Back Attack on a Plate

[originally published in KCN, September 1999]

backattack-burgerWhen I was in elementary school, I remember a poster that hung on the back wall of the school cafeteria.  It read “You Are What You Eat.”  A simple, but wise, phrase, and one that I’ve come to appreciate with the passing years.  However, despite my chiropractic education, and the nutritional courses within it, the idea of sitting down to a nice, piping hot plate of back pain has never crossed my mind.  Well, according to the research in Dr. Neal Barnard’s book Foods That Fight Pain, the idea might not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

backattack-bookDr. Barnard, M.D., tells of some research that was conducted in Helsinki, Finland which gives us perhaps a new way to view back pain.  Their research focused on the blood circulation of the lower back.  The primary “pipes” that are used to nourish and cart away waste products in the lower back are the lumbar arteries that branch right off of the largest blood vessel in the body, the aorta.  What these Finnish researchers found was that people suffering from chronic back pain tended to have poorer circulation in their lower backs in comparison to those who were back pain-free.  Their research revealed atherosclerotic plaques that were literally clogging the lumbar arteries — much the same way these same plaques can wreck havoc on the heart causing heart attacks or the brain causing strokes.   The average person with a history of back pain was found to have two arteries in the lower back completely blocked and at least one that was narrowed.  What this adds up to is a low back that is under-nourished.  This means that the joints of the lower back, particularly the discs (the cartilage pads between each back bone), are more apt to degenerate without a proper supply of nutrients.  The worst part of it is that these types of findings aren’t just limited to adults.  Other studies have shown the beginnings of these same types of plaques in children as early as age 10!

So what can we do to reverse the formation of these artery-clogging plaques that are robbing our spines of the good nutrition they deserve and in essence setting them up as easy back pain candidates?  Or better yet,  is there something we can do to  prevent them from forming in the first place?  The good news, according to Dr. Barnard, is that the formation of these atherosclerotic plaques is not an inevitable process of life.  There are steps we can take to both prevent and likely reverse the presence of these health-robbing artery-cloggers.   Dr. Barnard recommends we help our backs in the same way we would help someone trying to prevent artery blockages in the heart:  diet and lifestyle changes.

The “elegantly simple and effective” regimen he describes is a low fat, zero cholesterol diet, regular physical activity, avoiding tobacco, and keeping stress in bounds….  Okay, not the most glamorous back pain remedy, and certainly not the most fun, but if you  commit yourself to it, you’ll find that it can be something you can get used to — maybe even like.  Sure, you’ll have to look at foods in a whole new way and learn new cooking techniques perhaps, but Dr. Barnard maintains that you will begin to appreciate the subtle flavors and really start to enjoy these new foods in about six week’s time.  And of course if it calms your lumbago, your likelihood of sticking with the program is just that much higher.
backattack-blood-vesselsLet me briefly summarize his “artery-opening” diet.  (1)  To begin with, base all of your meals on the following food groups:  grains (eg. rice, pasta, bread, oatmeal, cereal), legumes (eg. beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils), vegetables (eg. asparagus, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, potatoes, spinach), and fruits (eg. apples, bananas, oranges, pears, strawberries).  (2)  Avoid all animal products.  Meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products all contain cholesterol and are mostly high in fat.  In other words, they’re the primary clogging culprits.   (3) Keep vegetable oils to a minimum.  The fats in these oils can contribute to an increased production of cholesterol in your body.  (4)  To insure complete nutrition make sure you have a source of vitamin B12.  Vitamin B12 is important for our blood cells and nerve tissues.  The “good” bacteria in our intestines are known to manufacture this vitamin, but it is unknown how much of it we actually are able to utilize.  Therefore a reliable source of absorbable Vitamin B12 is necessary for proper health.  Since the best sources are found in meat products, strict followers of this diet will have to rely on a multivitamin or fortified food source (eg. soy milk).

According to Dr. Barnard, by following the above diet, you will “allow something to happen in your body that has never happened before” :   the consumption of  “a low-fat, vegetarian diet, along with mild exercise, avoiding tobacco, and reducing stress, lowers most people’s blood cholesterol dramatically, helps prevent artery blockages from growing, and actually allows the arteries’ natural healing process to start cleaning out the accumulated plaque to open them up again.”  In other words, you can literally create your own natural “Artery Roto-Rooter.”  If that’s not enough to convince you, another benefit of following this menu is that  you will probably lose weight — something else that can ease back pain — and your heart will beat a little easier too.

So that’s the diet program in a nutshell.  Is it for everyone?  Probably not.  Does it contradict other diets?  Yes.  Is it the magical cure for back pain?  No, but it certainly could help for some.  I’ll be the first to admit that this diet would be a pretty radical change for most of us, including myself, but even a simple shifting of our diets in this direction (eg. swapping some of the animal protein we ingest with vegetable protein) could give our backs an edge.  Anyone interested in pursing a diet such as this should consult with a health professional well-verse in nutritional topics and should  read a copy of Dr. Barnard’s book which includes numerous recipes to help get you started.

Even though this diet may be a little much for most people, Dr. Barnard definitely lends some good “food for Bucket of Soapthought” on how nutrition may play a part in the rather complex issue of back pain.   As I was “digesting” his book, it occurred to me that if this diet actually promoted increased nutritional availability to the spine, then in order for it to work, the spine would have to be in a position to actually accept it.  Let me explain.  Blood vessels play a vital role in transferring nutrition to the spine, but the joints of the spine can’t accept this nourishment directly.  Instead, the spine is dependent on absorbing this nutrition from the surrounding tissues much the same way a sponge absorbs water.  The only way that it can do this effectively is via joint motion — a process spine scientists call “imbibition.”  This process is so crucial, an article in the medical journal Spine, once stated, “The intervertebral disc lives because of movement.”  Unfortunately, the physical, emotional, and chemical stresses we place on our bodies everyday put our spinal joints at a disadvantage.  Joints of the spine can often stop moving — literally “locking up” and setting the stage for cell death and degeneration.  Doctors of Chiropractic refer to a spinal joint that has locked up as a Vertebral Subluxation.  Chiropractors are trained to detect and restore motion to these locked up vertebrae.  While exercise will definitely encourage proper spinal nutritional uptake, it can only really help the joints that are already moving to begin with.   Only a chiropractor can help insure each individual joint in the back is moving like it should, and thus be in position to be as healthy as possible.

So, if you’re considering changing your daily fare in favor of Dr. Barnard’s Artery-Opening Menu, get your spine checked by your local doctor of chiropractic.  Not only can your chiropractor help field your nutritional questions, he or she can also make sure your spine is ready to receive the excellent fuel you’re going to feed it.  Because as the old saying goes, “You can lead a spine to water, but you can’t make it drink unless it’s well adjusted.”

____________

Sources used for this article:
Barnard.  Foods that fight pain.  Harmony Books.  New York.  1998.
Haas.  Staying healthy with nutrition.  Celestial Arts Publishing.  Berkeley, California.  1992.
Kraemer.  Spine. 10(1):69-71.
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