How does this apply to MY condition?
The way in which inflammation manifests as noticeable dis-ease in a given person depends on a lot of factors. The inflammation/immune response is incredibly complex. The genes you inherit, your environmental exposures, the way in which your genes get turned on and off when subjected to those environmental inputs, the way you perceive stress, and daily lifestyle habits all play a role in determining what the result of inflammation will look like in your individual case. In other words, nature and nurture both have a lot of say in how chronic inflammation will manifest as actual dis-ease in any given individual. Suffice it to say that there is research-based evidence to support the idea that inflammation is to blame in the genesis of most problems in the body (1, 2, 3, 4). Some of these might come to mind easily for you, such as arthritis, chronic pain, and autoimmune issues (1). Bonus points for you if you thought of cardiovascular problems and diabetes/blood sugar issues (5). Some others aren’t so self-evident, but have been shown to have important connections nonetheless: fatigue, depression, anxiety, obesity, to name a few (2, 6). Obesity is an especially important consideration. Although research has documented very well that there is a relationship between carrying excess body fat and having increased total body inflammation, obesity is traditionally thought of as the cause and inflammation the effect. However, in many people, the inverse may also be true; factors that increase inflammation can alter the hormone cascade that regulates metabolism and appetite to create an environment in the body that promotes excess fat storage (starting with improper regulation of the hormone cortisol) (6, 7). In some people, identifying the source of inflammation can put an end to the tireless battle of calorie-counting and over-exercising and help bring body weight back into balance.
How can my diet help with inflammation?
There are many features to an anti-inflammatory diet that can help interrupt the cycle of dis-ease-causing inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet is not one specific, rigid way of eating—it will look a little (or maybe a lot) different for everybody. It aims to address both of the imbalances that may be present in the cycle of chronic inflammation—removing the initiating factor (if in fact it’s coming from the diet) and giving the right supplies to help inflammation resolve. There are several ways in which an anti-inflammatory diet helps accomplish that:
By not being a source of inflammation-stimulators (8,9). A big source of aggravating substances for many people is the diet itself. Our overly-industrialized food supply is replete with things have the potential to incite inflammation: preservatives, dyes, artificial flavoring agents, and sweeteners, just to name a few. Aside from that, many people have allergies or sensitivities to common foods or food ingredients. In these cases, the immune system sees these foods as predator, and responds by attacking with an inflammatory response. Constant exposure=constant inflammation. These foods can be identified either by an elimination diet or by blood testing, both of which have pros and cons.
By not over-stimulating insulin output (5). Sugar and processed carbohydrates are another culprit because they increase insulin, which, although we need it to live, has the potential to rile things up in the body when produced in excess. All sugars (even “healthy” sugars) cause the pancreas to have to put out insulin. Insulin is necessary, but our bodies aren’t designed to have very much of it in our bloodstream at any given time. When we have more insulin circulating than we are designed for, it tips the first domino in the inflammation lineup (and also for storing excess calories as fat in the belly, which can become an internal generator of inflammation-stiumlating chemicals).
By turning on the right genes (10). Food is not only fuel and building blocks, it’s also information. The substances we come into contact with in our day-to-day lives give messages to our genes. Based on the info from outside substances, genes can turn on or off various functions they’re capable of carrying out. This concept of our genes’ functions being altered based on input from the outside world is called epigenetics, and it’s a big reason why your genes do not seal your fate. Guess what one of the biggest sources of information from the outside world to our genes is? Did you say food? It’s food. In general, the healthier the diet, the better the positions of your “on and off switches” in your epigenetic landscape. Some people, however, may have specific genes that require a little TLC in order to get the optimal outcomes; genetic testing may be useful for those people. A well-educated functional medicine practitioner can help you determine whether you’re one of those people.
By providing the right building blocks to quench inflammation (11,12). Sometimes the immune system’s soldiers aren’t able to do a good job simply because they don’t have the right materials to fight the good fight, or they don’t have the right chemical messengers to tell them when the fight is over, or they don’t have the right materials to repair the destruction. A diet composed of the right “supplies” can help inflammation resolve more quickly, with less damage, and help the damage that does occur be repaired faster, ultimately reducing dis-ease.
So what IS an anti-inflammatory diet?
Colorful (12, 13). The phytochemicals that give plant foods their wide variety of hues also serve another purpose: collectively, they possess a host of defense and repair promoting properties. Each pigment family has a different set of physiological benefits. This is essentially the reason behind the admonition to eat your rainbow.
Low-sugar (5, 14). How low? It depends on a lot of factors, so it will vary from person to person, but for most people, the answer is “even a little lower than you think.” Plus, excess sugar has its own set of inhibitory effects on your immune system’s efficacy.
Low in processed carbs (including alcohol) (5, 14, 15). Same issue here as with sugar—once in the body, starch and alcohol quickly get broken down into sugar, and then we’re at the same place with the insulin issues. The less the carb has changed from its original source, the more slowly the sugars it produces will enter the bloodstream, causing less need for insulin. (Side note: this is a big reason why the “calories in, calories out” approach to weight loss doesn’t work.) Bonus: in general, getting your carbs from less processed sources also reduces the likelihood that you’ll be getting other unwanted chemicals with your food, like preservatives or texturizers, which may also contribute to inflammation.
Abundant in healthy fats (11). Fat is not bad! Fat is NOT bad! FAT! IS! NOT! BAD!!! We need fat. Fat is an important component of many of the substances manufactured in the body to help quell inflammation. Not all fats are created equal, though. For anti-inflammatory purposes, it’s important that your diet include plenty of omega-3 fats (like from wild caught salmon, herring, flax seed, for example) and fats from healthy plant sources (avocado, nuts, seeds, and minimally processed oils). It’s also important to reduce most omega-6 fatty acids, which come from unhealthy animal foods and some oils, like corn and vegetable. (Gamma linoleic acid, an omega-6 fat that can be anti-inflammatory, can be an exception to this.)
Adequate in protein (15). This goes back to our old friend insulin. Protein is the slowest-burning nutrient. This means that your body is able to derive energy from it for a long time after you eat, and thus it keeps your blood sugar from swinging to extreme highs and lows. A stable blood sugar also doesn’t require as much insulin.
Sourced from healthy animals (8, 9, 11). An anti-inflammatory diet does not necessarily have to include animal foods (meat, dairy, and eggs). However, if you do eat animal foods, choose the healthiest source possible (meaning that the animal was raised in an environment ideal for its makeup: fed the food its meant to eat, given enough living space, allowed to practice normal behaviors, not subjected to a stressful environment, not given drugs to compensate for unnatural rearing practices). Think about it: if an animal is stressed, it has stress-induced signaling chemicals in its body. When we eat that animal (or its milk or eggs), we eat those substances, which, since we are ALSO animals, can induce a stress response (aka inflammation) in OUR bodies. Ditto with consuming animals who have been exposed to hormones or antibiotics—the substances are in the animal’s body, and thus can have effects on our bodies. This is why designations like “grass fed”, “pasture raised”, “wild caught”, and “certified humane” are not only important for animal and ecological welfare, but also our own.
Hydrating (16). Having enough water in your bloodstream and in your cells is critical to inducing any kind of healing in the body. Hydration is what allows anti-inflammatory nutrients to be delivered to the places that need it (in the blood stream) and used the way they’re needed (inside the cells). It’s also what allows pro-inflammatory chemicals to be carried away and eliminated (via the urinary and gastrointestinal tracts).
Specific to the person. Some people may need further personalization to an anti-inflammatory plan. In certain people, reducing inflammation may mean avoiding specific foods due to allergies or sensitivities. In yet other people, there may be cause to consume high doses of a certain nutrient or food group in order to work with specific genes or induce healing for a medical condition.
Low-stress (7). Okay, so stress isn’t exactly a nutrient. But when I say “everything in your body is made by your body from what you put into your body”, it’s not just a convoluted way of saying “you are what you eat.” Nutrition is so much more than the food you put in your body. It’s everything that we give ourselves to process during the course of our lives. I think of nutrition as everything that goes “in” to us—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. Stress is a major inducer of inflammation, regardless of your diet. (This is because of a hormone called cortisol.) If you’re having to process an abnormal amount of stress on a regular basis, then your inflammation is going to be difficult to reduce, no matter how perfectly you eat. I find that, regardless of the reason they come to see me, for every patient, relaxation is one of the most important nutrients I can prescribe.