Inflammation is a good thing. It is the natural way your body responds to threats such as infections or wounds. We have all seen inflammation at work when we have pain and redness at an injury. We say it looks inflamed, and it literally is, because injury activates the inflammatory response.
When is inflammation a problem?
When inflammation lasts for long periods of time, we call it chronic, and it can cause problems. Some common causes of chronic inflammation include allergies, autoimmune disease, periodontal disease, arthritis and other diseases that activate the immune system over time. Even obesity is inflammatory, because fat cells give off chemicals called cytokines that trigger inflammation.
Why is it a problem?
Chronic inflammation causes damage to the endothelial lining of arteries, which can lead to atherosclerosis and heart disease. There is also evidence that it contributes to type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and a growing number of other chronic diseases that are common in modern, western societies.
What are the symptoms?
The symptoms of inflammation vary with what is causing it. You may even have no symptoms at all, as in the case of obesity. Here are some examples of specific disease related symptoms:
- Arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis ( joint pain, stiffness, swelling)
- Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis (abdominal pain and cramping, fever, diarrhea)
- Psoriasis or eczema (redness)
- Allergies (respiratory symptoms, hives)
More subtle, early indicators of problems could include headaches, muscles aches, fatigue, muscle stiffness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, gas, abdominal discomfort and even emotional problems including depression. These could be related to food sensitivities and intolerances. The most common food intolerances include dairy (lactose), wheat (gluten), yeast, soy, corn, eggs and even some artificial sweeteners.
How can you know if you have chronic inflammation if you don't have symptoms or a diagnosis?
You can find out if you have inflammation by having your C- reactive protein levels tested. The high sensitivity C-reactive protein, is the preferred indicator of chronic, low-grade inflammation.
What should I do if I have high levels of C-reactive protein?
If your C-reactive protein levels are high, you will first want to talk to your doctor to find out if there is an underlying infection, allergy, autoimmune disorder or other contributing disease. If not, your excess weight could be the cause and weight loss is your best line of defense. If you are a smoker, that could also be contributing to the problem.
How do foods influence inflammation?
Inflammation can also be influenced by the foods you eat. Research has shown that certain foods trigger inflammation and others suppress it.
Some of the foods that are pro-inflammatory include:
- Animal fats (corn-fed beef, dark meat and skin of poultry, pork, duck
- Hydrogenated fats (trans fat)
- Fried foods (fried in saturated,hydrogenated or polyunsaturated fats)
- Sweets (sugar, candy, cookies, cakes, ice cream, donuts, sweet drinks)
- Refined grains (white bread, pasta, white rice)
- Processed foods (chips, crackers, fries, cold cuts, hot dogs, canned meats)
- Dairy products (especially full fat milk, cheese, sour cream, cream cheese, cream)
- Some people may also need to avoid the nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers)
Here are some of the best anti-inflammatory foods:
- Fatty fish such as salmon, sardines, herring, trout and tuna (with omega 3 fatty acids)
- Grass fed beef also contain some omega 3 fats (unlike corn-fed beef, mostly saturated fats)
- Nuts and seeds (walnuts, flaxseed, almonds)
- Monounsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil, avocados), by replacing polyunsaturated fats
- Turmeric (part of most curry dishes)
- Ginger, used in Asian cuisine (also helps control nausea)
- Whole grains (except wheat, barley and rye if you are gluten intolerant)
Foods that have high antioxidant levels also tend to reduce inflammation, possibly by reducing the damage that stimulates inflammation. Antioxidants are prolific in brightly and darkly colored fruits and vegetables.
Some of the best sources of antioxidants include:
- Berries: blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, cherries,
- Beans: Red beans, kidney beans, pinto and black beans
- Herbs: oregano, basil, sage, marjoram, thyme, dill, garlic, dry mustard
- Spices: cinnamon, cloves, cumin, turmeric, ginger
- Nuts: pecans, walnuts, pistachios
- Green tea is rich in both antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds
- Coffee, cocoa (or dark chocolate) and red wine (but caffeine and alcohol are inflammatory)
- Exotic fruits: acai, gogi, pomegranate, papaya, pineapple
Eating more of these anti-inflammatory and high antioxidant foods can help calm chronic inflammation and by doing so, reduce your risk for chronic diseases. Find ways to make these foods a part of your everyday diet and you will not only be protecting your body from disease, but you may find that some of your aches and pains improve.