. Certain types of foods make your body more sensitive to pain and can increase the severity of it—especially back pain. Other foods actually reduce pain levels and decrease your ability to notice them.
Water, the First Line of Defense
When talking about diet, water often is ignored. Yet it should be the first item on the list. Water is the lifeblood of our existence, second only to air. Without it, we wouldn’t survive much longer than three or so days. It cleans out toxins, hydrates tissues and organs, regulates body temperature, and supplies oxygen, which is involved in nearly all chemical processes in the body. And one more thing—it makes up a good portion of the spinal cord.
Picture a skeleton for a moment. Between every two vertebrae (bones that make up the spine) lies a disc, a doughnut-shaped ring much like a tire tube, which cushions the bone and acts as a shock absorber. This disc is made up of two parts: the outer ring, which is a flexible, but strong, substance filled with a gel-like material, and the inner ring, which is made up mostly of water. As we go about our daily activities, putting body weight on these discs, that water is gradually squeezed out. At night, the discs rehydrate, as long as there is enough water to supply them. The discs also can reabsorb more water whenever the spine moves—again, as long as there’s water available for them to take in.
That inner water-filled ring is designed to shoulder about 75 percent of the weight load on the spine. The body’s shock absorber, it’s a water-filled cushion that supports you much like a waterbed. The outer ring, on the other hand, is supposed to carry only about 25 percent of the body’s weight. However, when there’s not enough water in the body to hydrate the discs, that inner ring deflates, forcing the outer ring to carry more weight than it should. Since the outer ring wasn’t designed for this, it can signal pain, cause swelling, or even rupture. This creates a situation ripe for a herniated disc.
Suddenly we can see why drinking water can be so important to the spine. Water is, essentially, the cushioning between the vertebrae, the substance that absorbs the brunt of all our activities throughout the day. When you give the body enough water, you’re essentially “inflating” those rings, increasing the support for your body weight and reducing your risk of pain. When you don’t drink enough water, the rings deflate and dry out, putting more pressure on the vertebrae and outer rings.
In addition, without enough water, the body isn’t able to flush away toxins as well. Sometimes that waste starts to accumulate in our systems, and the nerve endings register the chemical change as pain. Similar to the way you might feel alarmed if you were to discover a sewage leak in your home, your body sends out a red alert if toxins are found collecting somewhere they shouldn’t be collecting.
Unfortunately, we rarely attribute the pain we feel to something as simple as a water shortage. But think about it. How much water are you really drinking during the day? And I mean water, not some other drink like soda, coffee, or juice that the body has to filter first. When was the last time you drank a full glass of water? Do you drink several throughout the day or one in the morning and maybe one late at night? Or only when you’re downing pain pills?
Try drinking it more often, and see how much it helps. It’s a ridiculously simple solution and can quickly reduce certain types of back pain, as well as many other ailments, including headaches and muscle cramps.
Inflammation: The Raw Ingredient for Back Pain
To oversimplify, inflammation is a form of swelling within your body. One example is the redness and puffiness that happens around an injury, such as a sprained ankle or a cut finger. It’s the body’s natural response to any injury.
In the case of an external injury, like a cut or scrape, inflammation is visible in the red skin and swelling reactions. However, inflammation also can go on inside of us, where we’re completely unaware of it—and it’s this internal inflammation that’s of greater concern.
When the inflammation level is high in these areas, your body reacts to the hostile environment by causing you back pain. This is really your body’s way of saying, “This inflammation is too much for the back muscles to handle. Stop the inflammation, please!”
Inflammation is involved with back pain in many ways. Whenever there is a pinched nerve or nerve pressure, whether caused by a herniated disc or a muscle imbalance, inflammation also will be present as the body struggles to heal the injury. Overworked muscles often are inflamed, contributing to pain and delaying healing. Injuries cause inflammation, so if you’ve pulled, strained, or sprained a muscle or ligament, you’ll have inflammation. And new studies are looking into the possibility that inflammation may damage nerves to the point that they signal chronic pain even when no injury is present.
In other words, both nerve-based back pain and tissue-based back pain (i.e., trigger points, muscle pain, and ligament and tendon pain) involve inflammation in the pain process.
What Does Diet Have to Do With It?
So why are we in inflammation overdrive, and what does diet have to do with it? In a word, everything. In fact, when asked why we’re experiencing more inflammation these days, the really sharp doctors and scientists will typically point first to diet. Basically, we’re eating too much of the foods that cause inflammation and too little of those that cool it.
Now that the modern diet is one filled with refined grains, simple carbohydrates (foods that the body breaks down quickly and then stores as fat, such as baked goods, fruit juice, soda, and many sweetened cereals), fast food, processed foods such as white bread and ready-made meals, and an abundance of sweets, our systems are overwhelmed with inflammatory agents.
In general, we eat too many foods that contain the bad omega-6 fats and not enough of those that contain the good omega-3 fats. This creates an imbalance in the body, which encourages inflammation. Vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, and soy contain more of those bad fats that encourage inflammation. Grains such as wheat also have been shown to create inflammation in the body. And while some “experts” will claim that “red meat” such as beef is bad for you, the fact is, it’s only bad if the cow was fed refined grains instead of grass.
Then you have dairy…many people consume huge amounts of dairy, almost always from sick cows, which again have been fed refined grains and often given no room to roam like they would in the wild.
Massive amounts of sugar (in sweets, sodas, even everyday foods such as cereal, ketchup, and soups) also encourage inflammation through the release of certain hormones. Processed foods contain artificial colors and flavors as well as chemicals such as MSG and BHT that the body sees as invaders and tries to fight off, again increasing the rescue effort.
Meanwhile, we have fewer antioxidants to fight off these ill effects. We’re using up the calories we consume every day on low-nutrient foods, thereby failing to give our bodies the fruits, vegetables, and other warrior packed foods they need to heal. This puts more stress on the body and—you guessed it—causes more inflammation as the body struggles to right itself.
The skinny on excess body fat
Beyond the obvious dangers of excess weight, carrying too much on your frame can throw off your body’s center of gravity, leading to imbalances in posture. But I’m going to tell you something else here that may surprise you.
Body fat can cause you pain not only because it changes your body structure, but also because it helps contribute to internal inflammation! The cells that store excess energy as fat produce other cells that stimulate inflammation. As they swell up to store more fat, they produce more cells that activate the inflammation response. Excess body fat that surrounds organs such as the heart, liver, and stomach seem to have the biggest effect on inflammation. Scientists have found that organ fat is crawling with immune cells, keeping the inflammation going and damaging surrounding tissues.
To be clear, I’m talking about body fat, not dietary fat. For example, eating nuts, fish, or meats, which are full of healthy fats, is not bad unless of course you eat way too much (excess).
The Medical Doctor’s Approach to Inflammation
Most doctors approach muscular inflammation, such as back pain, by prescribing prescription and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs. The most popular in this category (known as NSAIDs—non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) is Advil.
The doctor’s reasoning is that if the muscles in your body are “on fire” (i.e., inflamed), he’ll hose them down with “cooling” anti-inflammatory drugs. At first glance, this seems perfectly reasonable. Got a fire? Spray water on it to extinguish the blaze. But there are a few major drawbacks to this approach.
First, when your body is in a state of permanent inflammation, you can put out the “fire” with these drugs, but unless you cut off the source of the fuel, the inflammation will just come back.
The second limitation of anti-inflammatory drugs is that, since they were intended for short-term use, they can have serious side effects with prolonged use. Your liver, for instance— the organ that cleanses your blood of things that don’t normally belong there (like these drugs)—can tolerate light use of these drugs once in a while, but as the warning labels tell you, it can’t continue doing so for more than a few days at most.
Finally, the third limitation of using anti-inflammatories is that you’re not doing anything to increase your body’s natural anti-inflammatory agents—namely, certain foods and enzymes. Unlike the anti-inflammatory drugs, your body can easily handle long-term consumption of anti-inflammatory foods and proteolytic enzyme supplements.
This is why I recommend people eat a healthy diet, rich in anti-inflammatory foods, high in healing foods – and supplement with proteolytic enzymes.
Learn more about a complete treatment plan for curing your back pain in my free book The 7-Day Back Pain Cure
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