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Nutrition and the Spine

Your nutritional levels will determine how strong your teeth, bones, skin and connective tissue are. We begin to build our skeleton and connective tissue before we are born. Our diet in childhood has a major effect on how strong we are as adults.

Your spine otherwise known as your backbone consists of the 33 bony pieces called vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a disc made of tough cartilage with a fluid center. These discs provide the cushion that allows your backbone to bend and twist. Discs also act like shock absorbers as we walk, run, and jump.

Each vertebral segment consists of bone next to bone with a cartilage cushion between, tied together with connective tissue, ligaments, and tendons. What you eat during your whole life will decide how able you are to repair bones, joints, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

It’s easy to think of our bones as solid, lifeless matter where all of our living tissue just sits. But your skeleton is as much a living part of your being as your softer tissues and organs. It’s important to remember that just like your skin, your bones are constantly changing.

Your body is an absolutely amazing self-healing mechanism and in this article I want to explain the various essential nutrients required for joint, bone and connective tissue health.

How you eat (and don’t eat) and how you exercise (or don’t exercise) will make you more or less likely to have problems with your bones, joints, and connective tissue. This article will help you learn how to use nutritional supplements to both maintain good bone and joint health as well as to regain healthy bones, joints in need of repair or for healing after an injury.

Everyone has to replace body tissues due to normal every day wear and tear. Some of us also have extra repair work to do after excessive exercise, injuries or surgery. In the case of a wound or a broken bone the body begins to try and put itself back together again almost immediately. The body stores minerals in the hard, compact bone. It produces red blood cells in the inner red marrow and stores fat in the yellow marrow, and all these things are used in general wear and tear, as well as in excessive repair.

The smaller the wound, the quicker it will heal. The larger or deeper the wound, the longer it takes, and it’s the same with bones. The larger the damage the longer it takes to heal. The raw material for the repair comes from our diet and from supplementation of ingredients such as vitamin C, all of the B vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin K and the macro-minerals such as calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, boron and manganese.

All of these nutrients are essential along with a long list of other trace elements and are especially important for bone and connective tissue health. Drinking enough water is also essential. The body stores minerals in the hard, compact bone. It produces red blood cells in the inner red marrow and stores fat in the yellow marrow, and all these things are used in general wear and tear, as well as in excessive repair.

When should we supplement our diet?

Specific nutritional factors that will increase your risk of pain, inflammation or bone issues are:

  • not enough omega 3 fatty acids from ocean fish
  • not enough fruits and vegetables in the diet
  • not enough vitamin D from sun exposure or fortified foods
  • risk factors for vitamin D deficiency (e.g., older age, dark skin, use of sunscreen, obesity, kidney disease, liver disease, use of some medications, milk intolerant)
  • not enough of the minerals potassium and magnesium
  • not enough protein and high quality fat in the diet to control enzymes that produce inflammation
  • too many sweets and starches in the diet, leading to weight gain and to excess insulin
  • too many free radical ions from rancid and hydrogenated fats, low nutrient refined foods, chemical additives and residues


How does nutrition affect the spine?

Your spine needs your bones muscles, vertebrae and joints to remain in a healthy state, for optimal flexibility. Poor nutrition means not getting enough vitamins C, A, B6 and E, as well as the many required trace elements and minerals, which many say are more than 75 in number; for bone health especially zinc and copper; for muscle health especially magnesium and manganese; but there are many other trace elements that are required for optimal absorption and utilisation of each of these nutrients.

Daily wear and tear plus injuries from work, sports, or accidents can damage your spinal discs. Good nutrition and adequate hydration (getting enough good, clean water) play a vital role in your body’s ability to repair the damage and recover from the inflammation that causes the pain of back injury.

Degenerative disc disease is an example of damage to connective tissue that is affected by poor nutrition. This occurs throughout a lifetime, especially in the western world, where foods are just not what they used to  be. Some say that everyone is going to have a certain amount of damage to the spine. The discs can flatten, and protrude from between the bones. In time, most people will have small tears in the outer layers of these discs. You are more likely to have injuries if you have poor nutrition. And you’re less likely to have good healing without good nutrition.

Connective tissue, like the cartilage between your joints and the ligaments and tendons that hold them together is made mostly of collagen. Collagen is a type of protein and water. Strong collagen fibers require a steady supply of dietary protein. They also need vitamin C along with vitamins A, B6, and E, and the minerals zinc and copper all of which needs to be absorbed through the digestive tract.

Related Document: A Patient’s Guide to Lumbar Spine Anatomy

Building Bone with Good Nutrition

Minerals like calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, and boron weave into collagen to create bone. Bones also contain water and collagen. Joints are made and maintained, repaired, and protected with proper nutrition. The upkeep and repair of bone and connective tissue requires the right amounts of vitamins and other nutrients working together.

You may need supplementation with a variety of minerals, vitamins, and amino acids if you are finding you are not maintaining good joint and bone health. This especially applies if you work indoors or don’t get out in the sun. You are also at risk if you are elderly, or are a sedentary person who drinks a lot of coffee or cola drinks. Plus, if you do not digest well, or if you eat a very low fat diet, it may be important to use good quality supplements of minerals and essential fatty acids to protect your bones.

Inflammatory conditions benefit from antioxidant nutrients like vitamin E. It must be natural vitamin E, not synthetic. It should always have mixed tocopherols in order to be most effective. Any inflammatory condition can be improved with the addition of increasing fish meals a week. A good, pure krill oil supplement (krill has 47 times more antioxidant power than fish oil) taken daily can also help reduce inflammation, and increase bone and muscle strength.

How does nutrition affect healing after injury or surgery?

Good circulation is needed to build and repair a surgical incision, injured bone, or connective tissue like cartilage and ligaments. Your blood vessels carry all the raw materials needed to maintain proper strength and function of your bone and connective tissues.

Your blood vessels also carry away from these body parts all the waste material from normal wear and tear as well as from injuries. A diet that has too much starch and sweets, and not enough protein and healthy fats, will cause blood vessels to constrict. Then there is less blood flow to the areas that are injured and need repair.

All of the chemical reactions that make up the work of growth and repair require good nutrition. Herbs, fruits, and vegetables contain the dietary sources of antiinflammatory chemistry needed for tissue healing. Plant foods have antioxidants that decrease the chemistry that triggers inflammation. This type of plant is called a flavonoid.

Flavonoids are plants that have biologic and metabolic properties in the body. They also strengthen the healing process. They do this by knitting collagen fibers into tightly woven connective tissue. The result is well-knitted skin and blood vessels; dense bone; and strong, elastic ligaments and tendons.

What Nutrients Are Specifically Important For Bone Health

Calcium intake is a major factor for building bone density. You will find yourself with weakened bones if you do not get enough calcium. The same is true if you do not absorb or properly metabolize the calcium you do eat. You can also lose too much calcium through the urine because of dietary choices. Other conditions like chronic mental or emotional stress that cause inflammation of the digestive tract can prevent calcium absorption. A lack of proper acidity in the digestive tract can also make calcium pass through unabsorbed.

L-lysine is an amino acid that you need to activate intestinal absorption of calcium. You will lose too much calcium through your kidneys if you do not have enough lysine. Lysine is an essential element for building the collagen framework.

Vitamin D is essential for maintaining and regulating the health of bones and teeth along with many other functions in the body. It is a compound that is more of a hormone than a nutrient or vitamin and thus has an important role in regulating immune function and cell growth.

Vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium from the gut. It prevents bone loss and helps rebuild new bone. Vitamin D is needed for the enzymes that strengthen collagen. Collagen is a major component of bone and connective tissue. Vitamin D has also been shown to aid in nerve and muscle (neuromuscular) function.

How can you get enough vitamin D to ensure good body and bone health? Sunlight will produce vitamin D in your skin. Exposure of the skin to sunlight for five to 30 minutes between 10 am and 3 pm (in most geographical locations) twice a week is usually enough to make your own Vitamin D. As you get older, your capacity to produce vitamin D from sunshine slows down.

Diet may aid you but not with natural foods. Except for cod liver oil and some types of fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines), vitamin D is not found in what we eat. Only foods that have been fortified with vitamin D (e.g., milk, cereal, yogurt, orange juice) have any significant amounts of this vitamin.

A very low fat diet will make it harder for you to absorb vitamin D from your food. Lack of sunshine and limited consumption of foods fortified with Vitamin D may mean you need to take a nutritional Vitamin D supplement. Your physician will help you decide what kind and how much to take for your age, health, and risk factors. Vitamin D supplementation may be based on current levels of vitamin D in your blood.

You may be someone who does not rebuild bone as quickly as you lose it. Nutritional deficiencies can make this problem worse. Caffeine-containing drinks like coffee and colas will cause increased loss of calcium through the urine. Cola drinks with high levels of phosphorus also disrupt calcium metabolism and healthy bones.

Magnesium is as essential as calcium for strong bones. As much as 50 per cent of your magnesium is found in your bones. Magnesium is required to move calcium into bone. Magnesium is also needed to make vitamin D active. A typical American diet contains much less than the recommended daily requirement for magnesium.

Magnesium is lost through the urine. This happens when people are stressed. Studies have shown something as common as loud noise levels will increase the loss of magnesium. Alcohol and many drugs used for heart disease and high blood pressure also cause magnesium loss. Bone repair calls for amounts of magnesium usually much higher than the recommended daily allowance.

What changes can you make to your diet and supplement choices if you have a spine condition?

It can be confusing to try to sort out what supplements to take. It’s not always easy to know what foods to eat or not eat to help with a spine-related problem. Different musculoskeletal conditions will have some different nutritional requirements. The form of each supplement will also be important, in terms of how useful it is for your condition.

Another diet and nutrition-related bone disease is called osteoporosis. Osteoporosis means the bones are weakened, brittle, and can break easily. Lifestyle and nutritional factors can lead to the bone loss of osteoporosis. This includes what you eat during bone-building stages in childhood and adolescence. Nutrition throughout the adult years is also important to maintain good bone density, as is good digestion and good hormonal function.

Osteoporosis is an example of a spine-related condition with a clear link to nutritional status. Most people with osteoporosis will be advised to take at least a calcium/magnesium supplement. The best quality mineral supplements for osteoporosis are powdered and in the citrate form (for example, calcium citrate). Vitamin D should always be included in an osteoporosis formula.


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