Have you ever been so mad you could scream? Or, punch a wall? Your heart races, your face turns red, your teeth clench, you blood pressure sores. Now think of your body’s tissues and cells. They get enraged, too. But for different reasons. You don’t feel those enraged tissues, but all the disease of aging, from heart disease and cancer to diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, and even Alzheimer’s disease have one underlying factor in common - inflammation.
The good news, according to Elizabeth Somer, dietitian and author of Eat Your Way to Happiness, is that you can slow, stop, and possibly even reverse damage caused by inflammation by making a few changes in what you eat and how you live.
1. What is Inflammation?
The term inflammation comes from the Latin word for “setting a fire.” It is the body’s natural response to healing. Not to be confused with infection, inflammation is how the body contains infection and jury, while promoting repair of damaged tissue. You know inflammation by its outward signs: redness, joint pain, or flu-like symptoms, such as fever, chills, or muscle stiffness.
Any damage to a tissue triggers the immune system to send white blood cells to the area in an attempt to remove damaged cells, bacteria, toxins, or irritants. These blood cells release hormone-like chemicals, called eicosanoids, that increase blood flow to the area, causing redness and warmth. They also cause leakage of fluid into the tissues, which is why a stubbed toe swells. Anything with “itis” on the end, from appendicitis, bronchitis, and dermatitis, comes from the Greek term meaning inflammation.
There are two types of inflammation, one is good and the other isn’t. Acute inflammation works great for healing a cut finger or a bumped head. The white blood cells and their chemicals get in, do their job, and get out. But, too much of a good thing leads to problems. In other words, chronic inflammation damages, rather than repairs tissues. When inflammation is too intense or prolonged it produces diseases instead of healing.
Tissues damaged by the wrong diet or lifestyle choices sets up a constant irritant in the body. This sets the stage for chronic inflammation that works silently under the surface, damaging arteries leading to heart disease or dementia, or inflaming tissues leading to cancer, diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis (arthritis literally means “inflammation of the joint.”)
2. How do you know if your body is raging an inflammatory war?
You won’t feel it, but you can check for markers. If any part of you is inflamed, a marker, called C reactive protein or CRP, will be high in your blood. If your value is more than 1mg/L, you are at risk.
3. What’s diet got to do with it?
Diet is a major player in whether or not you fight fire or fuel the flames. The eicosanoids released to fight infection come in two varieties - promoters and inhibitors. In a healthy body, those two forces are in balance, so inflammation occurs only when and where it is needed and stops when damage is repaired.. It is when the system is out of balance with too many damaging compounds constantly irritating tissues that disease percolates.
4. What foods promote inflammation?
Your body’s promoting and inhibiting chemicals are made from fats in the diet. The fats consumed in safflower or corn oil are called omega-6 fats and they promote inflammation,. A specific omega-6 fat, called arachidonic acid, found in meats is a particularly potent promoter. Being overweight also increases chronic inflammation, possibly because body fat stockpiles arachidonic acid, increasing the body’s supply of this damaging inflammatory chemical. In addition, other foods promote inflammation because they are irritants to the body’s tissues, which then triggers the immune response. Inflammatory triggers in the diet include, saturated fats in meat and fatty dairy products, sugar, trans fats in processed and fast foods, refined grains, potatoes, fried foods, palm or coconut oils, pastries, and processed meats like hot dogs (it’s the nitrite additives in these luncheon meats that are to blame). For example, saturated and trans damage blood vessel walls, which triggers the immune response associated with inflammation and encourages blood fats, like cholesterol, to stick and become imbedded in the artery wall leading to atherosclerosis, the underlying cause of heart disease, stroke, and even some forms of dementia.
5. What foods reduce inflammation?
The fats in fish oils, nuts and flaxseed, called omega-3 fats, inhibit inflammation. In addition, some foods, such as extra-virgin olive oil, fruits, vegetables, mushrooms, nuts, soy, whole grains, tea, and certain spices, such as turmeric and ginger, prevent tissue damage that otherwise triggers the inflammatory response. These foods are the best dietary sources of antioxidants, such as vitamin C and beta carotene, as well as thousands of phytonutrients, such as flavonoids. Antioxidants block highly-reactive oxygen fragments called free radicals that otherwise damage the genetic code, cell membranes, and proteins, leading to aging, heart disease, cancer, dementia, and more. The more anti-inflammatory foods, such as colorful fruits and vegetables, you eat, the lower your risk. The problem is the typical American diet is very high in omega-6 fats and other processed foods that insight inflammation, and is low in the foods that ward off the process. Switching from the typical American fare to a diet that more closely resembles the Mediterranean diet significantly reduces chronic inflammation and all the diseases associated with it.
6. What does the anti-Inflammatory diet look like?
The solution is simple. You can slow, stop, and even reverse the fire in your tissues, if you adopt a the 7 diet habits of an anti-inflammatory diet:
- Produce: Eat mostly colorful produce; more vegetables than fruit. Also, add mushrooms to cooked dishes. How much? Aim for at least 9 servings a day.
- Grains: Eat whole grains and make them chewy, not fluffy (i.e., breads with hunks of whole grain, old-fashioned or steel-cut oats, brown rice, cook pasta al dente)
- Fats: Include one or more omega-3 rich foods in the daily diet, preferably fatty fish or foods fortified with a sustainable, algae-based omega-3 DHA. Use only olive oil .
- Legumes: Include beans and soy products in the daily diet.
- Processed foods: Cut back or eliminate refined grains, sugar, processed foods, and foods that contain saturated or trans fats.
- Herbs & Spices: Sprinkle the diet with anti-inflammatory spices, such as turmeric and ginger.
- Beverages: Quench your thirst with fresh-brewed green tea.
To round out your anti-inflammatory program, cut back on stress, exercise daily, and reduce your exposure to toxins, such as tobacco smoke and smog. Your body will repay you a thousand fold for this fight-fire, tender loving care!