We hear this term thrown around all the time: Inflammation. We are told that the best diet is an “anti-inflammatory” diet, and that we should eat “anti-inflammatory” foods. But what does that really even mean? Why do these foods cause inflammation and why should we be so worried about it?
Our Immune System
To really understand inflammation, we first need to talk about our immune system. Our immune system is made of three levels: our physical barriers, our innate immune system, and our adaptive immune system.
1: Physical Barriers
The first line of defense is our physical barriers. These include our skin, sweat, mucus and mucosal surfaces, saliva, our stomach acid, enzymes, and healthy gut flora.
We can also include various forms of expulsion as physical defenses – every time we cough, sneeze, sweat, urinate, defecate, vomit, and cry, we are helping to remove harmful foreign substances and pathogens from our body.
2: Innate Immune System
The second line of defense – if a pathogen gets through our physical barriers – is our innate immune system. We can think of this as a security team, ready to mount a rapid response to anything harmful. If they recognize the pathogen, they destroy it. If they don’t recognize it quickly, the next level of our immune system, the adaptive immune system, activates.
3: Adaptive Immune System
If your innate immunity is the 24-7 security team, we can think of our adaptive immune system as the skilled specialists. It can target specific invaders and adapts to protect us against almost anything. The adaptive immune system is made up of B and T cells, and we keep a small number of these circulating in our bodies. When there’s a pathogen detected, our bodies quickly make many more to go on the attack. And it’s our B-cells that create antibodies that will stick around to recognize if we’re exposed again and can protect us from becoming sick.
So what does this have to do with inflammation?
Well, inflammation is a broad term for the actions of the innate immune system. When we have an acute injury, like a cut, we trigger inflammation through our innate immune system to help us heal. An acute illness, like the flu, triggers our adaptive immune systems go to work to kill the virus. In this process, there is often collateral damage to healthy cells in the area of the injury or infection.
After we’ve done the healing we need to do, our bodies will signal the immune system to stop producing inflammation so we can get back to business as usual.
But, in today’s culture, many of us live in a state of chronic stress, hormone imbalance, diets full of pro-inflammatory foods, persistent infection, nutrient deficiencies, and inadequate sleep. And because of these things, our body’s ability to balance immune response weakens and we begin to have a low-level of inflammation much of the time, with damage being done to healthy tissue. In the case of auto-immune disease, our bodies mistake “self” for “other,” and we begin actively attacking our own tissue.
Inflammation plays a huge role in most chronic disease. If we want to be healthy as we age, we need to focus on reducing our inflammation now.
Why We Are Inflamed
Let’s look at the main drivers of inflammation in our bodies:
- Gut dysbiosis – when we have pathogenic bacteria or too much of the “bad” bacteria, or not enough of the “good” bacteria, it’s called gut dysbiosis.
- Elevated blood sugar and insulin resistance – when we develop insulin resistance and have too much sugar circulating in our blood, our blood vessels produce free radicals and oxidize our LDL cholesterol, leading to inflammation.
- Diet – certain types of foods contain compounds or oxidized fats that are pro-inflammatory. And if you have a particular food sensitivity, this can contribute to inflammation as well.
- Leaky gut – Food, too little sleep, too much stress, over or under-exercising; these are all things that can cause leaky gut. Leaky gut is when the tight junctions in our intestinal walls open up, allowing larger molecules of food, or pathogenic bacteria or toxins into our bloodstream. This triggers the immune system to react. This is actually how it’s supposed to work – particles get in our bloodstream, and our immune system fights them off. But with leaky gut, this is happening constantly, creating excess inflammation.
Genetics also play a role in chronic disease, but they account for only about 10-30% of our risk for chronic disease. We have the ability to turn on or off our genes based on our environment and how we treat our bodies. So what impact can we have?
We go back to the basics: nutrition, sleep, stress management and movement.
- Eat nutrient-dense foods: Our immune system relies on a vast array of micronutrients that most of us just don’t get on a daily, or even weekly, basis. Essential fatty acids, essential amino acids, vitamins, minerals, and plant phytochemicals are where we need to focus on. Without these, our regulatory system – the part that turns off the immune system – will not be able to function properly, and inflammation will sustain.
- Omega-6 fatty acids are found in high levels in processed foods, fast foods, and foods made with “vegetable” oils, in particular. While we need omega-6 fats, in our modern diet we get far too many omega-6 fats compared with omega-3 fats. Why does this matter? Omega-6 fatty acids promote pro-inflammatory cell signaling, while omega-3 fatty acids promote anti-inflammatory cell signaling. So when we have an imbalance, we are signaling for more inflammation in our bodies.
- High blood sugar levels in the blood induce inflammation, so avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugars is important. And pairing carbohydrates with fat and protein helps keep our blood sugar balanced.
- Certain foods contain compounds that can be inflammatory, such as wheat germ, kidney beans, soybeans, peanuts, and members of the nightshade family (potatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatoes, etc).
The important thing to note here is that if we have an immune system that already isn’t regulating itself well and we add more pro-inflammatory foods to our diets, we are just fueling the fire.
And aside from the foods we eat, the activities we engage in also cause inflammation, such as:
- Not getting enough sleep – prioritize bedtime or work with a practitioner to help you get to the root cause of insomnia or sleep apnea
- Being chronically stressed – work in a meditation practice or gratitude practice. What can you eliminate or reduce from your life that’s causing you stress?
- Being too sedentary – Get out for a walk every day. Sunshine and nature have a more positive impact than you may realize.
- Intense exercise – Working out harder is always good, right? Not so. While an intense workout 1-2 times a week may be good, these workouts do promote inflammation, so we don’t want to go overboard. Studies show low to moderate exercise daily is the most beneficial for long-term health.
Specific foods + Supplements to Focus On
As I’ve said, there are many things that promote inflammation, but for most people, the number one thing you can do is focus on your diet, and I suggest you start by focusing on what food to include rather than what foods to exclude. If you have a chronic disease or are not quite sure what’s wrong, you may want to dig into this further with food sensitivity testing and/or an elimination diet (schedule a free call with me here).
To get started, I’ve put together a list of my favorite foods (and supplements) to extinguish your inflammatory fire:
- Fruits and vegetables that are deeply colored all the way through. This is a sign of high-nutrient density, phytochemical and antioxidants. So yes, pears and apples are healthy, but reach for the deeply pigmented ones a little more often, such as cherries, berries, and other deeply colored fruits and veggies.
- SMASH fish: This stands for Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, and Herring. These fish are all high in omega-3’s, the fatty acids most of us are woefully low in, and low in mercury. Eat that fish!
- Sea vegetables: Iodine is an important micronutrient that’s hard to get, and the best source is seaweed! Iodine helps thyroid function, and it’s what our white blood cells use to ward off pathogens. It also contains a whole host of other vitamins and minerals. You can start with a 1/4 tsp. of this quality brand in soups or salads and work your way up to 1 tsp, if you like the flavor.
- Teas: Ginger, turmeric and green tea are all wonderful sources of antioxidants that quell inflammation. Try this easy turmeric tea recipe here.
- Supplements: I like the following supplements for most people, but for vitamin D especially, you will want to ensure you get your levels tested 1-2x per year and work with a practitioner if you’re supplementing to make sure you stay in your target range.
- Vitamin D + K2: You want to make sure you take a vitamin D supplement that includes vitamin K2mk7 or K2mk4 for best utilization. K2 also helps direct your body where to deposit calcium (your bones; not your arteries!). Eat plenty of greens and grass-fed butter and liver for K2 as well. I like this one here.
- Fish oil: If you’re not a fan of the SMASH fish, you will get some omega-3’s from grass-fed and pastured meat, but it’d also be a good idea to supplement. I like and recommend this one and the one found here to my clients.
- Digestive enzymes: Taking digestive enzymes with your foods will make it easier to digest cooked proteins, which will likely reduce your reactivity to foods if you experience food sensitivities (reducing your inflammation via leaky gut).
Every small change you make helps, so if inflammation is a concern, choose one of these things you don’t already do and incorporate it into your daily life. Your body will thank you!