Understanding the Relationship Between the Foods We Eat & Back Pain

Oct 3, 2018 at 3:00 p.m. ET
A variety of vegetables spilling out of a grocery bag onto a wooden table.
Image: Seb_ra/Getty Images.

Everyone knows cheeseburgers are categorically unhealthy. They’re high in saturated fat and sodium, and when consumed to excess or in combination with an unbalanced diet, they can lead to high cholesterol or high blood pressure. But did you ever consider that those delicious cheeseburgers might also cause back pain?

Red meats, processed sugars and simple carbohydrates are all inflammatory foods that can raise your internal cortisol levels. According to the Mayo Clinic, cortisol is a hormone that your body naturally releases when you feel stressed, so those inflammatory cheeseburgers can trigger your body to react in the same way it would if you were stressed out, leading to tension in various parts of your body, including your back.

Doctors are increasingly starting to make this connection between diet and pain and treating patients with anti-inflammatory diets rather than more invasive procedures.

More: Is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet for You? Why You Should Try It & How to Start It

Dr. Anthony Giuffrida of the Cantor Spine Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, specializes in nonsurgical pain management and puts all his patients on a high-protein/low-inflammation diet before resorting to other treatment options.

“Over 50 percent of our patients get better with just lifestyle changes,” he tells SheKnows.

Similarly, New York-based chiropractor and author of the new book The Back Pain Relief Diet Dr. Todd Sinett has also seen patients achieve some level of relief in less than a month through dietary changes alone and acknowledges that the causes of inflammation can vary widely from patient to patient.

“Some people could handle chicken wings as a digestible protein, but for others, a large kale salad can trigger a lot of gas,” Sinett tells SheKnows. “‘Healthy’ foods that are either eaten in an unhealthy frequency or even specific healthy foods that a person may be sensitive to can cause back pain.”

Sinett notes that for some, an excess of salads, protein bars, green drinks or even sparkling water could trigger pain and inflammation. This variation led him to develop a dietary diagnostic test that he outlines in his book.

“It is an in-depth questionnaire that delves into a person’s eating habits as well digestive and bowel function,” he says of the test. “Do they suffer from bloating, constipation [or] diarrhea? Have they noticed that they are food-sensitive? These are just some of the questions. [The] answers are scored, and based off their score, we can determine the role their diet is having on their back pain.”

But according to Giuffrida, there is one thing worse for back pain than a daily steak.

“The No. 1 cause of inflammation in any human is if they smoke. I can tell if someone smokes just by looking at an X-ray of their spine,” he says. 

While both Sinett and Giuffrida recommend limiting your alcohol intake and adding physical therapy to your schedule, Sinett advocates for stress management through counseling or meditation alongside a varied diet full of lean proteins, cooked veggies and soups.

“Eating the same foods over and over can be quite problematic,” he adds.

And Giuffrida advises upping your intake of fish — which is heavy in omega 3s — and starting a regimen of turmeric to aid in easing inflammation. 

As with any diet, focusing on anti-inflammatory foods can also lead to weight loss, which makes things easier for your back and joints. According to Giuffrida, every pound you lose off your waist translates to 4 pounds of pressure off your spine. 

But the benefits of the back pain diet don’t end there.

More: These Foods Help Combat Autoimmune Conditions

“When you remove digestive inflammation, the relief frequently doesn’t just reside in your back," Sinett explains. “Patients report better bowel movements, better sleep, less headaches, more energy and better moods.”

Reminder: If you’re experiencing severe, persistent back pain, be sure to consult a medical professional to rule out more serious issues before making any lifestyle changes. 

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