Sharpest Tool in the Shed

How I Avoided Career-ending Back Surgery Through Nutrition

by Trevor L. Smith

“I know that walk,” joked an industry friend as I stiffly jumped down from my truck and walked toward him. I had just spent forty-five minutes in an air-conditioned truck, and all my joints had seized up. After a dozen strides the oil was flowing again and I was back to “normal.” Truth is, so many of us have “that walk” especially those of us on what I call the back forty. It’s a walk that reflects years of lifting, twisting and pushing through sore muscles and injury. While the rest of the nation is suffering back and joint injuries from lack of use and sitting too long, our aliments are more akin to our grandparent’s and great-grandparent’s injuries.

My grandfather, before he passed, was crooked from years of physically hard work; he walked with a limp and had a grip like a steel trap. I just assumed that was going to be me; leather-necked, scarred, and crooked, with strength that defied my age. I was okay with this; a living example of a life well lived with lines on my face and hands that tell my story. I was okay with this at ninety-six like my grandfather, but not at forty-one; not as all my hard work developing a successful business was starting to pay off, not before I got to enjoy all that life has to offer between forty and ninety. This was almost the case when my body betrayed me just about two years ago.

Alternatives to Pain

Before two years ago I would have sore days, like I imagine we all do, when my back was screaming after a long day or when I woke up stiff and sore. Sometimes this pain lasted a day, sometimes a week, but it always passed. In March of 2016 that all changed. I experienced a sciatic episode that left me flat out for three days and resulted in chronic pain and a pronounced limp due to numbness in my left leg and foot.

Eventually I was told that I have herniated discs and the inflammation and pressure on my spine caused the sciatic episode as well as the numbness in my leg. I did rehab, then injections, and was finally told I needed surgery. I went around and around with doctors and insurance all winter, and in April the 2017 the season off and running, there was no time for games. I had to do something, and do it now. I decided to take my health into my own hands and then dove straight into the season. By June my pain was highly diminished though my leg was still numb. By August my pain was no worse than it had been a few years before, and feeling had significantly returned to my leg. Today my limp and the pain are gone, and I have almost full feeling restored in my leg and foot.

I know I am not the only one suffering from chronic pain due to years of hard work and personal neglect. I also know I am not a doctor or nutritionist, nor am I a total health food and diet fanatic. I am now someone who actively studies the gut microbiome and continues to learn how to keep myself from ending up in pain like that again…and that’s exactly why I think you should hear me out.

I know what jobs in our profession entail and the challenges people in our profession face. All my doctors asked if I used proper lifting posture. Yeah, I do but I don’t lift an evenly balanced object up and then put it back down. I lift an unevenly balanced boulder, then I carry it over uneven surfaces down into a pond, or I drag a twelve-foot tree in a ball cart across a lawn. I know that sometimes lunch is a sub, a sleeve of cookies or crackers or fast food eaten between job sites. Finally, I know that cuts, bruises, sore muscles, and pain are things those in our profession are very used to, and we are very adept at pushing through pain to get the job done. So, let me share with you what I did, what supplements, recipes, exercises and sources I have been using. Hopefully you too can relieve your pain and reap many more years in our wonderful profession.

Supplements

Photo: Adrian Wold

You may notice three common threads running through these supplements. First, they all address joint, bone and muscle health, for obvious reasons. Second, they address skin health. We work in the sun much of the year and are exposed to all kinds of outdoor toxins; we also suffer many cuts and scratches. Since the skin is the largest organ on our body we should care for it. Third, I have found digestion and gut to be connected to every ailment from colds and chronic pain to asthma and Alzheimer’s. When our digestion isn’t right, our bodies don’t absorb the nutrients they need, even if we eat health food. When our digestion isn’t right, our immune response is compromised, leading to illness, severe allergies, and inflammation throughout the body.

Collagen supports skin, joint and digestive health. There are many “types” of collagen (e.g. Type I, Type II, III, V, X). It is best to choose this supplement from organic sources and get as many types as you can.

Shilajit supports rapid regeneration of bone tissue, structural tissue, and the nourishment and regeneration of organ tissue. It also boosts energy and brain health, balances blood sugar and digestive health, emotional balance and improved stress response and over 80 micronutrients and minerals. This comes in powder and resin. Research has shown me that the resin is the more potent and purer of the two.

Bone Broth supports healthy joints, the immune system, digestion, skin, strong bones, and the body’s uptake of minerals such as calcium and magnesium. Bone broth can be made at home or purchased as a broth or a powder, if you choose to purchase you need to be sure of a couple things. The first being that the bones are organic. Herbicides like glyphosate build up in cartilage and you could wind up with a cup of poison. The other is added ingredients. Since bone broth has become popular, many companies are putting out stock with “natural flavors” and a lot of salt. Be sure to buy broth with simple recognizable ingredients.

Turmeric is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant that relieves pain, boosts brain and liver function, supports digestion, regulates blood pressure, and helps prevent cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. It is important to note that curcumin; the beneficial chemical in turmeric, needs to be ingested with a fat such as coconut oil or pepper like black or cayenne to be beneficial. Without one or both of these to activate it, curcumin just passes through your system.

Ashwaganda regulates the immune system, reduces anxiety, and improves the stress response.

Magnesium supports energy, digestion, sleep, muscle ache and spasms, and heart and bone health.

Zinc is an antioxidant that regulates blood sugar, heart health, nutrient absorption, liver health, and muscle repair.

Probiotics benefit immune system, digestion, energy, skin, and overall health.

Cost: “Pay the farmer now, or pay the doctor later.” This saying goes for food and also supplements. If you are not going to buy good quality, then don’t bother. While the cost of quality supplements can be perceived as expensive, it is worth breaking out the cost per serving. For example, a $41 bottle with 30 servings breaks down to $1.36 per serving. The total for the entire routine detailed above comes to about $10 per day. I’m sure you spend that or more on your current routine. The Shilajit I use is $89/bottle, but there are 300 servings per bottle and I have noticed the difference, so for me it’s worth the money.

One Additional Thought

It is important to remember these are natural products. The desired result takes a little longer than traditional medicine which is instant. It is important to give all of these a month before really noticing effects. You might notice some benefits after two weeks.

Food

I shouldn’t have to explain the importance of food and the role it plays, especially when you have a physical job, but I will share my thoughts and how I use food throughout the work day. We have a no fast food policy at Land Escapes and encourage our crew to bring all their own food and snacks. We implemented this policy years ago, for two reasons. First, it saves time if the crew eats on site rather than leaving for lunch. Depending on where we are, it can take well over an hour to buy lunch offsite. Second, we eliminate fast food hangover, which leaves the crew foggy, sluggish, and unproductive for the remainder of the afternoon.

That is where it ends though. I don’t tell the crew what to bring, and I don’t preach. Everybody has their own relationship with food (e.g. big breakfast, long lunch, lots of small meals and intermittent fasting). Here’s my approach…in the morning I take all my supplements: collagen in my coffee, bone broth tea, and the rest listed above. I do not like to take a lunch break because I lose momentum, but I do need to keep my blood sugar and energy up over a ten hour day. My solution? I make my own crackers and energy bars every Sunday. I bring a few of each and eat them throughout the day while drinking about a gallon of water and a water bottle of Macha Tea, which I drink around 1:00, just before the afternoon slump. Macha Tea is a powdered green tea that you can mix into any beverage. I like it because it gives me what I call a slow burn caffeine buzz. I don’t get that rush and drop like I do with coffee or energy drinks. With Macha I find I am able to keep going. I used to have a bad energy drink habit until I realized that the majority of ingredients in the drinks promote inflammation. At night I eat a normal dinner with my family, though I try to cut out refined sugar and flour as much as possible. I also have made a stronger effort to eat completely organic.

Exercise

People always say to me, “With your job I guess you don’t need the gym.” This is only half true. We use many of our major muscle groups everyday, but there are two areas we neglect: our core and our psoas or hip flexor muscles. I had always known about my core, but until my injury never my psoas. I do not go to the gym during the season. Instead, I take 5-10 minutes in the morning to perform a few of these exercises and stretches. In the off season I add exercises to include upper body. At a minimum I do the core portion, and I don’t usually exceed twenty minutes unless I feel really ambitious. I have found that a goal of five minutes minimum is totally achievable, and everything else is bonus.

Core – Your core involves almost all muscle groups except your arm and legs. These combined muscles are responsible for the body’s stabilization, force, and weight transfer. A strong core helps prevent injury, protects your inner organs and nervous system, protects the back, and produces better posture.

Hip Flexors/Psoas – Hip flexors/Psoas are muscles deep in your body that act as tie downs between your spine and hips/legs. It is highly important to stretch these muscles. When these muscles are working they help transfer weight from the trunk to the legs and keep you stabilized. When they are neglected for too long they shorten, reducing flexibility. To compensate for this loss of stabilization, our other muscle groups try to compensate, and we begin to experience pain in our back and knees over time.

Final Thoughts

“Between stimulus and response lies our greatest power. The freedom to choose.” -S. Covey

I love what I do and I hope to enrich our planet and the lives of others for years to come. I know there is a time and place for medicine, but I personally believe we have given too much of our control over to Big Pharma and Big Ag. Everything in nature is about balance; plants get sick or are attacked by pests not because they are healthy, but because they are stressed or lacking nutrients. A pond overrun with algae is out of balance. It is the same with human health; disease occurs when our lives or bodies are out of balance.

Our bodies have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years; they know what they need and they tell us. We just have forgotten how to listen. For some reason we have put the responsibility of our well being in the hands of corporations whose goal, lest we forget, is to make money. Doctors dole out prescriptions without ever getting to the root cause of an illness, and we let bright packages tell us what is healthy. Let me give you an example. Heartburn is our body’s way of saying something we ate does not agree with us. At any other period in time we would have listened to our bodies and avoided that food. Today we take medicine to silence our body’s warning signs so that we can keep eating that food. Think of the TV ad’s you see. How many are to cure disease? None I can think of. They are all for curing symptoms. Study after study show that the extreme processing of food is responsible for the spike in diabetes and gastrointestinal disease as well as the rise of gluten sensitivity, but I have plenty of friends who drink a shake and make their purchases based on what a brightly colored box says. No more soap box. Basically, I just want you to take back your health and recognize that just like a landscape your body is an ecosystem. If it is out of balance bad things begin to happen. By realizing this I became pain free with a lot more energy and a clearer head and I would like you to join me.

Resources

Books – I have read over a dozen books but here are the three I recommend that simply and directly give you the information you need. Eat Dirt by Dr. Axe, will give the best overview and quick DIY. If you need a little more structure or have some serious issues; I recommend Always Hungry by Dr. David Ludwig. The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker is a fun read giving a behind-the-scenes look at how the food industry keeps us hooked and why you can’t eat just one.

Supplements – Following is the list of products I use:

Collagen- Dr. Axe Multi Collagen

Shilajit- Purblack or Lotus Blooming

Bone Broth- Ancient Nutrition Organic w/Turmeric

Turmeric-Organic

Ashwaganda- Gaia

Magnesium Glycinate- Solgar

Zinc Picolinate- Solgar

Probiotic- Renew Life Ultimate Flora 90 Billion or Axe Nutrition SBO Probiotic

Recipes

Here are a few basic base recipes to get started. Once you know the base quantities you can create to your heart’s content. You will be surprised how one or two of these crackers or bars here and there throughout the day will keep your energy up and your mind focused.

Life Changing Crackers https://www.mynewroots.org/site/2014/07/the-life-changing-crackers/

Energy Bar Base Recipe https://www.gimmesomeoven.com/no-bake-energy-bites/

Breakfast Cookie/Bar https://www.shelikesfood.com/healthy-make-ahead-breakfast-cookies-6-ways-2

About the Author

Trevor Smith, MCH, AOLCP, LEEDGA, is the owner of Land Escapes, a full service ecological landscaping company in the Boston area that specializes in Garden Design, Eco-Rain Recovery, Water Features, and Living Wall Installations. Trevor is also the past-President of the Ecological Landscape Alliance. You can reach Trevor through his website: www.everydaygetaway.com.

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