Patients often ask me about things they can do outside of physical therapy to help feel better faster. One of the most important things that I talk to these people about is working to reduce the inflammation in their bodies. The best way to do this is to eat well, because a large portion of the inflammation produced in the body comes from the gut.
In this context, inflammation refers to the complex chemical process that is activated by the immune system, which is designed to fight off things within the body that the body feels is potentially harmful. When this system works efficiently, it helps protect us from foreign invaders such as germs and parasites. However, if this system becomes over stimulated or overused, the result is what is termed chronic (meaning long-lasting) inflammation and this can lead to an autoimmune problem. An autoimmune disease is when the body attacks itself, thinking that it is attacking a foreign invader. Some common autoimmune diseases that I see on a daily basis that have been shown, at least in part, to arise from the gut include chronic fatigue syndrome, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, and lupus. Type 2 diabetes has been shown to be reversible in many cases when a person makes positive changes in his or her diet.
So let us say that you don’t have any of these diseases, but you come into physical therapy because your back hurts and you now have some pain that goes down into your leg. The pain that you are experiencing in your leg is probably due in large part to inflammation surrounding a nerve that exits your back and travels into your leg. If you already have a large amount of systemic inflammation floating around your body, it will likely be that much harder to get the inflammation around that nerve to subside. That means it is probably going to take longer to feel better.
If a person is serious about trying to get his or her inflammation under control, the most natural way to do this is to eat better which results in less stress to the gut. One of the most common culprits in our average American diet is refined sugar. Entire books have been written about how sugar is making our society unhealthy and obese on levels that have never been seen before. We are not talking about the natural sugars that occur in fruits and vegetables here, but rather the refined sugars that are found in most processed foods at the grocery store or at fast food restaurants. A simple rule-of-thumb is, if you buy something in a grocery store that does not come in a container, it is probably not highly processed, nor does it contain refined sugars or additives (don’t get me started on additives!).
Of course there are other foods that commonly lead to inflammation within the body (such as gluten) but it can become overwhelming (dairy) to make a complete dietary overhaul (alcohol) when you are already under the stress (anything deep fried) of a bodily injury (diet pop). So my advice for anyone that is trying to shorten the length of an injury or overcome the battle with chronic pain, if you can limit your sugar, you will help to decrease your inflammation. Your gut and your physical therapist will thank you.