What happens (other than swearing softly under your breath) when you stub your toe?
Your body launches itself into self-protection mode by initiating what’s known as an inflammatory response—hence the increase in redness, swelling, pain, and warmth of your injured little piggy. During an inflammatory response, immune cells (including cytokines and white blood cells) are produced at a faster rate and sent to the area of concern for damage control.
The same type of response happens when you get bit by a mosquito, get a paper cut, get a sunburn, or fight off the common cold.
In this way, inflammation is actually a normal part of healthy immunity.
But sometimes, even the best systems go awry.
When a Good Thing Goes Bad: The Problem with Chronic Inflammation
While acute inflammation is intended to help fight off injury or infection, it can become problematic when and if it occurs in a more systemic and chronic way within the body. Widespread inflammation has actually been linked to a huge number of chronic diseases, including arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, obesity, asthma, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and cancer.
It may be helpful to think of chronic inflammation as a pile of slow burning embers spread out within the body: that is, it’s still potentially dangerous even without the obvious flame of an acute inflammatory response, and can easily cause some sort of problem to ignite or flare up. Unlike acute inflammation, which is shorter in duration (think hours to days), chronic inflammation can last for years.
Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation
Unlike the swelling, tenderness, and redness that occurs during an acute inflammatory process, symptoms of chronic inflammation can be a bit more subtle:
All of the following may indicate your body is in a chronically inflamed state.
- Increased abdominal fat (the much-maligned “spare tire” or “beer belly”)
- Generalized fatigue
- Digestive problems, including gas, constipation, diarrhea, and bloating
- Red, itchy, blotchy, and/or sensitive skin
- Puffiness under the eyes
- Sneezing, coughing, runny nose, and other allergy symptoms
- Joint pain
- Erectile dysfunction in men and frequent yeast infections in women.
In addition to symptoms felt by the individual person, clinical signs of chronic inflammation (which doctors can look for on lab tests) include the presence of inflammatory biomarkers in the blood. These molecules and compounds, including C-reactive protein (CRP), homocysteine, TNF alpha, and IL-6, are like little “tells” produced by the body when excessive inflammation is going on.
Doctors can also test your blood to determine the amount of glucose (sugar) present, and how well or poorly it’s controlled over a period of time. High levels of blood sugar is a hallmark sign of inflammation and can lead to the production of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are pro-inflammatory compounds that accelerate aging and cause oxidative damage to your cells (akin to rust on metal).
But understanding what chronic inflammation looks like—and the potential issues it can lead to—is just one part of the issue. Understanding what causes it in the first place is essential for taking back control of our health.
Common Foods Which Cause Inflammation
So much of what can be found in the standard American diet today can be directly linked with the rising rates of chronic inflammation. The following foods are considered pro-inflammatory and when consumed on a regular basis can lead to a variety of health issues:
- Sugar and refined carbohydrates (like white bread, pasta, and candy)
- Foods containing trans fats
- Vegetable oils (which can introduce too many omega-6 fatty acids into the body)
- Processed meats
…And It’s Not Just Your Food
Without a doubt, the food you eat can be the main culprit of unwanted and excessive inflammation in your body (the good news being, this is an easy-to-influence factor, as we’ll learn about shortly). But the medical community is keen to point out that other non-food causes of inflammation exist as well, including stress, sedentary behavior, cigarette smoking, excessive weight and obesity, and even certain medications (including oral contraceptives).
The lesson here is simple: if you have a chronic health condition or are concerned about systemic inflammation in your body, look at your entire lifestyle—not just your plate. Chances are, there are a few things you can change or modify (such as managing your stress better through sleep and exercise) to help maximize your overall health.
That said, improving your diet remains an essential piece of the puzzle.
An Evidence-Based Diet Plan to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
While natural anti-inflammatories include everything from exercise to meditation, the research tends to point to your fridge when it comes to finding the most effective way to reduce excessive or chronic inflammation.
So, to take a hint from Hippocrates, let thy food be thy medicine. And fortunately, science has a lot to offer as far as selecting the right “prescription.”
Top 3 Anti-inflammatory Dietary Principles to Follow
- Get more fiber. According to the Arthritis Foundation, getting plenty of fiber in the diet can help reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms associated with joint inflammation, and the same benefits can likely be extended to other areas of your body potentially affected by chronic inflammation (including your gut biome, aka the little world of friendly bacteria living in your digestive tract). A good number to aim for is around 25 grams of fiber per day.
- Cut out sugar. Addition by subtraction, as it were. Sugar is finally being outed for the dietary culprit that it is, being scientifically correlated to everything from obesity to Alzheimer’s disease to… yes, inflammation. By removing added sugars from your diet, you’re effectively eliminating a major source of the problem.
- Stick with the superfoods. In general, eating a “cleaner” diet with quality sources of animal protein and veggies is going to help improve your health. Think of it as a dietary insurance policy. But not all foods were created equal, and research shows that certain foods are more superlative when it comes to reducing inflammation. Need some inspiration? Keep reading.
Anti-inflammatory Super Foods
The following foods, herbs, spices, and compounds are part and parcel with a diet intended to soothe and control levels of inflammation in the body.
You can easily find these foods at just about any grocery store, farmer’s market, or restaurant, making it easier to live your anti-inflammation lifestyle anywhere you go:
- Green tea: this tea is loaded with compounds known as polyphenols, which help fight free radicals in the body (harmful metabolic by-products of inflammation). Plus, it’s lower in caffeine content compared to coffee and black tea, making it a great option for people looking to cut back on stimulants. (Keep in mind: drinking too much coffee or even tea can dehydrate you, so be sure to get enough water in on a daily basis, too: aim for one third to one half your body weight in fluid ounces, and feel free to add fresh lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or mint for an extra anti-inflammatory flavor).
- Cold-water fish: fish like sardines and salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids which have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Aim to eat fish at least 3-4 times per week.
- Cruciferous veggies: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, mustard greens, boy choy, cabbage and cauliflower all pack a powerful punch thanks to their high concentration of anti-inflammatory phytonutrients.
- Allium veggies: onions, garlic, leeks, and scallions, are a type of plant known as alliums. These are loaded with antioxidants and are excellent for fighting inflammation and protecting against cancer and other health issues.
- Watermelon and berries: Like green leafy veggies, allium veggies, and cruciferous veggies, certain fruits like watermelon, strawberries, and blueberries are packed with vitamins and nutrients that can quell the negative effects of chronic inflammation. Your goal should be between seven to nine servings of fruits and veggies per day.
- Olives and olive oil: A staple in the famous Mediterranean diet (which is known for being anti-inflammation friendly), extra virgin olive oil is a prime source for dietary fats that naturally reduce inflammation, including oleic acid and linoleic acid. Other awesome plant-based sources of fat include avocados, sesame oil, and coconut oil.
- Bone broth: rich in minerals, vitamins, and nutrients, bone broth truly boosts health and provides a high-quality source of protein.
- Certain spices: rosemary, turmeric, curcumin, cayenne pepper, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, and oregano are a few of the most effective herbs and spices that can reduce or inhibit the biochemical processes of inflammation.
- Fermented foods: apple cider vinegar, sauerkraut, kombucha kimchi, and kefir are full of antioxidants, probiotics, enzymes, and B vitamins.
- Whole grains: certain complex carbohydrates such as brown rice and quinoa have been shown to help reduce inflammation, likely as a result of their high fiber content. If you’re not one of those people that do well with grains, however (especially ones containing gluten), know that your fiber needs can still be met with veggies instead.
- Check out the video below for even more information on anti-inflammatory foods!
Some Go-To Anti-inflammatory Recipes
The foods which naturally promote anti-inflammation in the diet are tasty and versatile, and there are countless ways to get more of them into your diet. Feel free to create your own recipes, or try some of the following if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration:
- Roasted Broccoli with Garlic and Mustard
- Homemade Sauerkraut
- Roasted Wild Salmon with Rosemary and Lemon
Chronic inflammation is real, it’s common, and it’s a problem. If left unaddressed, it can act like a charlatan, a man behind the curtain, a silent assassin slowly robbing you and your loved ones of your health.
But no need to sound dramatic.
The great news here is that chronic inflammation can be controlled through your lifestyle.
So, meditate more. Move more. Sleep more. Drink more water. And lastly, adopt a more anti-inflammatory diet—it’s super good for you and delicious, too.