Inflammation is something we hear about all the time. It’s sort of a nebulous, catch-all that gets blamed for a variety of ailments and conditions. But what is it really and should it be blamed for all of our aches and pains?
Well, yes… In fact, it’s estimated that worldwide, 3 out 5 people die from a chronic inflammatory condition. That’s a huge number! But what is it, why is it important, and how can you combat it?
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to illness or injury and it can be either acute or chronic.
Acute inflammation happens immediately when you might become sick or injured – no matter how mild (a paper cut!) or severe (a bad stomach flu). There will be heat, pain, redness, and swelling that is localized or throughout the body. This is actually a good thing and means the body’s immune system is working hard on healing. But sometimes acute inflammation can become chronic inflammation, especially in the face of poor sleep or too much stress, and this is where the problems begin.
Chronic inflammation, which has no immediate outward signs, is a result of repeated acute inflammation or when the immune response doesn’t “turn down” appropriately. Chronic inflammation is a contributing factor in many chronic illnesses like obesity or diabetes and can damage the body through accelerated memory loss, compromised digestive function, weight gain, joint pain, increased cardiovascular risk, and loss of muscle tone.
The good news here though is that chronic inflammation can be managed through some easy lifestyle changes.
As a registered dietitian, here are the 5 things I do to manage inflammation.
1. Increase the intake of Omega-3 fatty acids.
Americans, on average, don’t consume enough Omega-3s, which are anti-inflammatory powerhouses. These fatty acids are found in foods like salmon, mackerel, flax seeds, chia seeds, and walnuts. Even if your diet is heavy in these foods, it can still be pretty difficult to get enough in through food alone, which is where supplements come in handy.
Increasing these fatty acids in your diet or through supplements should be done in conjunction with reducing intake of refined oils (like soybean, corn, and safflower oil), saturated fats (from fatty meats and high-fat dairy products), and trans fats (from margarine and partially hydrogenated oil in highly processed foods). Supplementation should be done at the advice of your doctor or a registered dietitian and based on the results of a blood test (like Baze) to ensure accurate dosing.
2. Enjoy carbohydrates in their whole-food forms.
Minimally processed grains like quinoa, millet, brown rice, and whole wheat, other whole-food carbohydrates like beans and lentils, and the carbohydrates found in fruits and starchy vegetables like potatoes and squash, contain loads of fiber. Fiber aids in digestion and acts as a prebiotic, which contributes to a healthy microbiome.
Our GI system is an important part of our immune system, but the “tight junctions” or the space between the cells that line our intestines, needs to remain intact to keep toxins and other inflammation-producing agents inside our intestines instead of in other parts of our bodies. A healthy microbiome plays an important role in the maintenance of these “tight junctions,” and reduces symptoms of what many refer to as “leaky gut.”
3. Make sure you’re getting enough vitamins and minerals.
Following a diet rich in plant foods will get you well on your way to getting the full complement of micronutrients and antioxidants. These are integral to healthy DNA replication, cell turnover, and immunity—all of which play a role in managing inflammation.
Periodic blood tests and diet assessments can help you determine if you’re getting enough of the essentials like vitamins D and B12 so you can make adjustments to your dietary routine and use supplements for those nutrients that you just can’t seem to get enough of through food alone.
4. Spice it up!
Turn down the salt (which can increase blood pressure—another highly inflammatory state) and turn up the spices! Herbs and spices not only contain powerful antioxidants and other phytonutrients that help fight against inflammation, but they also add new dimensions of flavor to your favorite dishes.
Not into adding exotic spices to your menu or just want an extra boost to help with those everyday aches and pains? Try adding turmeric to your daily supplement regimen. Turmeric contains a compound called curcumin which is the most beneficial compound within turmeric. Curcumin has been shown to significantly reduce C-Reactive Protein (CRP), a marker of inflammation, in as little as 8 weeks. Overall, there is an overwhelming amount of research supporting turmeric’s role in anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activities.
5. Get active.
While hard or long exercise sessions can certainly create some acute inflammation in the body, overall, physical activity reduces chronic inflammation. While the mechanism isn’t completely understood, it’s believed that exercise reduces the expression of pro-inflammatory toll-like receptors (TLRs) in immune cells, which are some of the main culprits in underlying chronic conditions with an inflammatory component, such as obesity.
Of course, achy joints and cold weather can sometimes make exercise unappealing, but any consistent physical activity will do, including yoga, walking, or other low impact, gentle activities. Long story short: daily physical activity helps your immune system function properly, thus helping to reduce chronic inflammation. As a bonus, it also helps you sleep better and manage stress, which also helps in the reduction of inflammation.
So instead of popping some ibuprofen for those achy joints this winter, reach for the refrigerator door handle instead.
A healthy lifestyle that focuses on real foods, daily physical activity, and a smart supplement routine is all you need to create a solid anti-inflammatory foundation!