You’ve probably heard that you should reduce inflammation—it certainly sounds bad (nothing inflamed can be good, right?) But inflammation has become a catch-all phrase for negative side effects, from brain fog to joint pain. It’s important to understand what it really means in order to be healthy and prevent disease: “Inflammation is your immune system’s response to an injury or an irritant, so it’s actually a necessary bodily function,” explains Brooke Scheller, DCN, MS, CNS. When it becomes chronic or long-term, that’s when you need to be concerned. Learn how to recognize those signs and discover anti-inflammatory foods that can help reduce inflammation naturally.
What is acute inflammation?
It turns out, not all inflammation is bad for you. Parts of the body become inflamed when you are sick or injured. You can even see external inflammation sometimes when there is redness, heat, swelling or pain in the body due to a virus or an injury. In these cases, inflammation is your body doing its job to help you heal, and to protect you from infection, says Scheller.
Sources of inflammation can be varied — a germ can cause an illness, an injury causes swelling or bruising. This is due to increased blood flow within that area, to allow more immune system cells to be delivered to the part of the body that needs it. Think about your puffy eyes and red swollen nose when you have a cold—these reactions are because extra fluids are rushing to the ear, nose, and throat to flush out the infection (tissue anyone?). Once the cause of that inflammation is gone—the cold goes away or the splinter is removed—the body continues to function normally and the inflammation goes down, according to Scheller.
What is chronic inflammation?
When inflammation becomes chronic, or long-term, it can have an impact on how you feel every day. Inflammation side effects—including generally feeling ill, exhaustion and fever—are signs the immune system is very active and may be sucking up energy from other functions your body needs to perform every day.
“This type of inflammation can occur within the cardiovascular system, the gut, the muscles, the joints, the brain, and virtually everywhere else,” says Scheller. “It isn’t as prominent as the sensations that we experience when we have a physical injury that we can see or feel. We might not even know that it's happening.”
Chronic or systemic inflammation can be harder to measure than acute inflammation but can be just as serious because of its long-term effects. According to Scheller, it’s important to pay attention to recurring symptoms that may be signs chronic, low-grade information is recurring:
- Muscle/joint pain
- Headaches, Migraines
- Brain fog, poor cognition, poor memory
- Low energy
- Digestive discomfort, including abnormal bowel movements (like constipation or ongoing diarrhea)
- Skin troubles (acne, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis)
- Hormonal imbalances
What are sources of long-term inflammation?
“Long-term, low-grade inflammation can have a variety of sources,” explains Scheller. This might be certain foods we eat, toxins that we take into the body from the environment, lack of certain important nutrients, poor digestive function, and a handful of other reasons.
“The challenge with this low-grade inflammation is that it often occurs long-term, sometimes without us really even noticing,” warns Scheller. “The longer the inflammation occurs in the system, the more damage it can cause.” If the cause of the inflammation is not removed, the negative side effects will increase, causing the potential for health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes, and even potentially cancer down the road among a host of other health concerns.
Sugar and refined grains as a source of inflammation
One type of long-term, low-grade inflammation may be caused by diets high in sugar and refined grains. Scheller tells us that these diets have a substantial impact on cholesterol levels. This is due to the increased release of insulin to the system to normalize blood glucose levels. “Insulin itself is highly inflammatory in the system,” says Scheller. "When we eat high sugar or high carb foods, we increase insulin. This can create inflammation that can lead to elevation in cholesterol levels."“
Stress as a source of inflammation
Stress and inflammation also go hand in hand. Overall, stress can often be a precursor to disease and either be a cause or a symptom of a poor quality of life. According to researchers at Brandeis University, higher levels of inflammation often accompanies psychological stress. In a review of years worth of research, a group of scientists spanning China, the US, Japan and Brazil provided evidence that stress induces or worsens depression, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer through inflammation.
How to reduce inflammation through food
A healthy diet is about more than maintaining a healthy weight. It can also reduce inflammation: “What we eat has an impact on everything we feel,” says Scheller, “from symptoms like headaches and brain fog all the way down to the ultimate development of chronic conditions, including inflammatory diseases like cystitis, bronchitis, otitis, dermatitis, and Crohn’s Disease, among others.”
One of the most important steps to learning how to reduce inflammation is embracing an anti-inflammatory diet. Scheller gave some simple pointers, explaining it’s mainly about reducing or avoiding pro-inflammatory foods and increasing anti-inflammatory foods.
To find the foods that trigger your inflammation side effects, the most efficient path is an elimination-style diet. You start by removing common triggers from the diet: gluten and wheat, dairy, soy, corn, peanuts, processed foods (including processed vegetable oils), and fried foods. You can remove these one at a time, or all at once. You then take notice of your symptoms over the course of three weeks, and then begin to introduce these foods back into your diet and see which symptoms come back. For example, if you add dairy back into your diet and you start to have digestive discomfort, then dairy is likely an irritant, and possibly a source of inflammation.
An anti-inflammatory diet is one of the top ways to reduce inflammation. Try incorporating one or more of these foods Scheller suggests into your diet every day and see if you start experiencing less inflammation side effects.
Omega 3 Foods
The Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington DC saw significant decreased inflammation and lowered use of anti-inflammatory drugs with the increased omega-3 fatty acids. Some food sources for omega 3s include wild fish, nuts and seeds (like walnut, chia, hemp, flax), seaweed and algae.
Fresh fruits and vegetables
Researchers at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found that an increased diet of fruits and vegetables helped to lower symptoms of oxidative stress and inflammation. Scheller recommends dark leafy greens, cruciferous veggies like broccoli, berries, cherries.
Healthy fats like avocado, olive oil and wild fish have anti-inflammatory properties according to a review of studies done by researchers at the Instituto de Salud Carlos III in Madrid, Spain. These fats are especially healthy if accompanied by other markers of the Mediterranean diet like fresh fruits and vegetables.
The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric have been found to help with inflammatory bowel disease, arthritis and even certain types of cancer. Scheller likes to drink a turmeric tea, or incorporate turmeric into curries or eggs. She also notes that some suggest that turmeric is more readily available in the body when paired with black pepper, so add a pinch to your turmeric recipes.
A review of ginger-related research has shown that the anti-inflammatory effect of ginger can actually reduce muscle pain after intense physical activity. Scheller suggests boiling it in water over the stove for up to 20 minutes and then enjoying it as a tea for the most potent benefits. Pickled ginger is also readily available, but be aware that it is often picked with high amounts of sugar.
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