Nutrition and Spine Health – What’s the Connection?

When anyone suffers a particularly severe bout with back pain, especially when it becomes chronic, it can be debilitating and demoralizing. People who are new to back pain episodes that keep them down are often hungry for information about what they can do to make the pain go away, and to prevent it from sneaking up on them again. I’ve written extensively on what we can all do for better spine health from the outside – exercise, proper posture, not sitting down too often, etc. Today, I want to explore the topic of nutrition and bone health as another significant way to help keep the spine healthy and strong from the inside out. The spinal column is the most extensive set of bones in the human body, and our spines help us stay upright and living an active life. It makes sense to nourish them to their fullest potential.

Inflammation and Spine Health

Reports and many health expert commentaries indicate that chronic health conditions directly related to inflammation in the body will increase significantly in the United States over the coming years. Whether it’s heart, kidney, brain, or other inflammation, no body-or-organ system is immune from inflammation’s effects – including the spine. From ankylosing spondylitis to rheumatoid arthritis and plenty in between, the spine is an absolute target for an inflammatory body response. Why does knowing that matter? Because WE ALL can help manage and reduce the inflammation in our bodies by choosing to eat more of certain foods and less or none of others. 

A word on supplements

If you walk into a vitamin store today, you’ll find shelves packed with thousands of supplements touting all the ways they can make us healthier, stronger, and smarter. Although many of the beneficial vitamins and minerals essential for optimal bone health can be found in supplement form, it is always best to consume those vitamins and minerals by way of the foods you eat. Anyone can closely follow the directions on a purchased bottle of health supplements. But if we’re layering those supplements on top of an unhealthy diet of highly processed and unhealthy foods, they’ll have minimal impact on enhancing bone health. A focus on highly nutritious, whole, and anti-inflammatory foods will always be a better bang for the buck over supplements for improving bone health.

4 Fast Facts on optimal anti-inflammatory and bone-building foods

  1. A spine-healthy plate will include a predominance of anti-inflammatory foods, including lean and plant-based proteins, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, fruits, and healthy oils. Consider the Mediterranean Diet as one to follow, especially if you’re just starting out on the road to healthier eating.
  2. Blueberries, raspberries, dark red grapes, and cherries contain high inflammation-fighting antioxidants.
  3. Green leafy vegetables such as kale, Swiss chard, and collard greens promote bone strength by improving calcium absorption in the body.
  4. Dark green vegetables, carrots, sweet potatoes, beans, and nuts contain Vitamins A and B-Complex, which support the healthy function of spinal nerves.

A word on dairy – Studies have shown that animal milk (namely cows) can elicit an inflammatory response in some people. If you’re lactose intolerant or know that consuming animal milk dairy leaves you with unpleasant side effects, then avoiding dairy products might make sense. But for those who don’t have to make such considerations, there are significant calcium, Vitamin D, B12, and K benefits. The quality of the dairy consumed and ensuring it isn’t loaded with added “fake” ingredients or unnecessary sugars is essential to a spine-healthy diet. And for those who cannot tolerate dairy products well, not to worry. Those green leafy vegetables and fish sources also pack a powerful calcium punch – no milk required!

We all heard it said – “you are what you eat.” It sounds like a cliché, but science repeatedly demonstrates that the statement is true. If a complete diet overhaul seems too daunting a task to tackle, begin with small swaps. Order a side salad with your dinner instead of French fries and ditch sugar-laden sodas for sparkling water. Commit to adding one green vegetable to your plate at every meal. These are small but significant ways to decrease the inflammatory load on your body through your diet and have the added benefit of boosting your bone health – a win-win for your spine. 

Neel Anand MD