Most of us know that taking an anti-inflammatory medication (such as Advil, Aspirin, or Naproxen Sodium), either prescription or over-the-counter, can help with musculoskeletal pain by decreasing inflammation. Inflammation can be caused by an injury, but even with the most severe injury, inflammation should resolve within a couple of weeks. For many the pain does not dissipate so easily. Often people are plagued by pain related to chronic inflammation. This is a more complex problem. While chronic inflammation can be related to repeated overuse, other causes include stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise and eating an inflammatory diet (i.e. one high in processed foods, sugar, refined oils , trans fats and low in plant based nutrients). Addressing only the local inflammation (in the knee joint for example) without addressing systemic inflammation can lead to less than optimal results and unnecessary discomfort. Low-grade sensitivities to some food proteins, such as those found in dairy and gluten for example, in some people can also lead to chronic inflammation. Every one is different and the amount of these inflammatory foods that we can tolerate without causing problems varies from person to person. There are, however, some basic principles that hold true for most.
This isn’t theoretical; it is science based. We tend to focus on the science of how the foods we eat make us sicker and overlook the power foods possess to positively impact our health. For example, eating a highly processed meal causes fat, muscle, and white blood cells to release strong inflammatory chemicals like IL-6 and Tumor Necrosis Factor-α (TNF-α). Increased IL-6 is implicated in diabetes, depression, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis amongst other autoimmune conditions. TNF-α is involved with many autoimmune diseases as well, and in fact there is a whole class of powerful drugs that inhibit TNF-α to treat these diseases. IL-17 is another of these powerful chemicals that increases inflammation by causing cells to release more pro-inflammatory substances. It has also been shown to play a role in autoimmune diseases and cardiovascular disease, and it increases in the bloodstream after eating a highly processed meal. Studies demonstrate that consuming plants rich in nutrients and phytochemicals leads to a decrease in all of these inflammatory markers in the body, which is a good thing. This is not a new concept; musculoskeletal conditions have been treated using these principles under controlled trials since the mid 20th century.
To put it simply, human-made food increases inflammation and can make us sick, sometimes leading to chronic pain. “Real” food that is made by nature, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds and lean pasture raised meat and chicken, not only keep us well, it can be used to help us heal. Michael Pollan put it best when he summed it up in one sentence, “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.” Plant-based diets (i.e. ones high in plants with small amounts of pasture raised animal products) can be seen as a prescription. This prescription can be as powerful as medicine and surgery. In many cases these dietary “prescriptions” can help medication and/or surgery achieve better results. There are some variations for different people based on individual genetic make-up and food sensitivities, but with some guidance most people can dial into the diet that helps them not only achieve spine wellness, but improve their overall health as well.