Tag Archives: Health Detective

Sciatica Prevention

Health Detectives on Sciatica

Much has been written on the web regarding sciatica, but what is often less emphasized is how to prevent it.  In the case of sciatica, the same strategies useful for prevention  are also often the best way to treat flare-ups.  Of course, if you already have sciatica symptoms you should first consult with your doctor before trying any of the exercises described in this post.

Prevention is the future of health care and requires learning about common conditions before we actually experience symptoms.  It is estimated that 49% to 70% of people will experience lower-back pain at some point in their lives and 5% to 10% of these cases will be caused by sciatica (BMJ. 2007 Jun 23; 334(7607): 1313–1317).  Based on these numbers, now is the best time to learn more about our lower backs.

The key to the prevention of sciatica is maintaining core strength, stability and flexibility.  Exercises that strengthen the body’s core, provide lumbar stability keeping vertebra in proper alignment. Stretching exercises provide the movement needed to nourish and cleanse the intervertebral discs (i.e. shock-absorbers of the spine). This nourishment through movement helps to keep the spine flexible and thus prevents herniated and ruptured discs.

What exactly is Sciatica

Sciatica is lower-back pain that radiates through the buttocks, down the back of the thigh sometimes reaching the feet (JAMA – Patient Page).  There can also be numbness or tingling associated with it.  It can last for months and it should be no surprise that often there is recurrence or worsening of symptoms with time if the underlying cause is not found and treated.

The sciatic nerve is the largest and longest spinal nerve in the body.   It originates in the from lumbar segments L4 and L5 and sacral segments S1-S3.  The nerve then courses over the anterior portion of the hip and threads through the greater sciatic foramen and traveling  deep into the buttocks and back of the thigh to the back of the knee where it splits into the common fibular and tibial nerves that continue to the feet.

The sciatic nerve is the largest spinal nerve in the human body.                       By KDS4444 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sciatic_nerve2.jpg)
Sciatica refers to a set of pain symptoms and not the nerve itself.  The pain symptoms resulting from obstruction to nerves in the hip region are sometimes referred to other areas of the leg or feet.  That is, the source of the pain is often not the same area where the pain is felt.

In his book “Sciatica Solutions,  Dr. Loren Fishman lists the following seven causes of sciatica:

  1.  Herniation of interverterbral discs.
  2. Spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal)
  3. Spondylosis (degenerative spinal osteoarthritis due to aging)
  4. Nerve entrapment (piriformis syndrome in which the buttock muscles press against the sciatic nerve)
  5. Inflamation caused by various factors such as infection, joint slippage (spondylolisthesis), etc.
  6. Vascular problems
  7. Central mechanisms

From the OnTierraHealth prevention perspective the seven causes to focus on are as follows:

  1. Lack of intervertebral disc flexibility and range of motion exercise
  2. Lack of proper lumbar stability strength training
  3. Lack of proper nutrition, hydration and oxygenation  of vertebral column, joints and nervous system.
  4. Overweight and obesity
  5. Poor movement dynamics and posture at work, play or sleep
  6. Sedentary lifestyle or long period of inactivity
  7. Environmental exposure to toxins and radiation resulting in increased nerve sensitivity.

Exercises and Stretches to Prevent Sciatica

As I mentioned above many of the exercises used to prevent sciatica can also be used for recovery, however, if you have pain when doing any exercise it is best to seek advice from your doctor or allied health practitioner before proceeding.

Healthy movement is not only good for your health, it is also a source of joy and fulfillment because the body was designed for elaborate, detailed, luscious movement along a vast number of degrees of freedom.  One of my yoga instructors would often describe certain movements as “delicious”.  At first I thought, “how can a movement be delicious? ” However, as you regain the mobility of your hips, and vertebra through careful practice you will very likely agree that healthy movement can feel “delicious.”

A valuable resource for preventing back pain and sciatica or for restoration through yoga is provided by Adriene Mishler.  The YouTube video below is good start for preventing sciatica.

Here are few more links to Adriene’s videos for lower back and spine health:

Personal Trainer John Chase provides instructions for performing 5 basic core stability and strength exercises in the video below:

Nutrition for the Spine

In general a good diet is one that is balanced for the needs of the entire body.  Targeting individual body systems can lead to imbalance in another region.   A healthy diet for the spine will also be a healthy diet for the brain, the heart and muscle.  Healthy diet also varies from individual to individual because of genetic and individual differences.  Therefore it is up to each individual to become an expert on their own body.

OnTierraHealth recommends the following approach for healthy eating:

  1. Balance the diet such as to achieve a BMI in the range between 18.5 and 24.9.
  2. Follow the Harvard Healthy Eating Plate recommendations.
  3. Consider including omega-3 rich foods such as fish, flax-seed, walnut, chia seeds several times a week.
  4. Consider including dark chocolate for its healthful flavonoids.
  5. Consider including pumpkin seeds as a healthy source of protein, fatty acids and zinc.
  6. Monitor urine color for proper hydration.  Urine color for most people should be a very light tinge of yellow.
  7. Healthy bowel movements indicate the diet is being absorbed well by the body.  Consider also natural postures for bowel movements that relieve pressure from the sciatic nerves.  The natural position is squatting rather than sitting.

Other Factors for Spine Health

There is no way around this fact – health requires detective work. There are too many possible scenarios that could affect the health of your spine to number here so keep seeking new sources of health information and listen carefully to your own body.

In general increasing mindfulness through breathing meditation will allow you to become aware of your body’s communication.  You will notice that the body requests movement after periods of inactivity longer than 10 minutes.   So get up and stretch.  Consider the use of a stability ball chair that allows you to gyrate your hips while sitting.

Also consider alternating positions by using an adjustable height desk for sitting or standing while at work.   If possible given your physical ability, it is a good idea to spend time each day getting down on the ground.   People often lose the ability to get down easily and stand up again due to lack of practice.  Proper movement techniques should be used when getting down on the ground to avoid injuries.

Many lower-back injuries occur while driving.  Consider adding addtional lumbar back support with a mesh type device to your car seat.  I have found this type of device to be a back saver on long trips.

Good luck keeping your hips and lower-back happy, and let us know your secrets for lower-back and sciatica health!

Chocolate Brains

chocolate brains 2


How does chocolate affect the brain?

Researchers Georgina Crichton, Merrill Elias, and Ala’a Alkerwi published a study recently showing that eating chocolate at least once a week was associated with better cognitive function.  This study was part of the Main-Syracuse Longitudinal study that has been underway since 1976 looking at aging, blood pressure and cognitive performance.  The discovery that chocolate is associated with improved cognitive function came as a surprise.

The study  included just under 1000 participants according to a  Washington Post article in March that also stated the following:

In scientific terms, eating chocolate was significantly associated with superior “visual-spatial memory and [organization], working memory, scanning and tracking, abstract reasoning, and [improved performance on] the mini-mental state examination.”

Chocolate may have other benefits for health

Interestingly (although maybe coincidentally) the person with the longest lifespan on record (Jeane Calment) reported that she ate approximately 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of chocolate every week.

According to the Underground Health Reporter chocolate has many components associated with an array of health benefits such as:

  • anti-asthmatic compounds theobromine and theyophilline
  • flavonol antioxidants that increase blood flow to the brain
  • high levels of sulfur and magnesium increase focus and alertness
  • cacao prolongs the activity of the happiness inducing compound anandamide
  • theobromine kills the bacteria that cause cavities
  • zinc  – improves health of the immune system, liver, pancreas and skin

Cacao and the heart

Roberto Corti , MD , et al. published a review of cocoa and cardiovascular health in 2009 that included a brief history of cacao. The scientific name of the cocoa tree,  is Theobroma Cacao which mean god (theo) drink (broma) and the history of its use dates back to at least 1600 BC.

In the review article the authors discuss early evidence of cacao’s protective effect on the heart found among the Kuna Indians living on islands off the coast of Panama.  This population did not experience increases in blood pressure with aging as occurs in other countries.  The effect was attributed to the plentiful daily consumption of cocoa and the flavonoids that it contains.  See the link above for additional evidence related to the health benefits of cacao.

The authors do note however that the beneficial effects are not necessarily found in chocolate due to the large amounts of sugar and milk used to produce it.  In order to obtain the strongest health benefits one must look for dark chocolate or pure cacao.

Chocolate vs Cocoa vs Cacao

It appears that the words chocolate, cocoa and cacao are used in different ways and so the individual needs to investigate the ingredients and preparation process to determine the level of healthy compounds retained in each product.

According to One Green Planet, cacao is the purest form of the cacao beans, essentially raw beans that have been ground up and not heated.  They are the most nutrient rich form.  Cacao nibs are simply cacao beans that have been cut up and packaged.

Cocoa powder is the next best form of cacao beans.  It undergoes a higher temperature heating process but still retains many of the health benefits.

Chocolate includes the most added ingredients such as sugar, milk, and other additives.  The added ingredients can greatly compromise some of the beneficial aspects of the cacao bean.   However, it appears that even in this form some of the health benefits can be retained especially in darker varieties of chocolate.

Buyer Beware

Although Cocoa is likely safe for most people individuals on medications should proceed carefully  and obtain advice from their doctors or dietitians regarding allowable doses.  In particular, patients with diabetes could experience unacceptable increase in blood sugar, and patients on blood thinners may have an increased risk of bleeding.

How much is enough

Cocoa contains caffeine and eating too much can result in nervousness, sleeplessness, migraine headaches, etc  Chocolate can also cause allergic skin reactions in some people.  This means that each individual may react differently.   Cocoa contains caffeine and thus all of the precautions related to caffeine also apply to chocolate.  If you are not sure how you may react to chocolate, cacao, or cocoa you may want to consult with a registered dietitian or doctor.

Information on dosing is provided in this link.  However, because of individual differences each individual must carefully investigate what will work best for their own body.  The serving sizes provided by the specific product manufacturer are a good starting point if you are not allergic.

How does chocolate affect your world

Let us know about the positive or negative experiences you have had with different chocolate types.  Seems this may be food worth exploring and enjoying in your diet.


Brain Fitness and Self-Evolution

file000894312228According to the theory of evolution, billions of years of survival-selected changes were necessary for us to reach this amazing peak of human development. Whether or not one accepts the premise of evolution one has to admit that the perspective of evolution gives much to be thankful for.  Imagine yourself surfing on the cusp of a 4.5 billion year wave without perceiving all that has transpired to raise you up to this magnificent level.

Evolution and creation theories of the origin of life are not really at odds with one another.   In a sense evolution is a creation theory!  In evolution the creator is the constellation of the laws of physics which appear to be unchanging and eternal. In the “creationist” view the creator is the great “I AM”  who is also associated with unchanging laws that reflect his/her character. The debate is not about whether or not there is a creator, but about the characteristics of the creator, that is, is the creator conscious or not.

High Speed Evolution

As humans we each possess the crowning achievement of biological evolution / creation, our brains, with over 100 billion neurons and over 100 trillion connections. Our brains are conscious super computers the likes of which have not been found anywhere else in the universe (as of yet).  One of the marvelous abilities of our brains is the ability to change, grow and morph. This is very exciting because unlike biological evolution discussed above which can take millions of years, our brains can “evolve”, adapt and change in the space of years, months, weeks and in some cases even a single day.

The process of change in the brain can be likened to the process of evolution because it is a competitive system in which neural connections are competing with each other for space in the brain. The connections that survive are fed through repetitive activation. These connections can then go on to reinforce other connections resulting in more new connections.  Unsuccessful connections are pruned away, and any existing connections that depended upon the lost connections may also wither away.

Thus the brain can be seen as a laboratory within which world simulation experiments can be performed at a high speed.  The potential of the brain when seen in this light is unpredictable, transformational and disruptive.


You are not limited to the you that you are now.  No one is. Your brain can grow or it can shrink today depending upon the choices you make.  It can also make positive or negative new connections.   Everyone knows they can learn new things, but what we don’t fully realize is that our brains create the world that each individual calls home.  Everything you perceive is a simulation being created in your brain.  Even the perception you have of yourself is only a simulation of the real self that remains hidden.   In order to grow your brain, you have to challenge its simulations.  Self-Evolution means you can change not only yourself, but also your brain’s simulation of the world.

Brain Wars

In his book, “Change Your Brain Change Your Life”, Dr. Daniel Amen, a clinical neuroscientist, psychiatrist and brain imaging expert, warns that we are in a war for the health of our brains.  Some of the forces that are working against our brains are listed by Dr. Amen as:

  • Brain Injuries (sports, accidents, sleep apnea)
  • Drugs (including many medications)
  • Alcohol and smoking
  • Obesity and lack of exercise
  • High blood pressure and diabetes
  • SAD (Standard American Diet – neurotoxins)
  • Environmental toxins (air pollution / pesticides / etc.)
  • ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts)

On the other hand are the weapons that we can use in the fight for our brain health.  Dr. Amen lists the following:

  • Improve positive social connections
  • The challenge of learning and trying alternate strategies
  • Brain healthy diet (careful reading of nutrition labels on foods)
  • Improving sleep quality and avoiding brain injuries
  • Exercise
  • A healthy level of anxiety to challenge our comfort zones
  • Meditation, gratitude and ANT killing

Dig deeper into Dr. Amen’s brain fitness strategies by following this link.

Cognitive Training

How can we do it?  How can we accelerate self-evolution?  Surely it is a good thing to begin with brain health.  Because of the extreme complexity of the brain its health requires a holistic approach that according to Daniel R. George, PhD, MSc, and Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD must include increased social connectivity in the form of intergenerational relationships. The authors state the following:

“For decades, a widening evidence base of cross-sectional and retrospective research has demonstrated that older adults who volunteer in their communities may experience a range of biopsychosocial benefits from physical, mental, and emotional health to longevity.”

Thus getting involved in the community may be a primary factor for brain health.    Negotiating the obstacle course of other factors described by Dr. Amen (see above) is also necessary.   In addition recent research also shows that there is a role for targeted cognitive training to help protect the brain from degeneration and to even improve cognition.

Intergenerational interaction is good for brain health.
Intergenerational interaction is good for brain health.

This brings us to the self-evolution phase of brain development.  We all accept that we need to exercise our physical bodies to stay fit, but we fail to take our brains to task when it comes to strenuous goal oriented, expansive, mental workouts.  This keeps our brains from fulfilling more of its potential.  This is where cognitive training software and smart phone apps may be able to contribute.

In order to push further we need to challenge our cognitive abilities beyond our comfort level.  Excessive comfort is the enemy of progress.  The cognitive abilities that form the foundation of self-evolution are memory (working, episodic, semantic), concentration, reasoning, speed of mental processing, visual and spatial skills, and executive functions (organization, planning, decision-making, attentional control, inhibitory control, cognitive multitasking).  These capabilities keep our minds agile and ready for change.

Cognitive training apps like Neuronation, Posit Science and Luminosity have been designed to target brain fitness, and other apps and games available online also provide fun and useful ways to improve memory  (i.e. MemZy and Fun with Animals) and novel thinking (i.e. Cut the Rope).

Apps like these provide a means for measuring progress and establishing goals.  Just as we may set a goal of increasing muscle strength to achieve a bench press with 200 lbs, we should also be creating mental challenges to increase the size of our working memory, our autobiographical memory, our reaction times and other cognitive skills.  These skills form the foundation of an agile mind.  However, keep in mind that the goal is not to spend bucket-loads of time in isolation with apps and games, ultimately we need to use cognitive training apps as tools for enhancing social interaction at a deeper, more meaningful level.  In fact, cognitive training apps and games may provide a tool for intergenerational interaction.

As we find our brains capabilities renewed and refreshed, we will naturally seek to challenge ourselves further by looking at things from new angles, trying new activities (like Zumba or yoga), by innovating , and by improving the quality and depth our interaction with others.  Welcome to the domain of self-evolution!

At a minimum we should be establishing a baseline of our cognitive functions so that we can more quickly detect and correct mental degradation.  But ultimately the goal is not just to live long and be healthy, but rather to live long and evolve.  To move humanity forward.  Self-evolution is coming, don’t miss the wave!