What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural immune response of the body to protect itself from injury or infection. When you stub your toe, your body reacts by creating inflammation in the injured area. The cells and tissue surrounding your toe release signals that cause a number of reactions in the affected area and the resulting symptoms like pain, swelling, heat, and redness occur. The immune cells work to destroy the source of inflammation, so to speak. This reaction is termed acute inflammation and depending how badly you stubbed your toe, the inflammation subsides relatively quickly. Examples of acute inflammation include: an infected ingrown toenail, a sore throat, a scratch or cut, high intensity exercise, or acute health conditions like bronchitis, sinusitis, etc. The onset is rapid and the duration of the inflammation lasts only minutes to a few days. If the injury or infection persists for a prolonged period of time, the inflammatory process becomes chronic.
This might occur when the body is exposed to environmental toxins, viral infections, or during an autoimmune reaction. As an example, celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body views gluten as a harmful substance. The intestines of someone with celiac creates inflammation when they consume gluten. Because the body views gluten as a foreign invader, it creates an abnormal immune response (inflammatory reaction). A person with celiac disease experiences acute inflammation every time they consume gluten, but if they continue to consume gluten, this will become a chronic response within the body. Their intestinal lining slowly destroys. More examples of chronic inflammatory diseases include asthma, ulcers, and arthritis, where the inflammation is of longer duration, potentially lasting even years. Other factors like excess weight, poor diet, smoking, pollution, and excessive alcohol consumption can lead to chronic inflammation as well. Chronic inflammation is abnormal and thought to be involved in almost all diseases.
Nonpharmacologic Treatment Methods to inflammation –
The connection between food and pain is multifactorial and non-linear. This means that the biological role of how nutrition influences the body’s response to inflammation is complex and not a simple process. There are essential nutrients that we must consume for proper survival and to maintain health, but there are also certain characteristics among all foods that either prevent or lead to disease and ill health. One thing is for sure, is that food and the components that make up food work synergistically to create unique effects on the body with healing properties. For instance, consuming vitamin C from a supplement will not have the same effect of consuming an orange, where you are consuming not only vitamin C but other nutrients and phytochemicals as well. This is one reason why consuming your nutrients through whole food sources is always better than taking single-nutrient and isolated supplements. Even though the relationship between food and inflammation is complex, research has shown how certain foods and nutrients influence inflammation (and disease) dramatically, either positively or negatively. All foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle, no matter how good or not the food is for us, because all foods have the potential to be satisfying in some way or another. The main idea behind a “healthy” diet and lifestyle is what the majority of your diet and actions consists of. The following recommendations for treating pain and chronic inflammation center around an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle. Because inflammation is a component among so many different diseases and health conditions, this diet and lifestyle has the potential to impact almost all disease states, ranging from gastrointestinal disorders to cancer.
Consume more whole, plant-based foods.
The right balance of healthy fats - salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, walnuts, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, green leafy veggies – are all high in omega-3 fats which are anti-inflammatory. Omega-6’s, while still essential and beneficial, are overly consumed in the American diet. Vegetable oils, meat, eggs, and dairy – are all high in omega-6. When omega-6 is consumed in excessive amounts, they actually promote inflammation within the body. Instead of focusing on reducing omega-6, focus on increasing your consumption of omega-3 fats.
High antioxidant intake - antioxidants (or phytochemicals) are found in whole, plant-based foods such as fruits vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, herbs and spices. (Any scant amount of antioxidants found in animal-based foods come from the food that the animals consume!). Antioxidants have been consistently found to contribute to disease prevention and treatment for almost all health conditions, especially inflammation. There are hundreds of different compounds in plant-based foods with antioxidant effects, and research has discovered many of them (carotenoids, polyphenols, etc.), but many are still unknown. Plant-based foods contain many different antioxidants and therefore contain numerous health benefits – it is best to consume a variety of these foods for the most nutritional benefit and health effects. Remember, it is always best to consume foods in their whole form, and that includes getting antioxidants from food and not from supplements and pills.
High fiber - fiber recommendations are 21-38 grams per day depending on age and gender, but sadly, Americans barely meet even half the recommended intakes. This is because the majority of our diets are high in meat and refined carbohydrates, both of which are completely devoid of fiber. Fiber is found in whole, plant-based foods and contributes to proper bowel health and a healthy balance of gut bacteria, both of which are essential to an anti-inflammatory diet.
The right carbohydrates - organic whole grains, and complex or unprocessed carbohydrates consist of foods like fruits, vegetables, brown rice, 100% whole wheat/grain, quinoa, rye, barley, oatmeal, millet, and farro. These foods are in their whole form and contain essential nutrients, antioxidants, protein, and are very high in fiber. They also have a low glycemic load (the total impact of the food on blood sugar levels), which means they do not cause a sharp spike in blood sugar and insulin like refined carbohydrates do. Refined carbohydrates on the other hand, have been processed in a way that removes nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and in turn have a high glycemic load. Overall, the consumption of unrefined carbohydrates have many different health benefits, whereas refined carbohydrate intake is associated with adverse health conditions and diseases. I want to mention that the carbohydrates from fruit also have essential nutrients and health benefits that are included in an anti-inflammatory diet. Some fruits are higher in sugar than others, but overall their effects on health are completely beneficial – please do not believe “fruit is fattening”!
Low to moderate animal protein - protein is essential for normal function and health. But our bodies need just the right amount (which differs depending on gender, age, sex, health condition and other lifestyle factors) and from the best sources. Protein is found in plant-based foods as well, although not as much or as bioavailable as animal products. However, research shows that a diet high in animal products correlates with a variety of diseases and inflammation, whereas plant-based protein has the opposite findings. Think legumes (beans), peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains (especially wheat – see note below), oatmeal, dark leafy greens, green beans, soybeans or tofu and tempeh. Literally of fruits and vegetables contain some protein but in smaller amounts. Consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods enables the body to meet its dietary needs, including protein.
Whole foods - think of all the amazing foods that grow straight from the earth – fruits, vegetables, beans and peas, lentils, grains, nuts and seeds – in their most basic form, these foods are full of essential nutrients and antioxidants. As soon as you take them and begin to “process” them, they tend to lose nutrients and their health benefits. White rice was once brown rice that has been refined and therefore contains far less nutrients, fiber, and phytochemicals and now a higher glycemic index. Some processing can be extremely convenient for a healthy diet, such as bagged spinach, pre-chopped onions, and even canned food items like beans and frozen fruits and vegetables. These have been processed to some extent. Foods that have been heavily processed include cheez-its, Doritos, cakes, pastries, hot dogs, and packaged foods items that can be instantly prepared (instant mashed potatoes, instant pasta, frozen dinners and frozen pizza, for instance), and a high consumption of these items are associated with numerous health conditions.
Healthy gut bacteria - our bodies contain thousands of different kinds of bacteria that are beneficial for our health. A healthy immune system contains the right kind of bacteria and in appropriate amounts. Current research is underway to determine the “right” kind of bacteria and the “right” amounts, but one thing is for sure is that our gut health is related to our overall health and immune system, and diet and lifestyle has a direct impact on our gut microbiome. We consume both pre- and probiotics through food sources that contribute to our gut microbiome. Prebiotics are found in many high fiber foods and especially in onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, and artichokes. Prebiotics and fiber “feed” the live gut bacteria in our large intestine. Probiotics are live bacteria that are found in foods like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, and miso. It is always best to maintain our gut health through food sources as opposed to isolated/supplement form – but nonetheless many people take probiotic supplements. As mentioned previously, foods have an amazing synergistic effect that is just not the same through isolated nutrients, however supplements can be beneficial for some people with certain health conditions.
Nutrient deficiencies - magnesium and vitamin C deficiencies have been found to have a link between inflammation and pain. In other words, consuming more of these nutrients than needed does not eliminate inflammation, but deficiencies may cause inflammation. In fact, toxicity of nutrients will have the opposite effect of beneficial! Magnesium can be found in leafy veggies, nuts, grains, beans, and other high protein plant foods, whereas Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, tomatoes, potatoes, broccoli, strawberries, and bell peppers. There are other nutrient deficiencies speculated to have an impact on inflammation, but the research is still being completed. That being said, the idea is not to consume these nutrients through supplement form – but that eating a variety of whole foods contributes the best to overall health and disease prevention and treatment. Please view my article on a nutrient-dense diet!
Decrease in pro-inflammatory foods and lifestyle behaviors - in addition to the above anti-inflammatory foods listed above, it is also a good idea to think about decreasing foods that tend to promote inflammation. Fried foods, highly processed processed carbohydrates/grains, alcohol, trans-fats, excessive saturated fat intake or animal-based diet, especially processed meats (deli meats, bacon, hotdogs) - all tend to cause inflammation within the body. Although these foods should not make up the foundation of your diet if you wish to seek proper health prevention and treatment, they need not be completely eliminated from your diet.* Lifestyle behaviors other than diet that are pro-inflammatory include inadequate of sleep, sedentary behaviors, emotional stress or poor stress management, toxic relationships, and excessive "partying", like binge drinking.
*Part of my approach to diet and lifestyle is never recommending the complete elimination of any foods, ingredients, or behaviors from your overall diet or lifestyle (unless a medical condition requires otherwise). I always tell clients that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle, and that balance between behaviors is the key to health and wellness. Incorporating more health-promoting behaviors will tend to eliminate the "less healthy" food/behavior. Over restriction or a hyper fixation on banning foods can lead to disordered eating. Some people are better than others at learning this balance, while some have more difficulty. Please contact me if you struggle with obtaining this balance - it is completely achievable!
Physical activity - research shows that consistent physical activity at moderate intensity leads to an anti-inflammatory state.
Stress management - emotional and mental stress can be a normal part of life, but excessive stress or a lack of healthy outlets can lead to inflammation within the body.
Sleep - sleep deprivation has consistently been associated with inflammation and disease; aim for 6-8 hours a night for the most benefits.
Acupuncture - as a complementary approach acupuncture has been shown to assist with the treatment with a variety of health conditions that are associated with inflammation.
Pro-inflammatory balance of fats; trans fats
Low in phytonutrients
High glycemic load
High in animal protein
Anti-inflammatory balance of fats
High in phytonutrients/spices
Low glycemic load
Low to moderate animal protein