Inflammation 101 (The Causes, Symptoms and Solutions)
The term “inflammation” has become somewhat of a buzzword in the world of holistic medicine, and for good reason. However, it is seemingly less common to really understand what inflammation is, how it is caused, and what to do about it. Many chronic conditions and diseases are partially (if not completely) rooted in systemic inflammation.
What Is Inflammation?
Before wondering how to start an anti-inflammatory diet, it is critical to truly understand what inflammation is and what is happening in the body. You’ve surely heard the word ‘inflammation’ many times, so lets take a closer look at what this term means both on a base level, as well as symptomatically. Again, most conditions and disease have their root cause in chronic inflammation.
Inflammation is a natural healing process that is necessary to defend and protect the body from infection and disease. What is not natural (and can chronic rather than acute (long term vs. short term).
Typical signs of normal and necessary acute inflammation include redness, heat and swelling, and would occur with a broken bone, infection or wound. Chronic inflammation; however, is usually internal and unseen, and has been connected with conditions such as diabetes (1), fatty liver disease (2), cardiovascular disease (3) and even cancer (4).
Disease (think: dis-ease) is a sign of some sort of imbalance in the body. When our internal homeostasis is disrupted, various symptoms and disease can ensue. This sort of disruption can be caused by a wide variety of both physical and psychological (mental/emotional) factors (there is a strong stress-disease connection). On the physical end of things, disease is often a result of nutrient deficiencies in the body due to a poor diet, toxic exposure (foods and other environmental toxins), poor nutrient absorption, and therefore poor cell function.
How Does Inflammation Work?
According to Jessica Black, N.D. in her book The Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Recipe Book, “Inflammation is the first response by the immune system to infection or irritation.” Think, if you break a bone or get a cut, we experience swelling, redness, pain, etc, which are all signs to protect this area from further damage. However, when we experience systemic inflammation, it becomes more difficult to make such obvious connections. Ignoring these signs longer term, however, can all too often lead to diseases and a myriad of conditions, as discussed above.
Signs and symptoms of inflammation often include food and/or environmental allergies, asthma, digestive disorders (IBS, IBD, Chrohns, etc), autoimmune conditions, pain, fatigue, insomnia, brain fog, depression, heart disease, and cancer.
What Causes Inflammation?
1. High sugar diet
Most health experts now agree and studies have shown that a diet high in refined sugar and chemical sugars such as high fructose corn syrup can cause obesity, diabetes and insulin resistance (5).
2. Refined Carbohydrates
Causing similar problems to a diet high in sugar, a diet high in refined carbs has also been proven to greatly contribute to obesity and inflammation. Foods such as white bread, pastas, and commercially made baked goods top the list (6). This is especially true if a diet also lacks key minerals and vitamins from fresh vegetables and fruits.
3. Rancid oils
A rancid oil is one that has been oxidized, which occurs when a delicate oil is exposed to light and heat and its chemical makeup is altered, creating dangerous free radicals. Oils most prone to oxidation (and ones that are usually rancid even before hitting the shelves at your grocery store) are vegetable oils such as canola, soy, corn and grapeseed. Studies have shown that these types of oils are also likely to throw off our omega 3: omega 6 fatty acid ratio, resulting in much higher levels of inflammatory omega 6’s (7).
4. Processed foods
Processed and packaged foods often contain inflammatory ingredients such as sugar, refined carbohydrates and rancid oils. Ones that are even more highly inflammatory are those that contain trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats), so make sure to always read ingredient lists.
5. Excessive alcohol
Plain and simple, drinking too much is very inflammatory and can cause a host of problems. Excessive alcohol consumption has been linked with higher CRP (C-reactive protein) markers, which signal inflammation in the body (8).
6. Sedentary lifestyle
Lack of physical activity and a lifestyle that is mainly sedentary (aka, lots of sitting), has been shown to contribute to inflammatory conditions such as obesity and insulin resistance (8).
7. Sleep deprivation
Research has shown that lack of quality sleep is directly related to increased inflammation (9). If you suffer from insomnia, consider working with a cognitive behavioral therapist to develop healthy sleep hygiene (or try it on your own, first).
Now that we’ve looked at some of the key players in causing inflammation, let’s look at some of the most effective ways to reduce it. In terms of diet, it mainly comes down to avoiding inflammatory foods, and including anti-inflammatory foods.
What Are Anti Inflammatory Foods?
Considering that we are exposed to a myriad of toxins on a daily basis through both diet and our environment (especially for us city-dwellers), it is of great importance to change the factors that we have control over.
Think of all the toxins we ingest with poor quality foods: pesticides, herbicides, hormones, antibiotic residues, and more.These foods eaten regularly (think a Standard American Diet/SAD), cause poor cell function, inflammation, and disease.
By eating the right foods, we can support our body’s ability to eliminate necessary toxins and decrease inflammation.
- Processed carbohydrates (flour, breads, pasta, wheat products, gluten, cereals)
- Processed soy (any soy that is not fermented, which is miso, nato, tamari, and tempeh).
- Grains and Legumes can be very inflammatory for some and should not be the staple of your diet (yes, even whole grains).
- Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, gogi berries, tobacco). Many people with joint pain and arthritis find that cutting out nightshades, which contain inflammatory compounds, helps tremendously.
- All refined sugar and artificial sweeteners are inflammatory. Stick to moderate amounts of raw honey or grade B maple syrup.
- Hydrogenated oils and fats (margarine, anything hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, any vegetable oils). Cook with more stable, nourishing oils/fats like grass-fed butter and coconut oil.
- Commercial dairy products (as opposed to grass fed, organic).
- Soda, most juice (unless fresh squeezed), excess caffeine/coffee, alcohol.
- Corn products.
- Unlimited vegetables and fruit (preferably organic and seasonal whenever possible)
- Organic meat, poultry, wild caught seafood
- Pasture raised or organic eggs
- Plenty of healthy fats such as coconut, butter, ghee, olive oil, flax oil, raw nuts/seeds and their respective butters and avocados. Focus on getting lots of omega 3 fats in your diet from cold water fish and flax seeds/oil.
- Herbal teas, fresh squeezed veggie juice (and fruit but in moderation) and plenty of water.
- Anti-inflammatory superfoods like garlic, ginger, cinnamon and turmeric.
How Do I Know If I Should Do an Anti-inflammatory Diet?
Do you commonly find yourself…
- Constantly craving sugar and carbohydrates?
- Feeling “addicted” to sugar and that with willpower alone, you simply can’t say no?
- Feeling sluggish or tired throughout the day, or experiencing energy dips and spikes?
- With insomnia?
- Highly stressed?
- With regular digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, acid reflux, pain, trouble digesting?
- Frequently reacting with allergic symptoms such as itchiness, hives, runny nose, redness?
- In a sort of brain fog/unable to concentrate?
- Having increased and/or unexplained irritability, anxiousness, moodiness?
- Unable to lose weight despite your best efforts?
- With joint pain?
- Suffering from frequent headaches or migraines?
If you answered “yes” to many of these, why not try an anti-inflammatory diet?The beauty of this diet is that, unlike potentially harmful medications, this trial and error process is not only effective, but safe. It is a process of learning about our bodies and how we connect and react to foods physically, emotionally, and mentally.
First Things First: Breaking the Cycle of Sugar Addiction
First and foremost when embarking on an anti-inflammatory diet is realizing that we are likely experiencing some form of dependence or addiction to simple carbohydrates and sugar (10).
A primary goal of an anti inflammatory diet is to maintain healthy and stable blood sugar levels. This means breaking the cycle of eating high carbohydrate (particularly simple carbohydrate) or sugar-based meals or snacks, feeling energized only to crash awhile later and start the process over again. Eating for blood sugar regulation should keep us satiated and ward off the sensation of being ravenous enough to reach for just about anything.
Inflammatory Foods to Avoid Completely
- Aspartame (equal)
- Saccharin (sweet n low)
- Stevia that is white (truvia)
- Sucralose (splenda)
- HFCS (high fructose corn syrup)
Use In Moderation
- Raw honey
- Grade b or c maple syrup (more nutrient value than grade a
- Date, palm, and coconut sugar
- Fresh squeezed fruit juice
- Green leaf stevia
- Focus on carbohydrate and sugar grams; 4 grams sugar=1 tsp.
- Look for ingredients ending in “ose” or “tol” (ex: sucralose, sucrose, fructose, sorbitol, xylitol)
- Words such as sugar, nectar, syrup, crystals.
- 1st item in ingredient list exists in largest amount, and so on.
With a better understanding of what inflammation is and what a basic anti inflammatory diet entails, you are ready to get started. And be patient and kind to yourself, as major change doesn’t always happen overnight.