We’ve all experienced some type of inflammation in our bodies, from bonking our head on a low shelf to twisting an ankle to suffering a bug bite. When we bang a shin, break a bone or develop an infection such as strep throat, our immune system kicks into high gear and dispatches blood, fluids, and proteins to the site to protect and repair the damage. This reaction, called acute inflammation, occurs at the injury site and is crucial to the healing process and defense against foreign invaders such as viruses and bacteria.
However, if the inflammatory process lingers too long or occurs in places it’s not needed, it can become problematic. Called chronic inflammation, it can last for weeks, months or years. Chronic inflammation has been linked to a whole host of diseases and conditions such as stroke, heart disease, Chron’s disease, cancer, gout, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and atherosclerosis. Fortunately, certain foods can help combat inflammation. In this post, we’ll discuss the benefits of following a nutritionally sound anti-inflammatory diet and identify the best foods to eat — and foods to avoid.
Researchers are finding that chronic inflammation is the common denominator in a vast list of diseases and health conditions, some of which are fatal. Although inflammation is our immune system’s silver bullet to protect tissue and repair damage, low-level chronic inflammation means our immune system is “overfiring.”
Often, our bodies won’t display symptoms of chronic inflammation, although some blood tests can pick up indicators of inflammation. Despite large bodies of evidence, scientists are still perplexed about why our immune system sometimes can’t shut itself off — even though the short-circuiting leads to organ and tissue destruction and disease.
Researchers have found that fat cells trigger the release of cytokines, small proteins that affect cell behavior, interaction and communication. If there is no invader to attack, the cytokines will go after healthy tissue, blood vessels, nerves or organs.
Inflammation contributes to cancer because the inflammatory cells produce free radicals that destroy DNA, leading to cell mutations. Cells rapidly and continually grow — and form tumors.
Heart disease and chronic inflammation are linked as well, under the theory that when inflammatory cells remain in blood vessels too long, they promote plaque buildup. Our bodies see the plaque as a foreign invader, so it tries to wall off the plaque from our blood. Sometimes plaque pieces break off and block blood flow, triggering a heart attack or stroke.
These are just a few examples of how inflammation leads to disease — and researchers are scrambling to find ways to interrupt the immune system’s overstimulated loop via genetic modifications and drugs. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs such as Advil, Tylenol, aspirin, and Aleve are effective at treating acute inflammation — but do little for chronic inflammation. Currently, researchers have yet to find a drug that combats chronic inflammation. Fortunately, you can do a lot to reduce or prevent chronic inflammation by following an anti-inflammatory diet and making some lifestyle changes.
You’ll find many variations of diets considered to be anti-inflammatory. For example, the Mediterranean Diet, which advocates eating fish, nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and olive oil, is considered an anti-inflammatory diet. The primary goal is to eat mostly foods that have high levels of helpful compounds and avoid foods known to contribute to inflammation.
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients (beneficial plant compounds), which act as antioxidants. Oxidants destroy cells, promote inflammation and increase disease risk. Aim for three to five servings per day of these fruits and vegetables which contain the highest levels of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties:
Nuts and seeds are loaded with antioxidants and contain omega-3 fatty acids, which destroy inflammatory compounds and prevent their formation. They also contain heart-healthy polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, which lower blood cholesterol. Nuts and seeds are high in calories, so best to eat only a small handful or a tablespoon or two of nut butter.
Aim for whole-grain foods, which contain the nutrient-dense bran and germ parts. Refining grains strips away their healthy bran and germ, drastically lowering their nutritional value and anti-inflammatory benefits.
Like vegetables and fruits, herbs and spices are rich in phytonutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Studies have found that many herbs and spices contain antioxidant and anti-inflammatory elements. Ginger has been widely studied and found to be particularly beneficial for inflammation, likely due to its ability to suppress the biosynthesis of prostaglandins (hormone-like substances that control blood flow and inflammation). Use them generously to flavor foods.
Fish is a staple on the Mediterranean Diet, especially fish that contain high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Best to eat wild-caught or sustainably farmed fish to avoid consuming too much mercury. Best bets include:
Coffee beans, cocoa beans, and tea are also loaded with phytonutrients known to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits. All contain caffeine, which has been found to have positive influences on inflammation in our brain — although limit consumption to avoid side effects such as jittery nerves, difficulty sleeping, and stomach distress. Cocoa flavanols can improve blood flow to the brain and heart and protect our arteries from inflammation and oxidant damage. Since chocolate, cocoa, dried fruits, and sorbets can be high in calories, limit serving size to just a few ounces on occasion.
Olive oil contains high levels of monounsaturated fat called oleic acid. Oleic acid studies suggest it reduces inflammation and has beneficial effects on genes linked to cancer. You can cook with extra virgin olive oil and toss vegetables and salads with it. Coconut oil has also been getting a lot of attention for its antibiotic and anti-inflammatory elements. Avocado oil is another healthier option and has a high heat tolerance, making it good for frying foods.
You already know doctors and nutrition specialists recommend avoiding highly processed fast foods and sugary drinks. Unfortunately, many of the foods so common in our Western diets accelerate the inflammatory disease process. To reduce your likelihood of developing chronic inflammation, severely limit or eliminate the following foods from your diet:
It should come as no surprise that maintaining a healthy weight and getting regular exercise is good for your health and wellness — and it’s also been shown to reduce chronic inflammation. Getting enough sleep and drinking plenty of water to help flush toxins will also help combat inflammation. Of course, always check with your doctor before making significant dietary and lifestyle changes.