In the health and wellness space, you’ll often hear a lot of buzzwords and the term inflammation is definitely one of them. But, do you actually understand what inflammation is and why it can be detrimental to our health when experienced chronically? As both a medical professional and someone who has suffered with a chronic, autoimmune disease (a condition caused by inflammation), my mission is to make sure that patients fully understand their conditions and how to correct them.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s self defense mechanism. It’s the reason why your ankle will swell when you sprain it or your lips puff up during an allergic reaction. It is your immune system saying “something isn’t right, I’m going to do something about it” which then releases antibodies and proteins, as well as increased blood flow to the damaged area (kind of like airbags being deployed in a car accident). With this said, inflammation isn’t necessarily a bad thing…until it becomes chronic.
Chronic inflammation happens when your body is constantly in defense mode. This is why, in addition to untreated conditions or injuries, overly processed foods, environmental toxins, smoking, and alcohol consumption are all triggers of chronic inflammation. Your body doesn’t know what to do with these foreign substances and stays on guard. Over time, chronic inflammation can actually damage your organs as well as healthy cells and tissues leading to bigger issues like autoimmune diseases or cancer.
While it’s ok to have a glass of wine, juicy burger on the 4th of July, or sugary treat from time to time, these inflammation triggers should be enjoyed in moderation.
How do you reduce inflammation? A healthy, primarily plant-based diet is key. Let’s dive in.
What does chronic inflammation feel like?
Symptoms include constant fatigue, anxiety, depression, weight gain or loss, gastrointestinal responses, or really just always getting sick! Your body is so focused on responding to the decoy problems that I described like toxins, poor food choices, and untreated conditions that your immune system is weakened and is unable to protect you from external factors like viruses and other issues within your body.
The power of plants
So you want to feel better and rid your body of chronic inflammation? Now that you have a better idea of what inflammation is and how it is triggered, you know that it’s key to stay away from inflammatory foods like processed meats, refined sugars, fried foods, alcohol, excess gluten, excess salt, and other triggers, but what foods actually reduce inflammation?
Plant-based foods are key! Look for foods with the following qualities:
High in fiber and prebiotics – Fruits and vegetables in particular are high in fiber which is excellent for your gut, the epicenter of health. Your gut is filled with microbes, both good and bad, and it’s essential for it to be well balanced because it controls or plays a role in almost every essential function within your body. The fiber from fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other plant-based foods act as prebiotics which are the food for the good bacteria in your gut.
Probiotics – Fermented foods like sauerkraut, tofo, and kimchi are considered probiotics which help to add good bacteria to your gut.
Antioxidants, polyphenols, and key nutrients – The vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and polyphenols in plant based foods and spices are a gold mine for ridding your body of inflammation. Here are a few anti-inflammatory foods and their properties:
- Fatty fish, like salmon, sardines, and mackerel contain those good fats! Omega-3 fatty oils are key.
- Nuts are a great source of fiber and good fats. Pistachios in particular are high in melatonin, an antioxidant best known for aiding in sleep but also great for reducing inflammation.
- Fruits, especially cherries, blueberries, and oranges contain fiber and are rich in vitamins.
- Olive oil (particularly extra virgin) plays an anti-inflammatory role within your body and consumption is linked to reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
- Turmeric is packed with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, and anticancer properties. Add it to smoothies, salad dressings, hummus, or any of your recipes.
- Ginger decreases inflammation, reduces pain, fights free radicals, prevents cancer, and lowers blood glucose.
- Green tea contains polyphenolic compounds, which can interfere with inflammatory pathways to lower inflammation.
- Vegetables are of course high in fiber and nutrients but here are a few in particular with inflammation fighting properties:
- Leafy greens, like kale and spinach are jam packed with antioxidants and other nutrients.
- Tomatoes also contain antioxidants and phytonutrient lycopene.
- The allium family of vegetables including garlic, scallions, onions and leeks contain a variety of organic sulfur compounds that reduce inflammation.
While adding some of these anti-inflammatory foods into your diet and reducing the inflammatory foods and toxins is the basis for it, the mediterranean diet is a common anti-inflammatory diet that has become well-known. It includes high intake of vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts, and olive oil and low intake of those “bad guy” inflammation causing foods, and a moderately high intake of fish (depending on the proximity of the sea), a low-to-moderate intake of dairy, a low intake of meat and poultry and a regular, but moderate intake of ethanol, primarily in the form of wine.
Chronic inflammation is a silent killer
In fact, The World Health Organization (WHO) ranks chronic diseases as the greatest threat to human health. To put this into perspective, nearly 60% of Americans have at least one chronic condition, 42% have more than one and 12% have five or more. Our society has a huge issue with not addressing health issues until they become extremely severe or deadly which is why my wife and I are passionate about lifestyle medicine and changing this cycle of poor health.
If you or a loved one are experiencing chronic inflammation and the health impacts that come from it, know that you are not alone and it’s never too late to take control of your health. Combined with other lifestyle habits like exercise, drinking water, avoiding smoking and drinking, and eliminating environmental toxins like harmful cleaning products and pesticides, a plant-based diet is a major part of reducing inflammation in our bodies.
I hope this information helps you to understand inflammation and take action to live a healthier life. You only have one life to live. Live it well! If you need help, book an appointment with me at my private practice – I see patients all over the world!