Inflammation (Latin, “inflammatio”, to set on fire) is the complex biological response of tissues to harmful stimuli (i.e- pathogens, damaged cells, or irritants). It is a normal process and a cornerstone of the body’s healing mechanism.
Acute inflammation includes the symptoms of swelling, redness, heat (or fever) and pain, which are important to restore health. In the absence of inflammation, wounds and infections would never heal and progressive destruction of the tissue would compromise survival.
Chronic information, however, is inflammation which runs unchecked and is the underlying cause of many of the diseases of Westernization including cancer, heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and Alzheimer’s.
Unlike the redness, pain and swelling that tells us loud and clear that our body is in repair mode, chronic inflammation is a silent process that slips “under the radar”.
This quiet killer is the cornerstone of degenerative disease and physical aging.
Causes of Inflammation
The good news is that the primary causes of chronic inflammation are completely within our control. They include:
- Having high blood sugar levels
- Eating the wrong kinds of dietary fats (see below)
- Carrying excess body fat – especially visceral fat – around the middle. People with more belly fat have inflammation levels that are up to 53% higher than people with slimmer midsections.
Let’s take a look at the specific foods and nutrients that influence inflammation. Consider this your “cheat sheet” and jumping point to learning more about how nutrition influences inflammation.
Many foods contain powerful anti-inflammatory substances that help the body to fight inflammation naturally. These substances include:
- Omega 3 fats: Omega-3 fats dramatically reduce dangerous inflammation. But close to 90% of us don’t get enough. Learn what it is and how much omega 3 you need every day and the test you should take to find out if your oil is low.
- Monounsaturated Fats (MUFAs): Most well-known for their role in the Mediterranean diet, a diet rich in monounsaturated fats has been associated with lower levels of inflammation in numerous studies, including the Nurses’ Health Study.
- Conjugated Linolenic Acid (CLA): CLA is a healthy fat found exclusively in the meat and milk of grass-fed animals. Not only does CLA have antioxidant properties, but it reduces inflammation too. CLA reduces prostaglandin E 2 (PGE2) – It has also been shown to reduce three other important markers of inflammation including IL-2, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a) and Cox–2.
- Antioxidants: By fighting free radicals, antioxidants help to reduce inflammation in the body.
- Anthocyanins: Found in dark purple-blue foods like blueberries and acai, anthocyanins are powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients.
- Vitamin C: A water-soluble antioxidant, vitamin C helps to fight free radical damage in the watery part of the cell.
- Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12 & Folate: This b vitamin trifecta helps to reduce an inflammatory substance called homocysteine in the blood.
- Vitamin D: Actually a steriod hormone, and not just a “vitamin”, several human studies have found a vitamin D deficiency linked with a number of inflammatory diseases including Crohn’s disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, as well as cardiovascular diseases, metabolic diseases and certain cancers.
- Carotenoids: Some studies have found that blood levels of certain carotenoids, including alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, to be inversely associated with circulating levels of CRP, an important marker of inflammation
- Astaxanthin: Believed to be the most powerful antioxidant in nature, and called the “king of the carotenoids” astaxanthin is known to suppresses a wide number of inflammatory mediators—including tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a), nitric oxide, COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes.
- Beta-carotene: As a carotenoid, beta-carotene is a potent antioxidant that been found to inhibiting the expression of a pro-inflammatory gene.
- Lycopene: A potent antioxidant found in cooked tomato products, lycopene is known to reduce inflammatory factors – including tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-a) and interleulin-8 (IL8)
- Resveratrol: Found in the skins of red grapes, and in the highest concentration in red wine, resveratrol was found to have anti-inflammatory properties
- Glutathione: Known as the body’s master antioxidant and detoxifier, glutathione neutralizes free radicals and binds to toxic inflammatory substances, rendering them harmless.
- Fiber: The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey evaluated almost 4,000 people and found the more fiber people ate, the lower their level of inflammation.
- Flavonoids: Found in high concentrations in cocoa, red wine and tea, a majority of studies show a significant inverse association between flavonoid consumption and inflammation.
- Probiotics: Your internal ecosystem – the microorganisms that live in your gut – has a lot to do with your levels of inflammation in the body. Lactobacillus, is one type of healthy bacteria that helps to reduce inflammation, and has been found to guard against several cancers including liver, bladder, colon and breast. Learn about getting your digestive system in check at our Digestive Health center.
- Herbs & Spices: Ranking at the top of the ORAC chart, herbs and spices provide powerful antioxidant protection and anti-inflammatory properties. Be sure to include turmeric, rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, cloves, basil and cumin – the superfood herbs and spices that pack the most free radical-fighting power. Ginger and garlic also provide delicious anti-inflammatory action.
Foods and Substances that Promote Inflammation
In addition to enjoying the foods that fight inflammation, it is important to avoid those that promote inflammation including:
- Trans fats: Dangerous trans fats increase blood levels of a dangerous inflammatory factor called c-reactive protein by 73%!
- Sugar: A key promoter of inflammatory processes in the body, sugar – in any form – sets of a chain reaction of glycation, oxidation and inflammation in the body.
- High-Glycemic Carbohydrates: Carbohydrate-rich foods rapidly turn to sugar in the body, raising blood sugar and insulin levels.This in turn increases key markers of inflammation including CRP, interleukin 6 and other factors of inflammation.
- Omega 6 fats: These fats – found in vegetable oil and packaged foods -promote inflammation when consumed in excess. And omega 6 fats make up an astounding 80% of American’s fat intake!
- Farm-Raised Fish: Promoted as healthy, farm-raised fish contains 400% more inflammatory-promoting fats than their wild counterparts, as well as hefty dose of toxins.
- Grain-Fed Meats: Factory-farmed meats contain an unhealthy ratio of fats, predominantly omega 6 fats, as well as negligible inflammation-fighting omega-3 and CLA.
- Pesticides: As endocrine disruptors, pesticides are bioactive in a trillionth of a gram. In these minute amounts they affect our highly sensitive hormonal balance, causing a wide range of effects.
- Artificial sweeteners: Like its pesticide cousin, the artificial sweetener sucralose is an endocrine disrupting chemical that contributes to weight gain, worsens blood sugar control (increasing oxidation and inflammation) and worsens diabetes. Aspartame is a systemic poison that acts as an excitotoxin promoting inflammation in the brain and death of neurons.
- Additives and preservatives: Many additives and preservatives have a wide range of negative effects on the body. And systemic inflammation is one. When it comes to buying healthy packaged foods, use our healthy packaged foods directory and our Additives & Preservatives Database to learn more.
- Heterocyclic amines (HCAs): Created from cooking muscle meats at high temperatures or for long periods of time without moisture, HCAs cause oxidative damage which increases inflammation.
- Lipid Oxidation Products (LOPs): Formed from heating fats beyond their flash point, as their name suggests LOPs promote oxidation which in turn causes inflammatory response in the body.
- Advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs): Eating foods high in AGEs promotes inflammation and speeds aging. Learn how to avoid them in your cooking and in your diet.
- NSAIDS: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and others perforate the gastrointestinal lining. Among people using NSAIDs, it is believed that 65% will develop intestinal inflammation and up to 30% will develop gastroduodenal ulceration.
- Other OTC and Prescription Drugs: Many over the counter and prescription drugs increase inflammation in the body.
Learn more about how you can fight inflammation with diet and the recent research on anti-inflammatory foods in our Anti-Inflammatory Diet section.