We rebuild our lives and our bodies after a spinal cord injury. And the daily battle of rebuilding and overcoming new obstacles is as much a mental struggle as it is a physical one. A positive mental outlook supported by good nutrition creates healing synergy. If your mind and body are aligned toward health, your path will lead you toward health. But if you don’t support your body with the nutrients it needs to heal and build new tissue, your mind will also struggle to buoy your body as it sputters with poor nutrition. The food you eat fuels your trajectory toward a thriving new normal or it can be a poison that contributes to eroding your health foundation, becoming one that you must constantly patch because your nutritional building blocks are crap.
Prior to my spinal cord injury, I would rate my health as great and I took it for granted. My only nutritional concern was, ‘am I eating enough?’ When I ate crap I knew I could burn it off during my active daily lifestyle. After my SCI, not only does my body seem to heal and move more slowly, but a negative health event can easily trigger a downward cascading cycle of tweaks, strains, and negative issues complicating my health and draining my positive mental energy. I’ll give you the lived example that motivated me to write this post.
Six months ago, while half asleep in bed in the middle of the night, I hyperextended my left elbow while I was repositioning, and I did it again the next night. I took my handcycle for a spring ride that week and a few days later, ignoring my elbow pain, I easily overexerted it doing chores around the house. Before I knew it my left elbow had full-blown tendonitis. I then began over-compensating with my right elbow during transfers, and before I knew it my right elbow was barking at me too. As a paraplegic two bad elbows are bad, really bad. I stopped all exercise, took lots of Aleve, and hoped for a quick heal. But it didn’t heal quickly, and I actually strained a previously unaffected bicep muscle overdoing a PT stretch. My frustration built. I was losing positive momentum and energy, and because I was not exercising I reduced my calorie intake. Six months later both my tricep muscles have chronic muscle cramps whenever I do the slightest exercise, they are deconditioning, and my elbows bray at me like a stubborn donkey. PT wasn’t working, acupuncture was moderately effective, massage helped for a day, but the pains remained.
Totally frustrated and demoralized, I scrutinized my diet and found an SCI nutritionist through Instagram. I learned that I had reduced my protein intake so significantly and for so long that my muscles were cramping. Within the first few days of boosting my protein, my arms became rejuvenated like a wilted plant being soaked in water. A week later I was well on my way to recovery. I’m happy to say that I finally feel like I’m on an upward trajectory and have a renewed conviction to train for the Olympics. Watch out Will Groux, here I come.
If you struggle with healing or have energy spikes and crashes, consider what you’re eating. I have been encouraged by how my body responded with a simple adjustment to my diet. Here are a few ways you can support your nutrition. – Follow positive, encouraging social media accounts (@paralysis.nutrition) Lots of mixed messages on social media but find accounts that are positive and encouraging, body-positive, sci-specific Talk to the doc for a dietitian referral Set reasonable expectations for what you can or are willing to change – quad belly (can’t change that) Consider your motivation for making changes – looks, long term health I started following Fatimah Fakhoury @paralysis.nutrition on Instagram because she posts simple, engaging SCI-specific nutrition tips. She’s a dietitian married to a person with a spinal cord injury. I decided to join her men-with-SCI group class which runs for 6 weeks. She has groups for women and couples. These personalized nutrition group classes aren’t cheap though. The six-week course is $500 but you are supported by a weekly group Zoom class and discussion, a Facebook group where participants get direct feedback on their diet, as well as a live Facebook session on the weekends. And Fatimah is super available to coach you through personal concerns. This class taught me to listen to my body and respond to nutrition.
Nutrition is super important in rebuilding our lives and bodies after a spinal cord injury. I’ve had to unlearn many able-bodied bad habits the hard way. Nutrition is not only our fuel but our medicine, positively or negatively affecting our physical and mental health, and our ability to rebuild our lives. According to Oregon’s BRFSS data, 43% of Oregonian adults with disability rate their health as fair or poor, whereas only 8% of the general population does. Diabetes, depression, etc. There are enough What is good fuel and what is shit, you may ask? Good fuel for your body will be slightly different than what I need or Will Groux, but what it isn’t is highly processed carbs, fats, and sugars. There are good carbs in moderation, good, healthy fats, and natural sugars that our bodies need. But highly processed sugars, fats, and carbs are a dumpster fire that sets your house on fire and robs your life of everything that is good. Ok, hyperbole, but not by much. The ingredients in processed food are utter trashy shit that robs your body of what it needs to continue on an upward health trajectory. They poison and when you consume it your body is forced to function on junk. Once, when I was 16 and just learning to drive my parent’s diesel suburban, I went to the gas station and fueled it up with 40 gallons of gasoline. It ran exactly 10 blocks and then died. Your body needs fuel it can burn without triggering an inflammatory response. Your quad belly doesn’t have to be Find a coach, someone with spinal cord injury, and nutritional expertise. There are many resources online. I recently signed up for a 6-week, online SCI nutrition coach. It is a bit speedy but I am ready to learn and change so that my SCI body can go the distance. If Will and the athletes can do it, why can’t I be more active and healthy?
Here are a few IG accounts and websites you can follow to find SCI-specific help: A constant process of listening and learning what your body is telling you. Changing bad habits take time. Cutting sugar. Cutting caffeine, cutting alcohol, cutting bad fats takes time. You don’t have to do it all at once, and actually, you probably shouldn’t b/c you’re less likely to stick with it. Lean into changes, have some successes, feel what it feels like to live without x, y, z, and then return to your normal. More often than not, you’ll be more inclined to crave less of those shit foods. The next time you try, you’ll be able to cut out a little more. And before you know it, over the course of a few years, you’ll actually be eating pretty healthy and feeling way better than when you were consuming sugars, carbs, fats… Barriers to eating health: money to buy food, time or ability to shop/cook food, transportation to/from the grocery store, don’t have someone to help you shop Resources to finding nutritional foods: SNAP Delivery Grocery shoppers OSCI volunteers Follow SCI-specific nutritionists on Instagram/FB