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Nutrition and Pain: Building Resilience Through Nourishment


“Keep Calm and Treat Pain” is perhaps an affirmation for therapists when encountering patients suffering from pain, whether acute or chronic. The reality is this: treating pain is complicated. Treating pain has brought many a health care provider to his or her proverbial knees. It has also led us as a nation into the depths of the opioid epidemic which claimed over 165,000 lives between the years of 1999 and 2014 (Dowell & Haegerich, 2016). That number has swollen to over 200,000 in up-to-date calculations and according to the CDC, 42,000 human beings, not statistics, were killed by opioids in 2016 - a record.

So why has treating pain eluded us as a nation? The answers are as complicated as treating pain itself. Which is why we as health care providers must seek out not simply alternatives, but the truth in the matter. Why are so many suffering? Why has chronic pain become the enormous beast that it has become? What might we do differently, collectively, and how might we examine this issue through a holistic mindset?

In just a few weeks, I have the privilege of teaching amongst 10 physical therapy professionals and one physician from around the nation who with coordinated efforts created a landmark pre-conference course at CSM in New Orleans through the Orthopaedic Section of the APTA. Included in the 11 are myself and another Herman & Wallace instructor Carolyn McManus, PT, MS, MA who teaches “Mindfulness Based Pain Treatment” through the Institute.

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Menopause, Weight Gain, and Pelvic Health


The new year is here and with it, lots of motivational posting about exercise and weight loss…but how is this desire for ‘new year, new you’ affecting peri-menopausal women with urinary dysfunction? It has been established that the lower urinary tract is sensitive to the effects of estrogen, sharing a common embryological origin with the female genital tract, the urogenital sinus. Urge urinary incontinence is more prevalent after the menopause, and the peak prevalence of stress incontinence occurs around the time of the menopause (Quinn et al 2009). Zhu et al looked at the risk factors for urinary incontinence in women and found that some of the main contributors include peri/post-menopausal status, constipation and central obesity (women's waist circumference, >/=80 cm) along with vaginal delivery/multiparity.

Could weight loss directly impact urinary incontinence in menopausal women? In a word – yes. ‘Weight reduction is an effective treatment for overweight and obese women with UI. Weight loss of 5% to 10% has an efficacy similar to that of other nonsurgical treatments and should be considered a first line therapy for incontinence’ (Subak et al 2005) But do these benefits last? Again – yes! ‘Weight loss intervention reduced the frequency of stress incontinence episodes through 12 months and improved patient satisfaction with changes in incontinence through 18 months. Improving weight loss maintenance may provide longer term benefits for urinary incontinence.’ (Wing et al 2010)

The other major health issues facing women at midlife include an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes and Bone Health problems – all of which are responsive to lifestyle interventions, particularly exercise and stress management. In their paper looking at lifestyle weight loss interventions, Franz et al found that ‘…a weight loss of >5% appears necessary for beneficial effects on HbA1c, lipids, and blood pressure. Achieving this level of weight loss requires intense interventions, including energy restriction, regular physical activity, and frequent contact with health professionals’. 5% weight loss is the same amount of weight loss necessary to provide significant benefits for urinary incontinence at midlife.

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Mindful Eating and Constipation, Stress and Anxiety


Mindful eating requires slowing down and paying attention to the present moment experience of eating. Rather than mindlessly put food into your mouth and not really taste what you’re eating, you deliberately notice the appearance, smell, texture and taste of the food and pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. Eating mindfully can interrupt habitual eating behaviors and promote greater self-regulation of food choices.1 Warren and colleagues conclude mindful eating has the potential to help address maladaptive eating behaviors and the difficulties many face with controlling food intake.2

Although mindful breathing, body scan and movement are the core skills I teach patients with persistent pain, I introduce mindful eating as another strategy to cultivate present moment awareness. Patients can have surprising shifts in their relationship to food and frequently comment, “If I ate more mindfully, I would enjoy my food more and eat less!”

Lucie Khadduri, PT, DPT, PRPC clinician and Adjunct Professor at the University of Puget Sound School of Physical Therapy, took my course last spring and describes her patient’s experience with mindful eating:

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Feeding the Microbiota-Gut-Brain Axis


Anxiety and depression are frequently encountered co-morbidities in the clients we serve in pelvic rehabilitation. This observation several years ago in clinical practice is one of many that prompted me down the path of exploring the connection between the gut, the brain, and overall health. In answering the question about these connections, I discovered many nutritionally related truths that are being rapidly elucidated in the literature.

A recent study by Sandhu, et.al. (2017) examines the role of the gut microbiota on the health of the brain and it’s influence on anxiety and depression. The title of the study, “Feeding the microbiota-gut-brain axis: diet, microbiome, and neuropsychiatry” gives us pause to consider the impact of our diets on this axis and in turn, on the health of our nervous system. The authors state:

It is diet composition and nutritional status that has been repeatedly been shown to be one of the most critical modifiable factors regulating the gut microbiota at different time points across the lifespan and under various health conditions.

With diet and nutritional status being the most critical modifiable factors in the health of this system, it becomes our responsibility to seek to understand this system and its influencing factors. We need to learn how to nourish the microbiota-gut-brain axis.

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Curcumin: The Anti-inflammatory Herb


Honestly, I have never noticed Curcumin on any of my patients’ lists of pharmaceuticals or supplements, but I will be certain to look for it now. Curcumin is the fat-soluble molecule that gives turmeric its yellow pigment, and it is best absorbed with the addition of black pepper extract. Patients often complain non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) tear apart their stomachs, so newer studies showing positive results with the use of an herb sound promising, even for pelvic health.

A 2015 study by Kim et al. researched the inhibitory effect of curcumin on benign prostatic hyperplasia induced by testosterone in a rat model. Benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is common among men and has a negative impact on the urinary tract of older males. Steroid 5-alpha reductase converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), and this increases as men age and may have negative effects on the prostate gland. Because of the side effects of conventional drugs (like finasteride) to inhibit steroid 5-alpha reductase, the authors wanted to determine if curcumin could play a protective role in BPH. They divided 8 rats into 4 groups after removal of testicles: 1) normal, 2) BPH testosterone induced subcutaneously, 3) daily curcumin (50mg/kg orally), and 4) daily finasteride (1mg/kg orally). The group receiving curcumin had significantly lower prostate weight and volume than the testosterone induced BPH group, and curcumin decreased the expression of growth factors in prostate tissue. The authors conclude curcumin may be a useful herb in inhibiting the development of BPH with fewer side effects than conventional drugs.

In the urology realm, Cosentino et al.2016 explored the anti-inflammatory effects of a product called Killox®, a supplement with curcumin, resveratrol, N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and zinc. When benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH) is not treated with drugs, a surgical intervention can be executed called a transurethral resection of the prostate (TURP); or, for bladder cancers, a transurethral resection of the bladder (TURB) can be performed. Either surgery generally requires administration of NSAIDs post-operatively for inflammation, urinary burning, or bladder spasms or to prevent later complications such as urethral stricture or sclerosis of the bladder neck. This open controlled trial involved Killox® tablet administration to 40 TURP patients twice a day for 20 days, to 10 TURB patients twice a day for 10 days and to 30 BPH patients who were not suited for surgical intervention once a day for 60 days. The control group received nothing for 1 week post-surgery, and 52.5% of TURP and 40% of TURB patients required NSAIDs to treat burning and inflammation the following 7 days. None of the Killox® treatment groups had post-operative or late complications except one, and none suffered epigastric pain like those using NSAIDs. The authors concluded Killox® had significant positive anti-inflammatory and analgesic effects on the patients and could be used as a safe alternative to NSAIDs by physicians.

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Vulvodynia: Foods May be Fueling the Fire


We are all familiar with the old saying, “You are what you eat.” A functional medicine lecture I attended recently at the Cleveland Clinic explained how chronic pain can be a result of how the body fails to process the foods we eat. Patients who just don’t seem to get better despite our skilled intervention make us wonder if something systemic is fueling inflammation. Even symptoms of vulvodynia, an idiopathic dysfunction affecting 4-16% of women, have been shown to correlate to diet.

In a single case study of a 28 year old female athlete in Integrative Medicine (Drummond et al., 2016), vulvodynia and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were addressed with an elimination diet. After being treated by a pelvic floor specialist for 7 months for vulvodynia, the patient was referred out for a nutrition consultation. Physical therapy was continued during the vegetarian elimination diet. In the patient’s first follow up 2 weeks after starting eliminating meat, dairy, soy, grains, peanuts, corn, sugar/artificial sweeteners, she no longer had vulvodynia. The nutrition specialist had her add specific foods every 2 weeks and watched for symptoms. Soy, goat dairy, and gluten all caused flare ups of her vulvodynia throughout the process. Eliminating those items and supplementing with magnesium, vitamin D3, probiotics, vitamin B12, and omega-3 allowed the patient to be symptom free of both vulvodynia and IBS for 6 months post-treatment.

On the more scientific end of research, Vicki Ratner published a commentary called “Mast cell activitation syndrome” in 2015. She described how mast cells appear close to blood vessels and nerves, and they release inflammatory mediators when degranulated; however, mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) involves mast cells that do not get degranulated properly and affect specific organs like the bladder. She proposed measuring the number of mast cells and inflammatory mediators in urine for more expedient diagnosis of interstitial cystisis and bladder pain syndrome.

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Vitamin D Deficits: Impacting the Pelvic Floor

Appropriate sun exposure and/or daily supplements provide our bodies with sufficient amounts of Vitamin D. I would venture to guess almost every one of the patients I treated in Seattle had a deficiency of Vitamin D if they were not taking a supplement. Running outside year round has always kept my skin slightly tan and my levels of Vitamin D healthy; however, when I was pregnant in the Pacific Northwest, I had to supplement my diet with Vitamin D, which was a first for this East Coast beach girl. The benefit of Vitamin D has spread beyond just bone health, with studies showing its impact on pelvic floor function.

Parker-Autry et al., (2012) published a study discerning the Vitamin D levels in women who already presented with pelvic floor dysfunction versus “normal” gynecological patients. The retrospective study involved a chart review of 394 women who completed the Colorectal Anal Distress Inventory (CRADI)-8 and the Incontinence Impact Questionnaire (IIQ-7). These women all had a total serum 25-hydroxy Vitamin D [25(OH)D] drawn within one year of their gynecological visit. The authors defined a serum 25(OH)D of <15ng/ml as Vitamin D deficient, between 15-29ng/ml as Vitamin D insufficient, and >30ng/ml as Vitamin D sufficient. In the pelvic floor disorder group comprised of 268 women, 51% were found Vitamin D insufficient, 13% of whom were deficient. The CRADI-8 and IIQ-7 scores were noted as higher among the Vitamin D insufficient women. Overall, the mean 25(OH)D levels in the women without pelvic floor issues were higher than those who presented with pelvic floor disorder symptoms.

Another case-control study in 2014 by Parker-Autry et al., focused on the association between Vitamin D deficiency and fecal incontinence. They considered 31 women with fecal incontinence versus a control group of 81 women without any pelvic floor symptoms, looking at serum Vitamin D levels. The women with fecal incontinence had a mean serum Vitamin D level of 29.2±12.3 ng/ml (insufficient/deficient), while the control group had a higher mean level of 35±14.1 ng/ml (sufficient). The women completed the Modified Manchester Health Questionnaire and the Fecal Incontinence Severity Index, and women with deficient Vitamin D scored higher on the questionnaire, indicating fecal incontinence as a burden on quality of life. The severity scores were higher for Vitamin D deficient women, but there was not a statistically significant difference between the groups.  Once again, the pelvic floor disorder and Vitamin D deficiency correlation prevailed in this study.

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Several Breakthrough Breast Cancer Studies Revealed at 2016 American Society of Clinical Oncology Meeting


The American Society of Clinical Oncology convened their 2016 annual meeting over the weekend, and several of the presentations suggest new methods of preventing breast cancer recurrence.

Extended Hormone Therapy Reduces Recurrence of Breast Cancer

Breast cancer patients who are treated with aromatase inhibitor therapy are generally prescribed the the estrogen drugs for a five year course. A new study has suggested that by doubling the length of hormone therapy, the recurrence rate for breast cancer survivors drops by 34%. The study included 1,918 women who underwent five years of hormone therapy with the drug letrozole. After five years, half of the group switched to a placebo while the other half were given an additional five year treatment.

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Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fighting Inflammation


When a 472 pound gentleman recently arrived for an evaluation for low back pain, he came to the clinic for me to help him, not deride him about his weight (which he complained all his doctors have already done). He claimed he had lost 120 pounds but gained back 50, and his low back was extremely painful with transitional movements and daily function. Undoubtedly, this man’s body was a battlefield for inflammation, and no matter how much manual therapy or exercise I implemented, nutrition education seemed vital. Instead of just chatting about baseball or the weather, competently sharing what we’ve studied and learned in continuing education courses is warranted in our practice.

In a 2016 review Klek reveals the most current evidence regarding Omega-3 Fatty Acids in nutrition delivered intravenously. Although physical therapists do not decide the ingredients for patients’ parenteral nutrition, the article thoroughly explains the essential benefits of fatty acids. Aside from being important structural components of cell membranes and precursors of prostaglandins and cholesterol, fatty acids regulate gene expression and adjust pathways of cells regarding inflammation and cell-mediated immune responses. Ultimately, fatty acids modulate metabolic processes in the body, whether locally, in a particular region, or at remote sites. Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to inhibit synthesis of triglycerides by the liver, prevent cardiovascular disease, reduce cancerous cell growth, and even affect the development of rheumatoid arthritis and Chrohn’s disease. This article not only sheds light on parenteral nutrition for post-surgical, oncology, critically ill, and even pediatric patients but also educates the healthcare professional on the impact fatty acids have on the patients we treat.

In 2015, Haghiac et al. performed a randomized double-blind controlled clinical trial to determine if Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation could reduce inflammation in pregnant woman who are obese. Although the study began with 36 subjects in each group, only 24 women in the experimental group receiving 4 capsules a day of Omega-3 fatty acid (total of 2000mg) and 25 of the women taking 4 placebo capsules a day completed the supplementation over the 25 weeks up until delivery. The authors referenced the findings that low grade inflammation becomes exacerbated in obese pregnant women. While an excess of Omega-6 fatty acids practically promotes inflammation via eicosanoid (hormone) production, a healthy balance of Omega-3 fatty acids lessens inflammatory and immunosuppressive eicosanoid production. This study demonstrated an improvement in inflammation in the women who took the Omega-3 fatty acid as evidenced by a decrease in the expression of inflammatory genes in adipose tissue and placenta as well as reduced plasma C-reactive protein (CRP) at delivery.

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Disordered Eating and Bowel Dysfunction


In Megan Pribyl’s course on Nutrition Perspectives for the Pelvic Rehab Therapist, she discusses a wide variety of useful topics specific to nutrition and pelvic health. In her lecture on “Nutritional Homeostasis”, Megan counsels against missing an underlying eating disorder when working with a patient who has bowel issues. Work by Abraham and Kellow (2013) is cited, and in their article published in BMC Gastroenterology, the authors concur that many patients who have functional gastrointestinal complaints may also have disordered eating. How then, can we tell these patients apart, and get patients the most appropriate care? First let’s look at their research.

Patients who were admitted to a specialty unit for those with eating disorders in Australia were studied and were found to have conditions such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, polycystic ovarian syndrome, treated celiac disease, and treated bipolar depression. All of the 185 patients completed the Rome II Modular Questionnaire to identify symptoms consistent with functional gastrointestinal (GI) dysfunction. They also completed the Eating and Exercise Examination which collected data about behaviors including objective binge eating, self-induced vomiting, laxative use and excessive exercise.

Esophageal discomfort (heartburn and chest pain of non cardiac origin) was associated with excess exercise (more than 5 days/week). Self-induced vomiting was identified primarily in the patients diagnosed with bulimia. One interesting finding the researchers noted is that for patients who have disorder eating, pelvic floor symptoms that are not associated with functional constipation are a prominent feature. This data begs the question, how can we best screen for disordered eating in patients who present with bowel dysfunction that otherwise may fit with the symptoms and presentation of patients who do not have disordered eating?

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