While you can’t halt the deterioration of your spine entirely, there is still much you can do to slow the pace—through movement, bodywork, and nutrition.
Bodywork and massage are not just great ways to nurture yourself and relieve stress. As the soft tissues weaken, chronically held muscular tension or distortional patterns are the fault lines along which the body breaks down and injury occurs.
Chronic tension and distortion patterns arise from from stress, faulty movement patterns, repetitive motions, or past trauma or injury. One way to relieve or release these is receiving regular bodywork, be it deep tissue massage, chiropractic adjustments, osteopathic treatments, Rolfing, acupressure, or myofascial release.
While bodywork won’t turn the clock back on soft tissue aging, it is useful for releasing chronic, long-term tension in the muscles and connective tissue. Massage also helps detoxify the body and remove metabolic waste products from the cellular environment by promoting lymphatic circulation.
The loss of strength, hydration, and flexibility that happens with soft-tissue aging is affected by the food you eat and your intake of water. Here are some dietary guidelines for counteracting soft tissue aging through nutrition.
To Counteract Sarcopenia—Loss of Muscle Mass
Get Enough Vitamin D. The role of vitamin D for bone health is well-recognized. However, it is now also thought to be essential for maintaining muscle mass as you get older. Researchers believe that Vitamin D preserves type II muscle fibers, which are the muscle fibers that atrophy the most with advancing age.
Eat High Quality Protein. Protein, of course, is one of the main building blocks of muscles mass. Avoid excessive animal protein and emphasize high-quality protein, like that found in whey, which is useful for maintaining muscles mass as you get older.
Eat Lots of Fruits and Vegetables. Plant foods don’t just contain essential vitamins, minerals and fiber that are essential to good health, new research suggests that they also help preserve muscle mass as you get older.
A diet rich in protein, cereal grains and other acid-producing foods increases metabolic “acidosis,” which triggers a muscle-wasting response. Research has shown that people eating a diet high in potassium-rich, alkaline-residue producing fruits and vegetables neutralize acidosis tend to retain more lean muscle mass.
Keeping the Soft Tissues Hydrated
Your body is 60 to 70 percent water. Water is needed to transport nutrients and oxygen to all the cells in your body, remove waste products, regulate body temperature, and protect joints and organs.
As the soft tissues lose their ability to retain water, staying hydrated becomes even more important. Instead of water, many of us drink diuretics like coffee, tea, or alcohol during the day. As a result, we never fully replenish the water we constantly lose through urination, respiration, and by sweating.
Chronic mild dehydration can lead to symptoms like chronic pain in joints and muscles, lower back pain, headaches and constipation. While you might think that you’d feel thirsty when you need water, unfortunately, you need water long before you feel thirsty.
There are many schools of thought about how much water you should drink each day. A common recommendation is to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day (about 1.9 liters). You lose about 2.5 liters of fluids a day through urination, breathing, sweating, and bowel movements, but gain some through the food you eat as well, so overall, the eight glasses of water is probably an accurate guideline.
One of the main causes of loss of flexibility is collagen cross-linking, which occurs when proteins in the body bind together, a process that tends to happen with age in all tissues. Cross-linking alters both the biological and structural roles of collagen proteins; as cross-linked proteins accumulate over time, they eventually begin to disrupt cellular function. Cross-links are in part triggered by the formation of the so-called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), formed when sugar binds to the proteins of the body.
Cross-linking doesn’t just affect your muscles and joints: arteries, lungs, tendons, and other soft tissues stiffen and become less efficient. Like free radicals, AGEs have been linked to the development of a slew of chronic diseases, including heart disease, cataracts, reduced kidney function, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Diet can be a powerful tool to counteract the formation of AGEs and halt the loss of muscle mass.
Keep blood sugar levels low. High levels of sugar in the blood encourages the formation of AGEs. Avoid foods that create spikes in your blood sugar levels, eat foods with a low glycemic index, and avoid sweets, sugary sodas, and juices.
Eat fresh foods. Emphasize freshly cooked vegetables and raw fruits.
Cook foods at low temperatures. AGE’s are formed during prolonged cooking at high temperatures; avoid frying or grilling.
Avoid processed and browned foods. Food manufacturers actually increase the levels of AGEs in the foods by browning the foods or increasing caramelization. Both processes make the food look and taste better, but also encourages the formation of AGEs.
In conclusion, a complete program of improving back health would include not just the focus on the health of the soft tissues, but also on improving posture and realignment of postural imbalances. However, no matter what your issue, keeping the soft tissues healthy is your best bet for keeping your back healthy and your body vital over the long term.
As you can see, taking care of the health of the back is not an isolated phenomenon; it is linked to the health of your whole body. Keeping the back healthy isn’t just important in order to prevent back problems. It may be one of the best things you can do for your long-term health, and, as that Indian saying goes, it may well impact how much of your vitality, well-being and functionality you’ll be able to retain as you grow older.
Useful Resources: Yoga Therapy for Better Posture and Back Health
Terry Smith, Ph.D., LMT and Eva Norlyk Smith, Ph.D., LMT are bodyworkers specializing in back pain and other musculoskeletal issues. They are co-founders of the Healthy Back, Healthy Body Program.