By agebuzz Guest Blogger Daryl Moss
Inflammation is one of the current big topics in the medical world, as more and more diseases and conditions seem to be caused by inflammation or are impacted by it.
What is inflammation? It is the body’s response to an injury or infection. Inflammation is part of the wound-healing process that includes swelling around the wound, controlling the bleeding, and, hopefully, stopping infections from occurring. This kind of inflammation is good. No one wants to bleed to death from a cut or a scrape. What is NOT life-saving and is, in fact, extremely dangerous, is chronic inflammation.
What are the implications of chronic inflammatory conditions? Chronic inflammatory conditions lead to a whole host of downstream problems. Chronic means ongoing, rather than short-term. Arthritis, aches and pains, irritable bowel syndrome, leaky gut (intestinal permeability), acid reflux and GERD, Type 2 diabetes, and inflammatory skin conditions comprise a brief, but by no means exhaustive, list of how chronic inflammation is tied to disease and other medical issues. These chronic conditions can be painful, embarrassing, and seriously impact the quality of our lives.
The scary thing about inflammation is that it can be silent, meaning that we do not always know that we have it. Clogging of our arteries, undiagnosed pre-diabetes, undiagnosed autoimmune disease, depression, cholesterol imbalances, silent reflux, and elevated CRP (C-Reactive Protein) issues, are just a few examples of this.
Accelerating aging is one of the scariest things that can be caused by chronic inflammation. I would bet that everyone we know and love wants to live a long and healthy life. We probably also all know people who have suffered from dementia, Alzheimer’s, or other debilitating conditions that research is now showing to be caused by inflammation in the brain.
There are many potential causes of inflammation in our bodies. Some of the most common causes stem from our lifestyle choices, including smoking and not getting enough exercise, long-term toxic exposure, eating an unhealthy diet on a regular basis, food allergies and sensitivities, autoimmune disease, and low-grade chronic infections. Of those that are directly under our control, we know that smoking is unhealthy, and that exercise is vital to long-term wellness.
Food can be a little more complicated.
Pro-inflammatory foods might be tasty but they wreak havoc, especially when we consume them on a regular basis. Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods in our everyday lives. While it is delicious, sugar has no redeeming nutritional qualities. (By this, we are focusing on added sugar, not the sugar bound up with fiber and other nutrients in fruits and vegetables.) Sugar is also extremely addictive. If you have ever tried to take sugar out of your diet, you know how hard the first few days of being sugar-free can be.
Sugar is not the only problem. We need to get trans fats and hydrogenated fats out of our diets, as well. There has been a big backlash against trans fats in recent years, which is terrific, so they are rarely used in the amounts that were used in the past. It is incumbent upon us, as consumers, to know what is in the foods we are eating. That means we need to read the list of ingredients on the packaging. Sometimes, though, even reading labels doesn’t help, as very low levels of trans fats do not have to be acknowledged. Tip: To find out if shortening or other products contain trans fats, read the ingredients list. If partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is included, then trans fats are present as well.
Eating junk and highly processed foods on a regular basis means that we are getting a lot of exposure to unhealthy fats. Junk food, highly processed foods, refined foods, sodas, and lots of alcohol use are all inflammatory. An unfortunate consequence of drinking too much alcohol is that we suffer from a double whammy: Overdoing the drinking causes an inflammatory reaction in our intestines, and that weakens our immune systems. A weakened immune system makes us more vulnerable to viruses and infections, and those can also cause an inflammatory reaction. Plus, we all know that alcohol also impacts the liver and brain. On a separate note, for some people, especially those diagnosed with autoimmune disease and irritable bowel syndrome, gluten can also exacerbate their inflammatory conditions.
What can be confusing is that not all pro-inflammatory foods are unhealthy. Goji berries, for example, are considered a superfood. These, along with bell peppers, hot peppers, potatoes of all colors (except sweet potatoes and yams), tomatoes, and eggplant are all “nightshades,” as are the spices made from these foods, such as cayenne pepper and chili powder. They are full of some amazing vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that are vital to our health, and many people can eat these with no problem. But, nightshades are a curious group. On occasion, people dealing with inflammatory conditions find that some or all nightshades make them feel worse. Nightshades contain a chemical called solanine, which in turn may cause an inflammatory reaction. If you already have an inflammatory condition such as arthritis, you may notice an improvement by taking nightshades out of your diet. The jury is still out as to whether nightshades cause inflammatory responses, as there are some studies showing the connection and others that do not. Each of us is different. I have had plenty of clients who felt much better after eliminating nightshades from their diets.
What we should be eating is a whole food based diet full of anti-inflammatory foods. Whole foods are as close to their original form as possible, nothing refined, and minimal processing, if any. Vegetables and fruits are whole foods. Animal protein, not processed, is a whole food. Raw nuts, seeds, legumes, beans are all whole foods.
We also want to be mindful of food quality. I am a huge proponent of eating organic whenever possible, given our ability to access organic food and what we can afford. As more and more farmers are switching their growing methods from conventional to organic, the prices are coming down. Even the big box stores such as Costco and BJ’s have a good selection of organic products. Eating organic food is also a great way to limit our toxic exposure, and that exposure is inflammatory, as mentioned above.
When I work with kids, we talk about eating the colors of the rainbow. Remember Roy G Biv? Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. We want to eat these colors every day, if possible. Lots of dark, leafy greens are essential for the vast majority of us, but we need to get into other colors, too. Berries are a terrific option. They are naturally sweet and low in sugar and are full of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that support our health. We want our food to be delicious, and we want it to be nutritious. There are not as many options in the blue/purple color range, so consider adding red cabbage, blueberries, and blackberries to your diet. These, like most other fruits and veggies, are high in antioxidants and are anti-inflammatory.
Healthy fats are also anti-inflammatory. Olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado, and fatty fish are all important parts of our diet. This country has been on a no or low-fat kick for way too long. We need fats in our diet for the health of our hair, nails, skin, brains, and literally down to the cellular level. We just need to make sure that we are consuming the right kinds of fats and in the right quantities for our bodies. Most of us do not need a lot.
For those who eat animal food, quality really matters. Remember that whatever foods or drugs the animal ate goes into our bodies. The healthiest options are grass-fed grazing animals, organically raised poultry (and that includes eggs), and wild-caught fish. For vegans and vegetarians who eat tofu and other products made from soy, you want to purchase organic products, as the soy grown in this country tends to be genetically modified and conventionally grown.
How we season our food also matters. Ginger, cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon are natural anti-inflammatories. I cook with these all the time and add cinnamon to my smoothies, oatmeal, and the occasional cup of coffee. Some of these are available in supplement form, but this is not a recommendation to take a supplement. Just like medications, herbs, spices, and supplements are powerful, and not everyone can handle everything. Some of these may be contraindicated because of the medications that you take. It is always prudent to discuss these with your health care provider before adding them to your diet.
Our cooking methods also matter. The healthiest way to cook on the stovetop or grill is over low heat so that there is no charring. Sautés or stir-fries can be done with water, broth, or an oil such as avocado or olive oil that can handle the heat (low is best). Steaming, poaching, baking, and roasting are all fine. Coconut oil holds up well in the oven.
One of my favorite anti-inflammatory drinks is a daily mug of bone broth, which I consider my magical elixir. Bone broth is great for helping to heal the digestive tract, a common source of inflammation in our bodies, and is also full of collagen, which is so important to our bone health. If you purchase bone broth, make sure it is organic. If you make your own, (and it’s really easy to make), you only want to use bones from grass-fed grazing animals, wild-caught fish, or organically raised poultry. This is because toxins get stored in bones, in order to protect vital organs. The purpose of bone broth is to let the collagen and other nutrients from the bones seep into the broth. But, if the animal was conventionally raised, eating crops that were treated with pesticides and/or herbicides, the chemicals from those products get stored in its bones. We do not want those toxins seeping into the broth and then ingesting them!
Toxins are another area of concern, as they are also inflammatory, and we are exposed to them on a daily basis, wittingly and unwittingly. We can’t control some points of exposure, such as the air and what is used in commercial spaces, but we can control what we use in our homes through our choices of personal care and cleaning products, and what kinds of food we eat. Remember that whatever the animal ingested is going into our bodies. The more toxic exposure we have, the danger to our bodies becomes exponentially worse. In order to help flush these toxins out of our bodies, we need to stay hydrated. Drink up, unless your healthcare provider is asking you to limit the amount of water you consume.
Another thing that many of us do not think about when it comes to food is HOW we eat. This is what I call “eating hygiene.” This has nothing to do with washing your hands before sitting down at the table. It has everything to do with being mindful at mealtimes. Taking a few deep cleansing breaths or saying a prayer before starting to eat; putting your silverware down between bites, taking smaller bites, and chewing each one until it is fully emulsified before swallowing. Eating this way lowers our stress levels, and stress is extremely inflammatory.
We all have the ability to make decisions that will reduce inflammation in our bodies. Our food and lifestyle choices make a difference in our health, for the good and the bad. Let’s try to choose the good options as often as we can!
Daryl Moss is the Founder of Mission To Wellness, a Nutritional, Health, and Wellness Coaching Service located in New York. Through individual one-on-one counseling as well as group sessions (all available virtually), she works with clients to provide concrete support and guidance as they journey toward better health and wellness. Due to her own serious health issues, she slowly changed the way she ate and was eventually able to get off of prescribed drugs and return to a completely normal life. Realizing the incredibly powerful effect food had on her body (both positive and negative), she went back to school and set out on a new career. She specializes in dealing with digestive issues, gluten-free diets, and weight loss.