The right stuff: some of the best known nutritional supplements provide specific help for people with SCI/D.
"There are a lot of foods that we can eat that can actually be pro-inflammatory or anti-inflammatory," says Kylie James, CNP, coauthor of Eat Well, Live Well with Spinal Cord Injury. "It's really important because (some people are) high in nutrient deficiency and because after spinal-cord injury the need for nutrients becomes a lot higher."
However beneficial a proper diet is, it's very difficult to get adequate nutrition through food alone.
"The amount of vitamins and minerals in food is a lot less than what it was back in the day," James says.
Fortunately, a multitude of natural supplements that are readily available in food and drug stores could help individuals with SCI/D stay healthy.
James is among other experts on SCI/D nutrition that believe these six specific supplements are among the most effective.
One of the most popular herbal supplements used medicinally for centuries, gingko biloba is most commonly used as an antioxidant that can help protect cells in the body from free radicals.
"Ginkgo operates through several potential physiological mechanisms especially relevant for neuronal health," says Laurence Johnston, PhD, former director of Paralyzed Veterans of America's Research & Education Program. "For example, it's an antioxidant, maintains cell-membrane integrity, enhances oxygen use and metabolism, augments neurotransmission and inhibits a form of programmed cell death called apoptosis."
Gingko is an ancient tree species originating in China that can live to be more than 1,000 years old and grow to over 100 feet tall. Most over-the-counter supplements are made from standardized gingko biloba extract, or GBE, which is made from the dried leaves of the gingko tree. Some people may have a natural adverse reaction to the supplement, so caution is advised.
"Gingko biloba is a powerful antioxidant and it helps to combat free radical damage," James says. "But it can have side effects."
The U.S. National Library of Medicine says gingko could make some bleeding disorders worse and may interfere with the management of diabetes. It may also interfere with some medications such as antidepressants and ones used to slow blood clotting.
A common problem for people with SCI/D is urinary tract infections (UTI). Because of the nature or severity of a SCI/D, the body has difficulty fighting off infections. Cranberry supplements can be used as a natural way to help prevent UTIs.
"Cranberry products are a traditional UTI-fighting folk remedy embraced by the SCI community," Johnston says. "In addition to supposedly acidifying the urine, cranberries contain substances that inhibit bacteria from attaching to the bladder lining and, as such, flush out bacteria with the urine stream."
Cranberry can be consumed in the form of unsweetened cranberry juice or cranberry pills. If you decide to drink cranberry juice, make sure you don't get a juice cocktail or one with added sugar, or the juice can become counterproductive.
The importance of vitamin D can't be overstated. It's essential to the human body for many functions including the proper absorption of essential nutrients and for bone density. Vitamin D deficiencies have also been linked to seasonal affective disorder and rickets.
Consuming vitamin D can be essential for people with SCI/D since some don't do weight-bearing activities and that can cause weak bones in the lower body.
"As much as 50% of lower-extremity bone mass is lost during the first several years after injury, people with complete injuries losing the most," Johnston says. "Hence, a deficiency in bone-enhancing vitamin D further aggravates an already serious SCI problem, in turn, increasing fracture risk."
It's difficult to consume enough vitamin D through food sources alone. A good source of the vital nutrient is sunlight. The skin will convert sunlight to vitamin D, but this also poses the risk of sunburn. If you don't have access to sunlight, vitamin D3 pills are a good option.
Creatine is naturally found in the muscles and is used as a supplement to help increase muscle function.
Some bodybuilders take creatine supplements to help build muscle and do more repetitions. The supplements are a great way for people with SCI/D to maintain or improve their muscle strength and endurance.
"Several scientific studies suggest that creatine can also enhance strength in individuals with physical disability, including SCI," Johnston says. "Furthermore, animal studies indicate that creatine exerts a neuroprotective effect after injury."
Creatine can be found in the form of powder or tablets and can be purchased at most health food stores.
Vitamin E supplements can be used to help the body fight free radicals, cells and tissues in the body. Protecting the body from free radicals is especially important to people whose body has been weakened by SCI/D.
"Evidence indicates that the commonly consumed nutritional supplement vitamin E may be neuroprotective after acute injury," Johnston says.
Vitamin E, which can be found in vegetables, nuts, leafy greens and seeds as well as in pill form, can also help the body fight off infections. It's a very useful, and not very risky, supplement to take. However, too much can cause adverse side effects such as excessive bleeding.
"Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps with free radical damage, [and] it helps to boost the immunity," James says. "Vitamin E is also a natural blood thinner, so if someone's at risk of stroke or cardiovascular problems [he or she should be cautious]."
Fish oil is well known for its effect on cardiovascular health, but there's plenty more these little gold pills can do.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (nlm.nih.gov), fish oil has been proven to lower triglycerides and help prevent heart disease and stroke. People have also used it to help with blood pressure, arthritis, mood disorders and many other health problems.
It can also help regulate weight and digestion. James says it can help with pain management. Fish oil is certainly a supplement that is worth taking because of all the evidence suggesting its benefits.
"It's anti-inflammatory. It can actually help to loosen up the stools. It can actually help with weight loss and (it can be) very important for nerve function," James says. "Because it's anti-inflammatory, it just helps across the board with pain, as well. That's a pretty standard [supplement] we put all our clients on."
Fish oil can be taken in the form of oil or pills. For those concerned about allergic reactions to fish oil, flax oil or omega-3 supplements are a good option.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle
According to Johnston, the benefits of these supplements haven't been proven to be effective in human trials; the results are primarily from animal tests. Also, Johnston says the chances of benefiting from taking natural supplements are greater with acute injury than with chronic injury.
James encourages people to at least maintain a healthy, low-sugar diet and take a quality multivitamin to supplement a good diet and help fight potential health problems that come from nutrient deficiencies.
"We recommend just a good, solid overall multivitamin because with SCI they [have] so many different nutrient deficiencies that it's better just to take a multivitamin, as well," James says.
For more information visit Johnston's website at sci-therapies.info or James' website at eatwelllivewellwithsci.com.