Inflammation is our bodies’ natural healing mechanism. It is inflammation that is responsible for the swelling, heat, redness and pain that results from a cut or stubbing ones toe, and the stiffness and pain that result from overexerting oneself in sports. Inflammation is a life-saver, as it is a response that prevents foreign organisms from invading our bodies and its uncomfortable manifestations can direct us in how to behave in response to injury (for example, that swollen and painful stubbed toe should deter a person from kicking a soccer ball or pulling on a pair of pointe shoes in the near future).
Imagine cutting your finger, the cut being a gateway for harmful bacteria to enter. Your body’s immune system immediately recognizes this bacteria as an unwelcome visitor and mounts a response which involves immune cells and inflammatory proteins in an array of protective mechanisms that include destroying the bacteria and growing new cells to seal the cut. If it wasn’t for inflammation, harmful bacteria we come into contact with daily could enter our bloodstreams, wreak havoc on our bodies, and ultimately kill us. The flip side of this is that unfortunately, most modern-day diseases in our culture can be due to this immune response going awry and putting our bodies into a chronically inflamed state. Pathologies including but not limited to: allergies, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and cancer can all be a result of excessive inflammation in the body. What has long been a belief in natural medicine is being extensively researched today and brought to the forefront of conventional thinking: what we eat is clearly linked to our risk of inflammatory diseases.
How have we allowed ourselves to fall into a perpetually inflamed state, leading to disease epidemics like the ones mentioned above? The answers are complicated and range from environmental toxins to the general elevated stress level of our culture. A great deal of these ailments is also due to something we can easily control: our diets. The standard American diet over the decades has become rich in pro-inflammatory fats and preservatives and low in anti-inflammatory fats, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. This is in essence an imbalance of messages we are sending to our immune systems, causing a chronically inflamed state and setting us up for serious diseases down the road. The good news is that we can set off this dietary imbalance to influence more anti-inflammatory pathways in our biochemistry, leading to less disease. Below is a blueprint diet for reducing and preventing inflammation:
Allow the bulk of your diet to be organic fruit and vegetables. While more expensive, organic produce is generally free of pesticides and is grown in higher quality soil, making for a more nutrient-dense food. Oxidative stress within our cells leads to inflammation, so it makes sense that foods rich in antioxidants offset inflammation.
Limit your intake of red meat and dairy products. Research has shown that the consumption of these foods in high amounts introduces a molecule to the body that triggers inflammation and can even promote tumor growth. Red meat is also high in arachidonic acid, which in excessive amounts also puts our bodies into an inflammatory state. Corn-fed meats, along with not being environmentally sustainable, are especially high in arachidonic acid. When purchasing it is important to buy grass-fed meats, as they are lower in arachidonic acid and higher in omega -3 fatty acids (the “good” fats) and antioxidants like beta –carotene and vitamin E. Eat a good share of cold-water fish like salmon and sardines, which contain large amounts of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexanoic acid (DHA), two very important omega-3 fatty acids. Always purchase wild salmon, as the farmed kind are fed grains and as a result have more omega-6 fatty acids, which tend to be pro-inflammatory. Worried about mercury levels? Make the bulk of your fish intake be smaller fish that are lower on the food chain like sardines, herring and anchovy, or supplement with a high quality fish oil supplement.
Choose extra virgin olive oil instead of canola, peanut or safflower oil to cut down the amount of omega 6’s that enter our bodies. To most people this is a “duh” piece of advice as we know olive oil increases the levels of “good” cholesterol in the blood stream, but be sure to opt for the extra virgin type, as oil without this label has gone through extensive processing, thus losing most of its beneficial properties.
Limit consumption of refined grains and sugars, as these cause chronic rises in blood sugar, which can be a predisposing factor in developing diabetes and heart disease. Chronically high blood sugar also generates free radicals, which contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation within our cells. Have a heavy hand with high quality herbs and spices when cooking. These are rich in antioxidants and other anti-inflammatory constituents. Seasonings that pack a big punch health-wise include garlic, cayenne pepper, ginger and turmeric. Consistently drinking tea is another great way to help prevent and quell inflammation. Chamomile, milk thistle and licorice tea are all tasty picks, but limit consumption of licorice tea if you suffer from hypertension. Constituents in licorice can act as anti-diuretics and adrenal stimulants, thus exacerbating high blood pressure.
If you suffer from arthritic symptoms, you may want to eliminate the nightshade group of foods, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers. People with arthritis are commonly sensitive to these plants and they can worsen inflammation.
In addition, getting adequate exercise is just as important as the food we eat when it comes to prevention. Just like our diet, exercise strengthens our immune systems and helps us maintain a healthy weight. This is important, as fat cells secrete inflammatory compounds and obesity in itself is a clear risk factor for diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
Clearly, our lifestyle habits have a big influence on whether we get sick or not. The rise in inflammatory diseases in our culture over the years is both frightening and sobering. Only we ourselves can help change this by being mindful of the food we purchase and eat. By following the listed dietary guidelines (and cheating every once in a while, as we are all human!) we can alter our bodies’ immune responses and ultimately become healthier and happier as not just individuals, but as a whole.