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Many people live with and suffer from inflammation every day. Inflammation is a direct attack on the body by the immune system.
Inflammation is sometimes visible, but not always. You might notice inflammation in the form of red and swollen skin after a bug bite or a cut.
However, you cannot necessarily see joint pain in your hands or back after a hard physical day at work.
Inflammation itself is not a bad thing. It is actually a sign your body is functioning properly! Chronic or ongoing inflammation, on the other hand, is a sign something might not be right.
There are many anti-inflammatory medications such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including Ibuprofen, that many people use daily to alleviate pain.
However, nature also produces its own anti-inflammatory substances in food that you can easily incorporate into your diet.
What Is Inflammation?
In a nutshell, inflammation is a response to a perceived threat in the body. It happens when immune cells produce inflammatory mediators (much like messengers) that can dilate blood vessels, allowing blood to better reach areas of injury.
Blood can quickly carry immune cells to injured parts of your body and initiate the healing process. Areas of inflammation can often be swollen and hot, due to the blood flow and fluid buildup from the immune cells. (1)
The feeling of inflammation certainly is not pleasant but rather uncomfortable. Picture your stuffy nose during a cold. A stuffy nose is a result of inflamed mucous membranes that produce extra fluid in order to expel the virus.
Symptoms of Inflammation
Are you experiencing inflammation? If you have lived with chronic inflammation for a while, it may be hard to tell. In addition, some symptoms of inflammation are silent and you may never notice.
The common symptoms associated with chronic inflammation include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- Mood changes
- Acid reflux
- Weight gain
Symptoms that are indicative of acute inflammation include:
- Heat to touch
- Loss of function of certain parts of the body
The symptoms of inflammation often overlap with other medical conditions and can be indicative of an underlying issue. It is best to speak with your doctor about your unique set of symptoms and medical history.
How Is Inflammation Harmful?
Acute inflammation is a necessary bodily response to injury. However, when lower-grade inflammation becomes a chronic issue over extended periods (days, months, or years), it can place you at an increased risk of disease.
In fact, the World Health Organization states that chronic diseases are one of the greatest risks to human health. Worldwide, 3 out of every 5 people will die due to a chronic inflammatory disease such a stroke, heart diseases, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. (2)
Over time, changes in the body that were once meant to only last a short period continue to progress.
Blood vessels stay dilated and capillaries remain permeable, allowing white blood cells to pass through. This time, white blood cells are replaced by other types of infection-fighting cells.
These cells that normally help the body now start to promote damage to bodily tissues.
There are several risk factors for developing chronic inflammation:
- Age: Many things change in your body as you grow older. The older you are, the more natural exposure to free radicals you have, among many other factors.
- Weight: Studies have found that fat tissue itself produces inflammatory mediators. (3)
- Stress: It may be hard to believe, but emotions directly impact the body. In fact, stress has been associated with the release of pro-inflammatory substances.
- Sleep: Research shows that those who have irregular sleep patterns are more likely to suffer from chronic inflammation than those who sleep consistently. (4)
- Smoking habits: Smoking has been associated with reduced production of anti-inflammatory substances.
- Diet: Poor diet is a major risk factor for chronic inflammation. Food choices can largely impact many processes in the body, including the way your body responds to outside threats and impacts your overall health and well-being.
The Diet-Inflammation Connection
Diets that are high in inflammatory foods can increase your risk of chronic inflammation. Yes, there are inflammatory foods!
In fact, diets high in saturated fat, trans fats, and refined sugar have been linked to a higher production of pro-inflammatory molecules, particularly in those who are already overweight or currently suffer from diabetes. (5)
You should limit your intake of inflammatory foods including:
- Refined carbohydrates such as donuts, cookies, muffins, and white bread
- Fried foods such as breaded meats and vegetables as well as fries
- Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda, sweet tea, and energy drinks
- Processed meats including hot dogs, sausage, and beef jerky
- Red meat including steak and hamburger meat
- Processed fats including shortening, margarine, and lard
Alternatively, inflammation-fighting foods should be added to your diet as much as possible. Studies have found that certain fruits and vegetables are naturally high in antioxidants and polyphenols that protect the body. (6)
Even nuts have been associated with reduced inflammation markers and reduced risks of inflammatory-based diseases.
When searching for anti-inflammatory fruits and vegetables, aim for the ones that are colored blue, purple, and red. These are highest in certain flavonoids that support a reduction in inflammation.
- Green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collard greens
- Vegetables such as purple sweet potatoes, red cabbage, purple corn, tomatoes, and rice
- Fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, acai berries, cranberries, raspberries, red grapes, cherries, and oranges
- Nuts including almonds and walnuts
- Fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines
- Olive oil
What you choose to eat can change the outcome of your health. Focusing on a diet that consists mainly of whole foods and reducing your intake of processed foods are easy ways to promote a normal and healthy inflammatory response.
Preparing meals in advance and skipping the takeout are good places to start. You can also replace your red meat with options such as turkey, chicken, or tofu.
Also, aim for 5 servings of vegetables per day and at least 2 servings of colorful fruit.
Anti-inflammatory Berry Salad Recipe
Prep time: 15 minutes Serves: 2
You will need:
- 6 cups spinach
- 2 cups arugula
- 1 cup strawberries, thinly sliced
- ½ cup kiwi, cut into quartered slices
- ½ cup raspberries
- ½ cup blueberries
- ¼ purple onion, thinly sliced and separated
- ½ cup walnuts, chopped
- ½ cup crumbled feta
For the lemon vinaigrette:
- 5 tablespoons cold-pressed olive oil
- 3 tablespoons squeezed lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- ½ teaspoon lemon zest
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon pepper
- In a large bowl, whisk together olive oil, lemon juice, and balsamic vinegar.
- While whisking, add lemon zest, salt, and pepper. Set aside.
- In a large salad bowl, combine all salad ingredients and gently toss together.
- Drizzle with vinaigrette and serve.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Jillian Greaves MPH, LDN (Registered Dietician)
No single food is going to impact inflammation by itself. Foods and nutrients are never consumed in isolation, and it is important to focus on the overall dietary pattern as a whole.
That being said, a dietary pattern that is rich in processed packaged foods, refined carbohydrates, added sugars, processed meats, vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids, and alcohol is considered to be inflammatory.
Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all answer here. Different people have different needs based on several factors, and this goes back to the fact that no single food by itself is going to cause or decrease inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis. (9)
In general, limiting processed packaged foods and prioritizing a diet rich in whole foods can be beneficial. (10) Always work with a credentialed health professional to determine your personalized dietary needs.
The Mediterranean diet is a well-researched anti-inflammatory diet. (11) Keep in mind that this is not a rigid diet – it is a dietary pattern rich in brightly colored vegetables and fruits, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, fish and seafood, eggs, lean animal proteins, healthy fats, and herbs and spices.
In addition to incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into the diet, it is important to prioritize other behaviors that play a role in inflammation, including stress management, proper rest and sleep (12), exercise (13), social connection, and minimizing exposure to toxins such as tobacco and alcohol.
The World Health Organization defines probiotics as “live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit to the host.” They are found in certain foods and supplements.
These microorganisms are important for maintaining a healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut. Also, they play an important role in the modulation of immune and inflammatory mechanisms in the body. (14)
Unfortunately, the role of probiotic therapy in inflammation is not well understood, and more research is needed.
An anti-inflammatory dietary pattern is one important piece of the puzzle in reducing chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation increases the chances of developing or worsening the following conditions:
• Type 2 diabetes
• Digestive issues
• Autoimmune disease
• Skin issues
• Depression and mood disorders (15)
• Sleep disorders
• Excessive weight gain
• Chronic fatigue
A good source of monounsaturated fats, extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest anti-inflammatory oils you can include in your diet.
• Aim for a variety of whole foods to diversify the types of nutrients you give your body.
• Minimize your consumption of processed foods.
• Eat an abundance of brightly colored vegetables and fruits. (16)
• Maintain adequate hydration with plain water.
• Utilize your spice cabinet!
• Focus on what you can add to your life versus getting obsessed about what to limit.
About Jillian Greaves, MPH, RD, LDN: Jillian is a registered dietitian and the owner of Prevention Pantry Nutrition, an integrative and functional nutrition practice in Boston, MA.
Jillian specializes in women’s health and provides one-on-one nutrition and lifestyle counseling to adults with a variety of conditions, with a special interest in polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and digestive health.