If you sustain a spinal cord injury, it’s likely to result in partial or complete paralysis and have a significant impact on your body and its systems. Spinal cord injury can affect your movement, bowel and bladder function, immune system, breathing, ability to regulate body temperature and skin integrity.
This guide outlines how diet and nutrition can affect your body and how eating a healthy, balanced diet can help you lead a healthy life after spinal cord injury.
In relation to bodily functions, your diet is likely to have the biggest impact on how you manage your bowel. As well as affecting your ability to control bowel movements which enable you to pass stool, the involuntary side of the digestive process is also affected by spinal cord injury. This affects peristalsis, the movement which passes food through the digestive system, which can slow the speed of the bowel. With matter taking longer to pass through the system, it increases the likelihood of bowel problems, most notably constipation.
Whilst not always treated as a serious condition, severe constipation can cause serious health problems. Faecal impaction (where stool has built up in the rectum), bowel perforation (where the lining of the colon is damaged, a potentially life-threatening situation) and even a compromised respiratory system by inhibiting the movement of the diaphragm, can all be caused by constipation.
It’s important to maintain a healthy, balanced diet to ensure your bowel management programme is effective and efficient, giving you peace of mind to engage in fulfilling activities. Eating a variety of the foods outlined below will not only help you maintain a good bowel programme but will also provide the essential nutrition to keep the body and mind healthy.
Dark leafy greens like kale, spinach and collard greens are packed with essential nutrients. They are great sources of magnesium, which is essential for regulating nerve and muscle function. Including more magnesium in your diet can also help promote muscle relaxation and improve sleep.
Dark leafy greens also contain folate (vitamin B9), which helps promote bone and neurological health. In fact, folate plays an essential role in the development of the brain and spinal cord.
Other essential vitamins found in dark leafy greens include vitamins A, C, E, and K. They provide antioxidants that help fight off damage-causing free radicals in the body.
Dark leafy greens are also an excellent source of fibre, which can help matter move through the digestive system.
One of the best foods to include in your diet after spinal cord injury is oily fish. Salmon and mackerel are excellent sources of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which research suggests can protect nerves from injury and help promote regeneration.
Fatty fish also contains selenium and is one of the few food sources of Vitamin D, both of which help protect bone health. You are at greater of osteoporosis if you cannot weight bear following spinal cord injury, so eating foods that help maintain bone density is really important.
Fish is also a great source of protein, which is essential for maintaining muscle mass and promoting healing.
Dairy products like milk, yoghurt, and cheese are all great sources of calcium.
Calcium and vitamin D play essential roles in maintaining good bone health. Your body will take calcium from the bones if you don’t consume enough, increasing your risk of developing osteoporosis after spinal cord injury.
Calcium also plays a significant role in signalling between cells in the nervous system and regulating muscle contractions. A lack of calcium can increase muscle spasms, which are already problematic for many people with spinal cord injuries.
Dairy products also have high amounts of vitamin B12 which helps produce myelin, the fatty substance that protects nerve cells.
All nuts are great plant-based sources of protein, healthy fats, and fibre. They should form part of your diet after spinal cord injury, aiding digestion, promoting healing and maintaining good bone health.
Almonds are excellent sources of calcium, vitamin E, and magnesium. They also contain phosphorous, which is essential for forming and strengthening the bones.
Walnuts contain significant amounts of essential omega-3s, which can help reduce inflammation in the body and maintain healthy blood vessels.
Beans are full of vital nutrients like fibre, protein, and folate. They support digestion, lower blood pressure, and help keep you full. They’re also ideal sources of protein that are low in fat.
Berries like blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries are excellent sources of antioxidants that remove toxins from the body and protect cells. Additionally, berries contain over 85% water, which will help purify the blood and improve circulation.
Orange vegetables like sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and carrots are all great sources of vitamin A. Their vibrant orange colour comes from beta-carotene which the body converts into vitamin A, helping keep your skin, eyes, and immune system healthy. With increased susceptibility to pressure sores after spinal cord injury, orange vegetables are an excellent food for helping maintain the integrity of your skin.
Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits are excellent sources of vitamin C. Vitamin C promotes the formation of scar tissue, helping with the healing process.
It also plays a vital role in collagen formation, which is essential for healthy skin, bones, and connective tissues.
Water helps purify the body of toxins and assists with maintaining healthy stool consistency, to help bowel movements. Drinking plenty of water (2 – 3 litres every day) will help your body absorb essential minerals and nutrients to help it function properly. Staying hydrated can also minimise your risk of developing pressure sores.
As part of a healthy eating programme, it’s important to manage the amount of food you eat. If you are undertaking less physical activity after a spinal cord injury, you are expending less energy and therefore will require less food. If you continue to eat the same quantities of food as before but are not expending the energy necessary to offset your food intake, it is likely you will gain weight.
The ideal weight for someone with SCI is different than that for someone without a disability. You are likely to lose muscle mass due to lack of use and consequently, your body composition may increase in fat while decreasing in bone and muscle. To determine your ideal weight range and calorie intake after SCI, consult with your doctor.
Changing your diet or eating habits can be difficult. The key to maintaining a healthy diet after spinal cord injury is consistency. Making changes you can stick to in the long term can make a real difference. These tips may help you:
What you eat has an impact on your bodily functions, ability to heal, your mood, energy levels, and functional abilities, so it’s important to eat a healthy diet after sustaining a spinal cord injury.
Due to limited mobility and changes in body composition, you may have to reduce how much you eat. Determining your ideal calorific intake will depend on many factors including your activity levels, the level of your injury, and any secondary complications you may incur. If you are concerned about your diet or the impact it is having on your health, consult your GP who will be able to refer you to a nutritionist.
If your injury was caused as a result of someone else being at fault, you should seek compensation to help pay for the additional support you may require, as well as any lost wages that you would have otherwise earned if not for your injury. Making a successful legal claim will allow you to secure these funds, and it is vitally important that you choose a solicitor with expertise in this area to represent you. The personal injury team at JMW are specialists in supporting clients who have sustained a spinal cord injury that wasn’t their fault, securing millions of pounds in compensation to help them get on with their lives.