What do Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), ankylosing spondylitis (AS), and type 2 diabetes all have in common? Chronic inflammation at their root. While all of these diseases affect different parts of the body and exhibit different symptoms, chronic inflammation causes and worsens them. Although traditional treatment targets the affected and conspicuously inflamed part of the body (joints, arteries, etc.) our overall health would be better served if we took a preventative approach to chronic inflammation through dietary and lifestyle changes.
What Exactly Is Inflammation?
At its core, inflammation isn’t a bad thing, as it’s our body’s natural healing and defense process. When our body needs to fight off an infection or heal an injury, the immune system responds by releasing white blood cells to the affected area, and the heat, redness, and swelling that occurs is called acute inflammation. It responds the same way to an invading virus or bacteria, seen in fevers and joint pain. Acute inflammation is generally short-lived, lasting a just few hours or a few days.
Chronic inflammation, however, is when the body stays in that inflamed state, running “too hot” for too long. The immune system believes that it’s constantly under attack and continues to pump out white blood cells which ultimately target healthy cells, tissues, and organs. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation lasts longer—months or even years.
While acute inflammation is generally easy to spot (think of a swollen ankle or a stinging cut), the more dangerous, health-affecting chronic inflammation can be less so. Common symptoms include fatigue, body and/or joint pain, GI problems like constipation and diarrhea, mood disorders like depression and anxiety, weight gain or loss, mouth sores and bleeding gums, persistent fever, and rash. Other more serious conditions may signal ongoing chronic inflammation including vasculitis (the swelling and diminished function of the blood vessels) and systemic lupus erythematosus or SLE (diminished function and enlargement of the kidneys). Bowel disease, like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis are both also caused by an inflamed digestive tract, but more research is needed to determine whether theses conditions cause, or are caused by, chronic inflammation.
Who Gets Chronic Inflammation?
Although anyone can develop chronic inflammation, there are a number of health and lifestyle factors that can increase your risk, including the conditions mentioned above, as well as diet. While proper nutrition lowers your risk, poor nutrition can be just as impactful in a negative way. To reduce or prevent inflammation, you’ll want to limit or altogether avoid:
· Processed foods made with high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, preservatives, and sweeteners; as well as processed meat like hot dogs and sausage.
· Trans fats (typically found in fried food, fast food, and margarine) and foods with a high amount of omega-6 fatty acids (found in refined oils including safflower, sunflower, soy, peanut, and vegetable).
· Too much added sugar, found in a surprising number of products. Read labels to detect hidden sugars including fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and fruit juice concentrates. (A more comprehensive list can be found here.)
· Refined carbohydrates like sugar, white rice, and refined or enriched flours. Conversely, whole carbohydrates found in fruit, vegetables, beans, and non-flour whole grains are anti-inflammatory as well as more-nutrient and antioxidant-rich.
· Casein (found in dairy products and triggering for those with arthritis) and gluten in those who are intolerant (celiac disease) or sensitive.
· Monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, found in prepared foods like dressings and soups, as well as deli meat, soy sauce, and Chinese food that can activate pathways of chronic inflammation as well as impact liver health.
· Alcohol, which stresses the liver and can cause widespread inflammation when used in excess.
Other non-diet health and lifestyle factors that may contribute to chronic inflammation include both too little exercise and too much (causing repeated injury and strain), chronic stress, smoking (and other long-term exposure to pollution and toxins), obesity, autoimmune disease, poor gut health, and untreated acute inflammation (i.e., an untreated illness or injury).
Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Lifestyle
Prevention and treatment of chronic inflammation comes down to important diet and lifestyle changes. You may have heard the term “anti-inflammatory diet” before, but you may not know what it entails. Both the Mediterranean and MIND diets are examples of structured anti-inflammatory diets, but anyone looking to lower their risk of chronic inflammation should add more of the following foods to their diet:
· All veggies, but especially green leafy ones like spinach and kale
· Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines
· Nuts, including almonds and walnuts
· Fruit, including strawberries, blueberries, cherries, grapes, and oranges
· Healthy fats and omega-3-rich foods like olive oil, eggs, avocados, flax, and chia seeds
· Tomatoes and peppers
· Whole-food fiber sources like oatmeal, beans, and sweet potatoes
· Anti-inflammatory spices including turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, and garlic
· Green tea
· High-quality dark chocolate (in moderation)
While diet is a major factor in inflammation treatment and prevention, it’s not the only thing to consider. Regular exercise is not only helpful for maintaining a healthy weight, but it helps lower stress levels, improve sleep, and lower system-wide inflammation. A 2017 study published in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise decreased inflammatory responses, so consider what a regular exercise regimen can do for you long-term! Mindfulness practices, including meditation, tai chi, and prayer, can also help lower stress and reduce inflammation.
Another great tool in your anti-inflammatory arsenal is a high-quality supplement. Some examples of powerful and proven supplements include:
· Omega-3 fatty acids: While these are found in fatty fish and flaxseed, if you don’t get enough of either in your diet, a high-quality supplement is a good alternative. Research shows that omega-3s are extremely effective at lowering all-over inflammation and can reduce joint swelling in those suffering from RA.
· Turmeric: While you can (and should!) include turmeric in your recipes, a larger dose through supplementation is highly effective at reducing pain and inhibiting inflammation because of the compound curcumin, which has been shown to lower the inflammatory marker CRP, reduce symptoms of arthritis, and lower inflammatory markers in those with cancer.
· Ginger: Another spice with a lot of benefits, ginger not only helps treat indigestion and nausea, but has been shown to improve blood sugar and inflammation levels in people with diabetes.
· Bromelain: Found in pineapple (and what gives it its bite), bromelain has the same anti-inflammatory capacity as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) but with far fewer side effects. It’s also great for exercise recovery as it lowers exercise-induced muscle damage and inflammation.
· Garlic: Rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, particularly allicin, garlic helps bolster the immune system. When taken with ginger, the two may provide a powerful boost to cognitive health, prevent oxidative stress, and help lower system-wide inflammation
· Willow bark: A powerful pain reducer, this herb helps with a variety of pain, including lower back, both osteo- and rheumatoid arthritis, and bursitis.
· Quercetin: A flavonoid found in apples, berries, green tea, onions, and red wine, quercetin is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory that may help reduce swelling, control blood sugar, prevent heart disease, and possibly even kill cancer cells!
Reducing and preventing chronic inflammation is a key part of lifelong good health and disease prevention, and it’s important to see where you can make changes to your eating and exercise habits. If you need help embarking on your anti-inflammatory journey and if you would like guidance choosing medical-grade supplements, please click here to contact me.