Cuts, sprains, or a sore throat can feel painful and hot and look red and swollen. These are revealing signs of inflammation. Inflammation is a natural and vital process that your body uses to defend itself from infections and heal injured cells and tissues.
Inflammation is sometimes compared to a fire. It produces distinct biochemicals that can destroy invaders like bacteria and viruses, increase blood flow to areas that need it, and clean up debris. It can be a good thing. But, sometimes it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
Before we talk about the potential that certain dietary and lifestyle habits can have on inflammation, let’s sort out the two different types of inflammation.
Types of inflammation (acute vs. chronic)
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is short-lived. It’s similar to a flaming fire that produces the painful, red, hot, swollen symptoms described above. Acute inflammation is usually at high levels in a small localized area in response to an infection or some kind of injury to the body. It’s important for proper healing and injury repair.
When your cells detect infection or damage they send out warning signals to command your immune system to help out. Your immune system sends over many types of white blood cells to help fight off invading germs, whether it be bacteria or viruses, and clean up damage so you can heal.
Pain relievers or cold compresses may be needed for the short-term treatment of acute inflammation. However, more serious symptoms like fever, severe pain, or shortness of breath may need medical attention. In most cases, acute inflammation goes away after the damage has been healed within days or even hours. Acute inflammation is considered the “good” inflammation because it does a crucial job and then calms itself down.
Chronic inflammation is different. It’s more of the slow-burning and smoldering type of fire. This type of inflammation can exist throughout your whole body at lower levels. This means that the symptoms aren’t confined to one particular area that needs it. Instead, they can appear gradually and can last much longer—months or even years. This is the “bad” inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is often invisible without immediate or serious symptoms, but over the long-term, it’s been linked to many chronic diseases such as:
- Acne, eczema, and psoriasis
- Allergies and asthma
- Autoimmune diseases such as arthritis, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and lupus
- Chronic pain
- Gastrointestinal disorders including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Heart disease and stroke
- Lung diseases like emphysema
- Mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression
- Metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes
- Neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s
How does chronic inflammation start? It may start acutely, from an infection or injury, and then instead of shutting off, it becomes persistent. Chronic low-grade inflammation can also occur with exposure to chemicals like tobacco or radiation, consuming an unhealthy diet or too much alcohol, not being very physically active, feeling stressed or socially isolated, and having excess weight.
Now that we see that inflammation underlies so many of our medical conditions, here’s what actions to take to put out those slow-burning, smoldering fires.
Nutrition and lifestyle tips for reducing inflammation
Studies show that decreasing inflammation can reduce the risk of several of these conditions, including heart disease and cancer. There are medications used to help decrease inflammation to treat some of these diseases such as corticosteroids and immunosuppressants. However, there are also several lifestyle changes, including a healthy diet, that can be very helpful to prevent and scale down inflammation to reduce its many damaging effects on the body.
The good news is that there are anti-inflammatory foods that will help you stay healthy and reduce your risk of many diseases. In fact, it’s estimated that 60 percent of chronic diseases could be prevented with a healthy diet. Here’s how.
Keys to an anti-inflammatory diet
- Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, whole grains such as brown rice, oats, and bran, nuts, seeds, fish, poultry, legumes, and healthy oils.
- Pay special attention to foods high in antioxidant polyphenols, including colorful plants such as berries, cherries, plums, red grapes, avocados, onions, carrots, beets, turmeric, green tea, and dark green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
- Omega-3 fats can help to reduce pain and clear up the inflammation. They are found in salmon, trout, mackerel, soy, walnuts, and flax.
- High fiber foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes encourage the friendly gut microbes to help reduce inflammation.
- Avoid charring foods when cooking at high temperatures.
- Limit inflammatory foods
- Red and processed meats such as lunch meats, hot dogs, and hamburgers,
- Fried foods like french fries
- Unhealthy fats like shortening or lard
- Sugary foods, and drinks including sodas, candy, and sports drinks
- Refined carbohydrates found in white bread, cookies, and pies
- Ultra-processed foods like your microwaveable dinners and dehydrated soups
Be physically active
- Regular exercise reduces inflammation over the long-term, so try to get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise such as brisk walking per week for about 20-30 minutes per day. If you haven’t exercised in a while, start slow and work your way up. Maybe you can’t exercise every day, so just do 3 days a week for this week and then next week do 4 days a week.
- To this add two or more strength training sessions using weights or resistance bands each week.
Get enough restful sleep
- Disrupted sleep has recently been connected to increased inflammation and atherosclerosis which is the buildup of plaque in the vessels that’s associated with heart disease. Aim for 7-9 hours of restful sleep every night to help the body heal and repair.
- Tips for better sleep: try to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule every day, get exposure to natural daylight earlier in the day, avoid caffeine later in the day, cut out screens an hour before bedtime, and create a relaxing nighttime routine. For more information about the importance of sleep, check out this post on sleep.
Quit smoking and limit alcohol
- If you currently smoke, it’s a good idea to quit. By quitting, it can help reduce inflammation and several other health concerns by reducing exposure to toxins that are directly linked to inflammation.
- Limit your alcohol intake to no more than one or two drinks per day.
Manage your stress
- Engage in relaxing stress-reducing activities such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), deep breathing, meditation, yoga, or tai chi. For more on managing stress, check this post out!
- New research suggests that feeling socially isolated is linked with higher levels of inflammation, so reach out to family and friends or make new friends!
See your doctor or dentist
- Get your cholesterol and blood lipids tested because high amounts of “bad” LDL cholesterol are linked to inflammation and this will negatively affect your blood vessels.
- You can request a blood test to measure levels of CRP (C-reactive protein) which is a marker of inflammation. This test is also used to check your risk of developing heart disease.
- If your gums bleed when you brush or floss your teeth, this may be a sign of gum inflammation (gingivitis), so ramp up your oral hygiene and see your dentist.
Chronic, long-term, low-level inflammation is linked with many health issues. The first approach to preventing and improving this is through food and lifestyle changes. Start by focusing on adding colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and fish to your diet. Then make lifestyle changes like adding physical activity, getting restful sleep, and managing your stress.
These changes can be combined into your day-to-day practices. First, try adding one additional fruit or vegetable to your day. Then, several times a day at each snack or meal. For inspiration, try these recipes from my Anti-inflammatory Meal Plan.
If you’d like a plan designed to help you enjoy more of these anti-inflammatory foods, consult a registered dietitian who can provide personalized research-based nutrition advice for your health, lifestyle, and goals. I can help. Book a chat with me so we can make sure to meet your dietary needs.
Want to learn how you can beat inflammation with simple and delicious foods like the ones above? Are you looking for ways to incorporate more antioxidants into your diet? Book an appointment with me to see if my services can help you.
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