Putting out the Fire with Natural Anti-Inflammatories
An anti-inflammatory diet for good health and longevity
By Sara Mattillion | Graduate Dietetic Intern | Northern Illinois University
Inflammation is an essential part of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. It is the body’s way to signal the immune system to repair and heal damaged tissue and defend itself against unwelcome invaders like bacteria and viruses. Without this physiological response, wounds would fester, and infections could easily become deadly. Inflammation is not always well and good. If this response goes on for too long — or if inflammation occurs in places where it is not needed — it becomes problematic. Chronic inflammation is linked to diseases and disorders like heart disease, stroke, rheumatoid arthritis, persistent allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and obesity. The good news? A healthy diet and active lifestyle can keep inflammation under control, thereby reducing your risk of developing these chronic conditions.
Let’s take a quick look at the two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation, as the name suggests, is a short-term response with localized effects. Inflammation sets in at the site of the problem. Signs of acute inflammation include swelling, redness, heat, and mild pain. This inflammation causes blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to the impacted area, allowing white blood cells to work their magic and promote healing. Chemicals (cytokines) are released by the damaged tissues and act as emergency signals, telling the body to send immune cells, hormones and nutrients to the area for repair. Prostaglandins (hormone-like substances) help create blood clots to heal damaged tissue and trigger pain as part of the healing process. As the body heals, acute inflammation subsides.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can have negative long-term effects on the body. This systemic, steady, low-level inflammation often does not have symptoms and can contribute to the development of various diseases and disorders mentioned earlier. Low-level inflammation can be triggered by a perceived internal threat, even if there isn’t an injury to heal (think high levels of daily stress!). This causes the body to react the same way it would with acute inflammation . . . but, since there is no real injury to heal, the cytokines and prostaglandins can end up attacking internal organs or otherwise healthy tissue. Chronic inflammation typically does not have symptoms, but a doctor can test for levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker for inflammation in the blood. Elevated levels of CRP are linked to an increased risk for stroke and heart disease, as well as other inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.
Anti-inflammatory diets have gained popularity over the years. This style of eating focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables and quality protein sources, while limiting consumption of processed and refined foods. These foods are high in components like omega-3 fatty acids and various antioxidants that protect the body against the possible damage caused by inflammation. Antioxidants and phytonutrients like flavonoids, flavones, catechins, polyphenols, and phytoestrogens are all found in plant-based foods. Each antioxidant serves a different function and they are not interchangeable. That is why a colorful, varied diet is so important!
Fruits: Blueberries contain a group of antioxidants called flavonoids. Anthocyanins can turn off inflammatory genes. Berries of all varieties are also high in vitamin C and resveratrol, which have also been found to promote anti-inflammatory responses by decreasing free radicals in the body. Pineapple is high in bromelain, an enzyme that acts as a powerful anti-inflammatory. Bromelain has been found to decrease the spread of inflammatory metabolites and can relieve post-exercise inflammation by repairing and restoring muscle soreness due to high levels of potassium. Cherries help athletes recover faster from intense workouts and decrease post-exertion muscle pain due to their high anti-inflammatory content. So next time you’re looking for the perfect post-workout smoothie, grab a handful of berries, add some tart cherry juice and enjoy.
Vegetables: Garlic contains compounds called organosulfurs, which help lower the production of substances in the blood that boost inflammation. Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and dark leafy greens like spinach, Swiss chard, and kale have higher concentrations of nutrients like calcium, iron and flavonoids — all essential players in the anti-inflammatory battle! Tomatoes are rich in lycopene which can help reduce inflammation in the lungs and the rest of the body. Cooked tomatoes have more lycopene than raw ones, but tomato juice works too! Beets — bright red or purple — are packed with phytochemicals like ascorbic acid, carotenoids, and flavonoids. Beets are also high in betaine, a nutrient that fights inflammation and positively influences insulin resistance. One study published in the Journal of Human Hypertension associated eating beets and beetroot juice with lower levels of inflammatory markers, including c-reactive protein.
Grains: Whole grains, like raw oats, brown rice, millet, amaranth and quinoa are loaded with fiber that helps make butyrate, a fatty acid that can turn off the gene expression related to inflammation and insulin resistance. High vitamin B content can also help reduce the inflammatory hormone homocysteine, in turn reducing instance of inflammation. Overnight oats anyone?
Proteins: Fatty fish (e.g., salmon, tuna) and some other seafoods (like oysters) are high in omega-3 fatty acids which help reduce inflammation. Not a fan of seafood? No worries, fish oil supplements are walnuts are also high in omega-3 fats. All nuts are packed with antioxidants that help your body ward off inflammation. Adding eggs and low-fat dairy into your diet not only boosts your vitamin D intake, it diminishes inflammation as well.
Fats: Avocados are a nutrient powerhouse, packed with lycopene and beta-carotene. Not to mention they are high in polyunsaturated fats and contain more potassium than a banana. A research study in 2010 reported the Mediterranean diet’s heart-healthy perks might be largely associated with the use of olive oil. Oleocanthal (the source of olive oil’s aftertaste) was shown to have similar effects as ibuprofen. Last, but not least, chia seeds boast a whopping 9 grams of healthy fats, 11 grams of fiber and 4 grams of protein per ounce making them one of my top three choices when it comes to anti-inflammatory fat sources.
Spices: A study published in the BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal suggested the presence of carnosic acid and carnosol found in rosemary make this herb a powerful anti-inflammatory. Curcumin has been shown to directly inhibit the activation of inflammatory pathways by turning off two pro-inflammatory enzymes. Not sure what curcumin is? It’s the compound that gives turmeric its bright yellow-orange color. Fresh ginger is rich in gingerol, which has been shown to inhibit joint swelling and inflammation, on top of being antibacterial.
The takeaway? A diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids can, and will, help your body naturally reduce its inflammation. You really can’t go wrong!