Inflammation: Too Much of a Good Thing?
You’re probably hearing a lot about inflammation lately and how you should take steps to avoid it. But what does inflammation really mean? Inflammation is a necessary part of the body’s healing response. For example, when you fall and scrape your knee, part of the body’s healing response is acute inflammation, an increase in overall blood flow, white blood cells, and other healing agents to protect the body and help the knee’s tissues begin to repair themselves.
But you keep hearing about how you should avoid inflammation! The row you hear about inflammation is about chronic inflammation. As opposed to acute inflammation, chronic inflammation occurs when our body’s immune system responds with unnecessary inflammation that ends up causing more troubles than it solves. Some of us are predisposed to chronic inflammation: autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis cause chronic inflammation, and repeated or prolonged infections can also cause it. However, research shows that there are many personal choices we make that could contribute to inflammation. Smoking, drinking alcohol in excess, and obesity can all lead to chronic inflammation.
While smoking and drinking alcohol in excess seem to have clear (though perhaps not easily effected) solutions, tackling obesity might not seem as simple. While genetics and some medical conditions play factors in our ability to control our weight, exercise and diet are the two variables most of us have complete control over from day to day. Our exercise regimens and our diets have both positive and negative effects on inflammation.
Exercise has tremendous health benefits, one of them being increasing our overall calorie burn which in turn helps us burn fat. Exercise also can help us feel more energetic; it can make it easier for us to move heavy objects through strength training, to make difficult movements through increased flexibility, and to complete arduous tasks through increased cardiovascular capacity. But exercise can also cause chronic inflammation in our muscles and joints if we are not careful. Over-exercising, poor fitness technique, and lack of rest can all result in us doing more harm to our bodies through exercise than good.
What can we do to avoid this? Listen to your body; persistent inflammation, swelling and pain (as opposed to temporary discomfort) are your body’s ways of telling you that something is wrong. Consult with health professionals if these symptoms persist. Consult with fitness professionals like personal trainers to make sure that there is not something you can be doing differently technique-wise that might resolve the issue.
Like exercise, diet is also an opportunity for us to improve our health but also potentially ruin it. Running a calorie surplus (i.e. eating more calories than we burn for a sustained period of time) is an obvious way that diet can lead to obesity and negatively impact our overall health. Ask your doctor or consult with a dietician if you feel that your diet has you running a calorie surplus.
But how can our diet negatively affect our health beyond causing obesity? Some research shows that particular foods may contribute to chronic inflammation. Unfortunately, a lot of these foods also happen to taste really great! Red and processed meats, refined carbohydrates (breads not made with whole wheat and dessert foods), sweetened beverages such as soda and fruit juices, and fried foods have all been shown to trigger inflammatory responses from the body. Interestingly, these foods tend to have a high caloric content relative to their nutritional value, so they are also the “usual suspects” when it comes to contributing to obesity.
Many health professionals promote an anti-inflammatory or Mediterranean-style diet. These diets tend emphasize eating a plentiful variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Tomatoes, strawberries, and blueberries are high in antioxidants and polyphenols. Dark leafy greens like spinach, kale and collards contain flavonoids that have shown to have bountiful health benefits; they also happen to have high nutritional content relative to their caloric content. Orange foods like pumpkins, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, carrots, and apricots are high in carotenoids and help curb inflammation.
These diets also call for depending on fish (especially fatty fish like salmon, tuna, etc.), nuts (especially walnuts and almonds), and other plant-based proteins instead of eating red meat to get our necessary proteins. For cooking and baking, olive oil, canola oil, and flax-seed oil are preferable to butter, lard, and other fats. Some even call for the moderate consumption of red wine.
Some spices and herbs have also been shown to have some health benefits. Studies have shown that turmeric, cinnamon, and ginger have anti-inflammatory properties. Also, a compound found in green, white, and black teas called catechins have also been shown to help with inflammation. We recommend, however, to concentrate on incorporating fresh fruits and vegetables in the place of processed foods and substituting fish for red meat, instead of just relying on a sprinkling of turmeric and cinnamon in your tea to stem the tide of inflammation. If you’re someone who oftens complains about aches and pains, try some of these suggestions out for a month and see how much better your body feels!