Taming the Fires of Inflammation
When searching to optimize your health one question always remains, “Which diet is best for me?” With so many diet books on the shelves today, answering that question can be overwhelming and confusing. Your “best diet” then becomes a lifelong pursuit of the great unknown. Among the many diets out there today is the general anti-inflammatory diet. Although it lacks a fancy name like DASH, Keto or Paleo, it may be the easiest and most successful nutrition plan out there. Once you understand what inflammation is, what triggers it and how you can implement your own personalized anti-inflammatory plan you will be well on your way to a healthier you.
Think of inflammation as the body’s natural response to protect itself against harm. There are two types: acute and chronic. You’re probably more familiar with the acute type, which occurs when you bang your knee or cut your finger. Your immune system dispatches an army of white blood cells to surround and protect the area, creating visible redness and swelling. The process works similarly if you have an infection like the flu or pneumonia. In these settings, inflammation is essential; without it, injuries could fester and simple infections could be deadly.
Inflammation is supposed to protect us from infections and promote healing. However, if that inflammation becomes chronic it will do just the opposite. It will break down the body and make you more susceptible to disease. Once inflammation becomes a chronic condition, it does not go away quickly. This chronic inflammation can lead to inflammatory disorders and create an additive effect. This aggravates the body’s overall level of inflammation and increases your risk of succumbing to very serious disease.
In fact, inflammation, not cholesterol, is now understood to be the primary determining factor in coronary heart disease. Currently inflammation is also recognized as an undercurrent in all disease processes. Diseases and conditions linked to inflammation include:
- Accelerated age-related wear and tear
- Food allergies
- Allergies to inhalants
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Arthritis (all types)
- Athletic and other injuries
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
- Coronary Artery Disease
- Dental Inflammation (gingivitis, TMJ, periodontitis)
- Diabetes and pre-Diabetes
- Fatigue and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Gastritis, Ulcers and Stomach Cancer
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Lupus Erythematosus
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Overweight and Obesity
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Skin disorders (dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema)
- Sjögren’s Syndrome
If you suffer from any of the above conditions you are not alone.
- Almost half of Americans 30 years or older suffer from gingivitis.
- Approximately 40% of the U.S. adult population is obese.
- More than 100 million U.S. adults are living with diabetes or prediabetes.
- Roughly 23% of the US adult population suffers from one or more types of arthritis.
- About 610,000 people die of heart disease in the United States every year.
- Allergic rhinitis affects 10-30% of the worldwide population.
- Approximately 40 million Americans are affected by sinusitis every year.
- Roughly 1 in 13 people have asthma.
- 30% of cancers are related to some type of inflammatory condition.
Inflammation usually starts in specific tissue, such as a physical injury or your lungs after a viral cold. If the inflammation cannot be resolved it will radiate from the original source and lead to systemic (body-wide) inflammation. This can then have an additive effect, leading to more than one inflammatory condition. Another contributing factor to inflammatory diseases is excess fat. This is because fat cells secrete inflammatory chemicals which increases inflammation in the body.
Below are some examples of how inflammatory disorders can lead to other inflammatory conditions.
- Obesity boosts the risk of developing diabetes.
- Obesity and diabetes set the stage for coronary heart disease.
- Diabetes increases the likelihood of macular degeneration and cataracts.
- Joint injuries often lead to osteoarthritis.
- Brain injuries increase the chance of developing Alzheimer’s.
- Periodontal disease heightens the risk of getting coronary heart disease.
- Allergies can aggravate the pulmonary system and may give rise to asthma.
- Allergies increase the odds of suffering from autoimmune disorders.
- Rheumatoid arthritis may bring about conditions that promote coronary artery disease.
- Chronic inflammation increases the risk of getting cancer.
- Gastritis may eventually result in gastric cancer.
- Inflammatory bowel disease increases the risk of developing osteoporosis.
If you suffer from any of these conditions, you have inflammation and could benefit from an anti-inflammatory diet.
Similar to understanding where toxins hide in your environment in order to reduce your toxin load, it’s important to understand what your specific inflammatory triggers are so that you can reduce inflammation as much as possible. First you must differentiate between cause and trigger. The cause of inflammation is dietary imbalances or deficiencies that set the stage for a powerful immune and inflammatory reaction. The trigger of inflammation is any event that initiates an inflammatory response after the body is already primed for an overreaction.
In order to reduce inflammation, you need to reduce your exposure to inflammation triggers and make dietary and supplement changes to calm the immune response to unavoidable inflammation triggers.
Some of the physical inflammation triggers are:
- Age-Related Wear and Tear – Genetics, diet, frequency of infections, stress and certain lifestyle choices may increase biological age.
- Physical Injuries – Injuries become sources of chronic inflammation and pain when they are serious, repeated, do not heal properly or promote sustained low-grade inflammation in damaged tissue.
- Infections – Infections turn on the body’s most powerful inflammatory responses, and sometimes the body ends up fighting itself.
- Environmental Stressors – Tobacco smoke, air pollution and other inhalant irritants can trigger asthma.
- Allergies and Food Sensitivities – Pollen, mold, dust and food allergies increase risk of asthma as well as increase immune activity and inflammation.
- Dietary Imbalances and Deficiencies – Low levels of omega-3 fats and antioxidants promote abnormal inflammatory responses.
- Leaky Gut Syndrome – Intestinal permeability allows undigested food proteins to directly enter the bloodstream, initiating an inflammatory response.
- Prediabetes, Diabetes and Overweight – All of these conditions increase levels of C-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers. Additionally, fat cells secrete inflammatory compounds.
There are also several dietary triggers, namely an imbalance of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory fats. Pro-inflammatory fats include certain Omega-6 fats and trans fats. The Omega-6 fat linoleic acid is found in vegetable oils such as corn, safflower, peanut, cottonseed and soy, as well as processed foods. The Omega-6 fat arachidonic acid is found in corn-fed and grain-fed meats. Trans-fats are found in processed foods. Studies have indicated diets high in linoleic acid increase the production of arachidonic acid, which in turn converts to inflammatory compounds.
Anti-inflammatory fats include the Omega-3 fats as well as a certain Omega-6 fat and Omega 9 fats. The Omega-3 fat alpha-linolenic acid is found in dark greens, vegetables and flaxseeds. Omega-3 fats EPA and DHA are found in coldwater fish. The Omega-6 fat gamma-linolenic acid (GLA) is found in evening primrose oil, hemp oil and spirulina. Finally, the Omega-9 fats are found in olive oil, avocado and macadamia nuts. Interestingly, our ancestors used to eat roughly a 1:1 ratio of pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory fat. The current Standard American Diet has a ratio closer to 30:1!
Part of the reason our diets have become more inflammatory is because our food supply has evolved, and not necessarily in a good way. Our genes are virtually identical to those of our ancestors who lived roughly 10-40,000 years ago before the arrival of agriculture. At that time people thrived on protein, fats, complex carbohydrates, fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. We are still biologically similar to cavemen and cavewomen. While our biology stayed relatively the same, we transitioned into the agricultural revolution changing our diet from meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruits to domesticated livestock, dairy, grains, gluten and lectins. Then came the Industrial Revolution introducing nutrient deficient refined grains. Finally, we entered the Convenience and Fast-Food Revolution where TV dinners, fast-food chains and processed convenient foods became the new normal. Antioxidant rich vegetables were replaced with mostly refined and highly processed carbohydrates. Unfortunately, our food supply has changed dramatically but our biology has not, setting the stage for inflammation and disease.
Case in point, archeologists’ study of ancient bones revealed that human health took a turn for the worse after gluten-containing grains entered the diet. Osteoporosis, arthritis and even birth defects became more common after people began eating grains. Now that they are a dietary staple, regularly consuming gluten-containing grains can create an immune reaction and subsequent inflammation, especially for someone with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Additionally, many grains and legumes contain lectins, which may damage the gut and interfere with nutrient absorption. This leads to nutrient deficiencies as well as increased inflammation.
Grains are not the only culprit. Diets high in processed foods, sugars and refined carbohydrates deplete the body of nutrients as well as displace many nutrient rich foods, leading to nutrient deficiencies. Furthermore, the sheer quantity of calories and carbohydrates in sugars and refined flours promotes obesity. Also remember fat cells generate large amounts of inflammatory compounds leading to more inflammation. The end result of our new industrialized food supply is a diet high in pro-inflammatory foods and lacking anti-inflammatory fats and antioxidants.
Creating Your Anti-Inflammatory Nutrition Plan
Consuming nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods and using targeted supplementation can be a great way to start reducing inflammation and regulating your immune system. Here are 7 nutrition steps you can take to flip the switch on inflammation.
- Eliminate or Greatly Reduce Pro-Inflammatory Foods such as refined vegetable oils, trans fats, conventionally raised meats, refined grains, high sugar intake, artificial ingredients, and processed foods.
- Uncover Your Hidden Food Allergies. Common food allergens include gluten, dairy, corn, soy, eggs, shellfish and peanuts.
- Consume Anti-Inflammatory Fats from dark leafy greens, coldwater fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, hemp oil, spirulina, olive oil, avocados and macadamia nuts.
- Choose High Quality Protein from coldwater fish and free-range or grass-fed animals.
- Load up on High-fiber, Non-starchy Organic Vegetables and Fruits, aiming for 5-10 servings per day.
- Snack on Nuts and Seeds, choosing raw and unsalted.
- Drink filtered water, green tea and herbal teas.
You can also tame the fires of inflammation with the following fats, herbs and supplements.
- Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA) – These fats aren’t just for brain health. They have been shown to protect against heart disease, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, mood disorders, and macular degeneration. They also moderate blood pressure, lower triglycerides, and may help with weight loss.
- Gamma-Linolenic Acid (GLA) – This healthy omega-6 works synergistically with EPA to reduce inflammation. It decreases symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, eases athletic injuries, reduces psoriasis and eczema, helps with weight loss and may have benefits in brain cancer.
- Oleic Acid – Olive Oil is rich in this omega-9 fatty acid. It reduces the likelihood of developing rheumatoid arthritis, enhances heart health, and has powerful anti-inflammatory properties.
- Curcumin – This compound found in the turmeric root reduces inflammation through at least 97 different biological mechanisms! It can decrease activity of several inflammatory chemicals as well as turn off genes involved in inflammation. Additionally, curcumin has been shown to help rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, Alzheimer’s, liver damage, ulcerative colitis, psoriasis, irritable bowel syndrome, colorectal polyps and age-related cognitive impairment.
- Pycnogenol – A patented complex of 40 different antioxidants, pycnogenol has been shown to help osteoarthritis, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular health, erectile dysfunction and asthma.
- Boswellia – Also known as frankincense, this resin may help reduce over-activity of the immune system and decrease symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis.
- Ginger – A close botanical relative to turmeric, ginger has been shown to help rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, muscular pain, and morning or motion sickness.
- Digestive Enzymes – In supplement form, digestive enzymes can assist with breaking down food proteins and undigested foods that may trigger inflammatory reactions. They may also break down infectious gut bacteria, regulate your immune system and turn off some genes involved in inflammation.
- Resveratrol – This compound extracted from grapes may reduce your risk of developing age-related diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Finally, low levels or a deficiency of certain nutrients can affect the body’s ability to regulate inflammation. Vitamins A, B1, B6, B12, C, D, E, and K; calcium, chromium, iodine, magnesium, selenium and zinc all play a role in reducing inflammation and/or regulating your immune and inflammatory responses. Adding a high-quality multivitamin to your supplement regimen can remove any basic deficiencies and reduce inflammation.
When searching to improve your health, keeping inflammation under control is key. Although inflammation is essential to repair the body, if inflammation becomes chronic it will breakdown the body and lead to disease. Inflammatory triggers are not the only culprits; remember that dietary imbalances or deficiencies allow inflammation to persist. What is the best diet? It’s really not a diet at all! It’s as simple as reducing inflammatory foods (refined grains, trans fats, artificial ingredients, sugars and preservatives) and increasing anti-inflammatory whole foods such as coldwater fish, free-range meats, organic fruits and veggies, nuts, seeds and herbs and spices. A transition to whole foods is the easiest and most effective way to reduce inflammation and optimize your health.
Stephanie Walsh, MNT, CEPC, CPT is a Master Nutrition Therapist, Board Certified in Holistic Nutrition®, Certified Eating Psychology Coach and Personal Trainer. Her holistic approach considers the whole person – stress, sleep quality, readiness for change, digestive complaints, nutrition, fitness level and more – to optimize your health and wellbeing for the long term.
Contact Stephanie at: 207.730.2208 or email her: firstname.lastname@example.org