On the most basic level, inflammation is the way in which the body reacts to a disturbance, be it infection, irritation or other injury. More specifically, however, the inflammatory response—which in addition to swelling can also include redness, warmth and pain—occurs when blood, antibodies and other immune system components rush to the scene of the crime to attempt to repair the damage. Anytime the body is thrown out of homeostasis, there’s an inflammatory response.
This is normal.
In most areas of the body, the pain associated with inflammation informs you of the damage, the swelling limits injury site mobility and prevents further irritation and the increased heat, redness and occasional itching are all signs that the immune system is doing its job. The first part of the healing process is the inflammatory response. However, if this inflammation goes undetected, goes ignored, happens for no good reason, or becomes a chronic condition, it can cause damage to other tissues. Uncontrolled chronic inflammation can manifest as arthritis, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, hair loss, cancer, depression, and dozens of other ailments and conditions.
Lucky for us, small tweaks to our diet and lifestyle can help dramatically reduce inflammation. Here are 10 all-natural tips that can help us sidestep the inflammation landmine:
Eat colorful plants
The presence of bright colors in edible fruits and vegetables is an indication of plant pigments with anti-inflammatory effects:
Blueberries contain purple/blue pigments anthocyanins, which have been linked to reduced oxidative stress, improved cognitive function and memory, lower LDL oxidation, and less heart disease.1
Purple sweet potatoes can reduce oxidative stress, which prevents insulin resistance in the liver.2
Tomatoes contain lycopene, a “red” carotenoid that can actually block the inflammatory cascade.3
Pretty much any colorful fruit or vegetable will contain anti-inflammatory pigments.
Eat seafood and eliminate seed oils
The inflammatory response is actually a balance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines and other compounds. Without the balance—in either direction—the inflammatory response is too inflammatory or not enough. Seafood like fish, shellfish, and crustaceans all provide long chain omega-3 fats, which are required for us to produce anti-inflammatory compounds in the body to balance out the inflammatory compounds. Seed oils are the opposite: they provide omega-6 fats. If we eat too many seed oils high in omega-6 fats, our inflammatory response is lopsided—it’s overly inflammatory. Seafood is also a source of vital micronutrients like selenium, zinc, iodine, and manganese that our bodies need to regulate the inflammatory response. A high quality fish oil is also worth including if you aren’t getting enough seafood.
Use herbs and spices
While we usually think of herbs and spices as ways to add flavor, they also can reduce inflammation and prevent oxidative damage to the food as we cook. Almost every culinary spice and herb prevents the formation of carcinogens like heterocyclic amines that normally form during the cooking process. They can also reduce oxidation of fatty acids, including the ones inside our very own lipoproteins. Some herbs and spices, like cayenne, can directly reduce inflammation and even dull pain. Cinnamon has been shown to reduce hypertension, turmeric can improve symptoms of depression (another inflammatory condition), and rosemary improves cognitive function.
Eliminate excess carbs
While I would never say that carbohydrates are inherently inflammatory, it’s true that excess carbohydrates are especially inflammatory—and the problem is that the vast majority of people eat far too many carbs for the amount of physical activity they do. When you sit at a desk all day and are lucky to work out twice a week, almost any dense source of carbs is going to be “too many.” For one, they provoke an outsized insulin response that stays elevated for too long, and chronically elevated insulin itself is inflammatory. And two, eating more carbs than you can store as glycogen or burn for energy will contribute to energy excess, which itself is an independent inflammatory trigger. Neither carbs nor insulin are “bad,” but you’re not supposed to have a steady drip going all day.
Another food source you need to steer clear of? Any item that may cause an inflammatory response. For some people, this might mean wheat, eggs, gluten, dairy, soy, or some forms of nuts. To determine whether you have a sensitivity to a particular food, try eliminating it for at least two weeks and see if symptoms such as lethargy, headaches or bloating subside. Arduous? Yes. Worthwhile? Certainly, if it means living a healthier – and longer – life. Of course, you know our stance on grains, so any reduction in grain products has benefits beyond the anti-inflammatory proerties.
While supplementing the nutrients your diet is missing can help stave off inflammation, the key is taking what you need. Not everyone needs to be taking every single vitamin and mineral under the sun. Figure out what nutrient deficiencies you might have and then fix them, with food and/or supplements. A multivitamin can help stave off inflammation, the key here is to find a high-quality supplement (another unbiased product placement ;)) with the types of nutrients you need. Specifically, you need to look out for brands that contain higher doses of folic acid and B vitamins in particular, which have been associated with lowering inflammation as well as vitamins C, D and full-spectrum vitamin E. Next, add a broad base of antioxidants like Alpha Lipoic Acid, Resveratrol, Grapeseed Extract and NAC.
Antibiotic use, stress, and poor diet can all upset the balance of bacteria in the gut, resulting in an infiltration of undesirable bacteria that crowd out the good guys and predispose us to inflammation. Keep the good guys employed—and the bad guys out of business—by eating fermented food like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, and taking a high quality probiotic.
While a heavy workout session causes acute inflammation, we need that inflammation to produce the compensatory training and recovery effect that makes us stronger, fitter, and faster. Over the long term, regular exercise reduces the risk of chronic inflammation by making us more robust and building up our “energy sinks.” It is possible to overdo exercise so that it becomes on net inflammatory, so make sure you’re eating enough food, getting enough sleep, and practicing good exercise recovery techniques. Embark on a fitness routine that includes lots of lower level aerobic activity like walking, hiking, easy jogging, cycling, and swimming; an occasional session of short anaerobic bursts or sprints on land, sea, or cycle; and two or three hard weight-training workouts a week.
Deal with stress in your life
No matter what kind of stress you’re heaping on your life, whether it’s too much exercise, too little sleep, a terrible commute, a boss you hate, relationship issues, bills piling up, health concerns—you’re increasing inflammation. The inflammatory response is how the body reacts to any perceived stressor or disturbance of homeostasis. If you have unresolved stress that’s just simmering in the background, you are going to be perpetually inflamed. Eliminate the cause of the stress, reframe how you think about it, or figure out ways to manage your response to the stress. Or do all three. Sometimes, specific supplements can help you manage your stress.
If you aren’t sleeping well, you’re going to be inflamed. There’s no way around it. Sleep is where repair happens, when the damage accrued throughout the day gets fixed. If you’re not sleeping well, you’re going to be insulin resistant, glucose intolerant, and you won’t respond well to exercise. You’ll crave junk food instead of healthy food, and you’ll have less willpower to resist. Sleep has to be the foundation for a low inflammation life.
So there you have it, 10 ways to reduce inflammation with nary a drug in site!