There are two kinds of inflammation: one is extremely helpful for keeping you alive; the other can be the cause of early death.
Inflammation, at its core, is a natural reaction in the body, as Dr. Robert Zembroski, specialist in functional medicine, clinical nutritionist and author of REBUILD, explains.
“Under normal circumstances, the immune system is needed to fight infectious invaders and heal our wounds,” he says, noting that pain, redness, heat, and swelling – like with a sunburn or sprained ankle – is actually a sign that our body is working to heal us.
“Inflammation is a sign the immune system is actively fighting an infection or mending a wound," he explains. "During a healthy immune response, your white blood cells flood the wounded area with healing molecules that kill invaders and heal damaged tissue.”
“This type of immune response is and should be short lived," he continues. "Once the infection is gone, or the wound has mended, the immune response and the local inflammation are supposed to recede.”
The problem comes when inflammation becomes more general – the prolonged effect of an unhealthy lifestyle due to consuming an unhealthy Standard American Diet (SAD), prolonged stress, cigarette smoking, and more.
“Unfortunately, most Americans do suffer from some degree of inflammation,” explains Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. “The typical western diet typically contains processed junk, trans fats and food additives that can all promote widespread inflammation in the body.“
Unmanaged chronic inflammation can trigger the development of diseases including autoimmune disease, metabolic syndrome, mental health issues, heart problems, and even cancer.
Research is still ongoing with regards to the link between inflammation and chronic illness, but studies have already linked general inflammation to cancer, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and more.
With this guide, we’ll explore the ins and outs of inflammation with help from experts and help you build your own anti-inflammatory diet, to keep inflammation down and improve your health by leaps and bounds.
Symptoms of Inflammation
For many, inflammation creeps up on them: it’s not necessarily signaled by acute illness, like a cold or the flu, but rather a gradual accumulation of symptoms including some or all of the following:
- Unexplained weight gain, especially belly fat
- Difficulty sleeping or chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
- Chronic allergies
- Digestive issues
- Depression, anxiety, or mood swings
But inflammation doesn’t look the same for everyone.
“Sometimes signs of inflammation can be much trickier,” explains Dr. Mark Menolascino - MD, MS, ABIHM, ABAARM, IFMCP Internal Medicine Specialist and board certified in integrative holistic medicine. “For example, we will see bags under people’s eyes and those dark circles under eyes which may be related to chronic inflammation from allergies. While there is acne due to hormone reasons, most acne is due to inflammation of the gut."
According to Brooke Alpert, RD and author of The Diet Detox, most Americans today suffer from general inflammation, whether they experience symptoms or not.
“Because of the food Americans are eating, plus the lifestyle we’re living (not enough exercise, too much stress, too much screen time) and more, I think we’re suffering from an inflammation epidemic,” she says. “Even if you don’t have signs of inflammation, you likely have some sorts in your body that’s undetected.”
Inflammatory Foods to Cut Out
While there are many ways to cut back on inflammation, such as reducing stress and getting more sleep, one of the best ways is to change what you’re putting into your body.
“Food is medicine and kitchen is your pharmacy, but you must choose the right foods and prepare them correctly,” says Menolascino. “If you look at the most popular medications and consider depression as having an inflammatory component, you’ll see that most of the medicines used are addressing this fire of inflammation. What is the most common sleep aid? It is an antihistamine that reduces the inflammatory nature of histamine chemicals to help us rest. How many people are taking medications for heartburn and digestive issues?”
It's no wonder that anti-inflammatory protocols like Whole30, paleo, GAPS, and keto have become so popular, in order to steer people away from these foods.
“Steering clear of heavily processed foods such as convenience meals, fast food, sugary drinks and pre-packaged snacks is one of the easiest and most effective ways to minimize inflammation in the body,” explains Dr. Axe.
As for what to cut out, here’s a short list of foods everyone would probably do well to toss right now:
- White flour and other refined carbohydrates
- Refined sugar
- High fructose corn syrup
- Vegetable oils
- Trans fats
- Unfermented soy
- Fried foods
- Conventional meat
However, this list is just a jumping-off point. There are other foods that can be inflammatory for some people but may not be inflammatory for all people. These include:
- Dairy, especially pasteurized or unfermented dairy
- Processed and cured meats
- Grains of any kind, especially grains with gluten
- Nightshades, like tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant
Different protocols focus on different foods, with many first requiring that people cut foods from the first list before moving on to some of the foods in the second, if symptoms do not subside.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Help Cure You
It’s no wonder, with inflammation running rampant in most circles, that many have started relying on anti-inflammatory “superfoods” to counteract the effects of their lifestyles on their health.
But as Scientific American explains, it’s not individual anti-inflammatory superfoods but rather a holistic dietary approach that will keep inflammation down.
“I have seen extremely little data that say this piece of food is ‘anti-inflammatory’ and this piece is ‘pro-inflammatory,’” Paul Ridker of Harvard University, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women's Hospital told the outlet.
This isn’t to say that food isn’t a piece of the puzzle, but rather than eating “anti-inflammatory” foods as a Band-Aid to counteract a generally poor diet won’t work.
There are some foods, however, that everyone would do well to add to their diets, especially in conjunction with cutting out the foods listed above.
“Plant-based foods, healthful fats, fruits, and spices, not only act as anti-inflammatories, they provide phytochemicals (disease-fighting compounds found in plants) that stave off disease and help rebuild the body when there is disease,” says Zembroski.
“Including a good variety of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet can provide tons of antioxidants, which help fight free radicals and ward off inflammation,” says Dr. Axe. “Fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds are the top sources of antioxidants and are easy to incorporate into a well-rounded, anti-inflammatory diet.”
Here is a short list of the anti-inflammatory foods that some people swear by:
- Leafy greens
- Bone broth
- Coconut oil
- Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Wild fish, especially fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines
- Cayenne pepper
- Green tea
Bear in mind, however, that no plan will fit everyone: you’ll notice, for example, that nuts are on both lists, as they can be inflammatory for some but healing for others. Turmeric is another that is great for some people but doesn’t work for others.
“I don't ever want to put everyone on a specific plan,” explains functional medicine expert Amie Valpone, HHC AADP, the best-selling author of “Eating Clean: The 21-Day Plan to Detox, Fight Inflammation, and Reset Your Body.
“Turmeric works great for some people, I know that a lot of people, myself included, do not do well on turmeric because it's very estrogenic,” she says. “I have women who have thyroid disease, autoimmune, and they do terribly with autoimmune protocol. They do terrible eating paleo.”
“I think that you really have to tap into your body, which is why the biggest piece of my work is: you have to learn how to trust yourself."
Trying one of these protocols or a self-designed protocol is a great start, but keep a food diary to keep track of how different foods make you feel. At the end of the day, what's inflammatory for some people may not be inflammatory for you.
Tips to Start Eating Right Today
Starting a completely new approach to eating can be overwhelming, especially if you’ve mostly been relying on prepared or processed foods in the past. To change your habits, a few steps will help.
Motivating yourself to change the way you eat is key, and one of the best ways to do this is to remind yourself of the effects on your health.
“For those who find the idea of creating and prepping meals overwhelming, here’s the tough reality,” says Zembroski. “If you are dealing with a chronic health issue or disease, what are the consequences if you don't spend the time and energy preparing healthful foods?”
Make a list of the health problems you suffer from and put it on the fridge as a reminder – and once you start feeling better, add the benefits you feel, like sleeping better, clearer skin, or more energy. This will help motivate you when you start to feel tempted to give up or slip up.
Changes don’t need to happen all at once.
“The average person can just include more leafy green vegetables, drink at least eight glasses of water a day, and try to get the berries in,” says Valpone. “I think that's such a huge piece of it.”
Try making just one change this week, for example, swapping out your afternoon soda for a sparkling water with lime, or sautéing your favorite veggies in grass-fed butter or ghee rather than oil.
“Making a few small changes in your diet now can have a huge impact on your risk of chronic disease and can ultimately save you a good deal of time and money in the future,” says Dr. Axe.
No one wants to come home from work only to have what can feel like a second workday waiting for them: chopping, sautéing, plating, and cleaning up afterward can feel like too much effort when it's so easy to order a quick meal delivered to your door.
“Unless cooking is a serious passion of yours, most people don't want to spend the day in the kitchen,” says Zembroski. “You are not alone.”
So make your life easier! Plan menus a week in advance, and take advantage of downtime on weekend days to prep by cutting up your veggies or even making full meals for the week.
“Prepping your meals ahead of time will not only save you time, it will help reduce the chances of you eating processed foods and convenient foods—the foods that created the inflammation and the chronic health issues in the first place,” explains Zembroski.
“Personally, I prep different foods and meals twice a week,” he says. “I plan out the foods and meals I want to eat and prep the elements of each, then create the meals. This saves me a ton of time, as now the foods and meals are in the fridge ready to be eaten based on my schedule. As I tell my patients, prepared food is fast food.”
4. Address Temptation
At some point, you’re going to lose motivation – that’s completely natural. But take steps to ensure that you’re protecting yourself from these slip-ups now.
Do you have a major sweet tooth? Consider removing cookies and candy from your home entirely and replacing them with healthier options you can reach for. If you have a sugar craving and all you have are raspberries, that's what you'll reach for.
Do you have a tendency to get snacky in the evening? Keep healthy snacks like nuts (if they're not inflammatory for you) or homemade organic jerky on-hand so that's what you reach for.
Also, consider planning ahead when you’re going to be eating out with friends. Check the menu ahead of time and choose foods like fish with vegetables or a big salad with grilled chicken and avocado that you can enjoy. Committing to the dish you're planning to order in your mind can motivate you to follow through later.
5. Find Support
Perhaps one of the best ways to keep on the straight-and-narrow is getting a buddy into the mix. Since most people would do well to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet, it shouldn't be too hard to enlist a friend or spouse to make the transition with you.
“Following an anti-inflammatory diet can be beneficial for everyone, regardless of whether or not you show any symptoms,” says Dr. Axe. “An anti-inflammatory diet high in nutrient-rich whole foods can protect against the development of chronic disease and may also have other benefits, such as improved energy levels, increased weight loss and better overall health.”
If you have a buddy, you can be one another’s cheerleaders in good moments and in tougher ones, and you can even trade notes on what's working and what's not.
Finding the Right Guidance
An anti-inflammatory diet can be a great choice for anyone, but if you’re looking to treat a specific health condition, be sure to consult a health professional first.
“Working with a dietitian or nutrition expert can definitely be beneficial and can help provide personalized guidance tailored to your individual needs and preferences,” explains Dr. Axe.
Seek out an integrative or functional medicine doctor or nutritionist in your area before making major changes to your diet, and be sure to keep in touch with him or her to report any major changes in your health as you adjust to this new way of eating and living.
Think you can benefit from a detox? Check out our 5-Day Reset!
The views expressed in this article are intended to spark conversation and highlight alternative studies and is for information purposes only. We are not here to diagnose or treat any health or medical conditions, nor should this be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, even if it features the advice of health experts, medical practitioners or physicians. When making any lifestyle or health changes, consult your primary care physician. The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Organic Authority, Inc.
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