The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: How to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
What is Inflammation?
First things first. Inflammation is not always a bad thing. It’s actually a normal, complex biological response that’s necessary for our survival! Inflammation is a defense mechanism triggered by the immune system when it recognizes harmful stimuli, such as pathogens, damaged tissue, or irritants. The immune system initiates a response to attack to these foreign invaders or repairs damage, which enables our bodies to heal.
So what’s the problem? Nothing…unless inflammation becomes chronic. In the presence of an unhealthy diet and lifestyle over a long period of time, the immune system can become dysfunctional. And when the immune system gets out of whack, it can cause excessive inflammation or trigger an inflammatory response when it’s not actually needed. An overactive immune system can also lose the ability to distinguish between itself and foreign invaders and begin targeting its own tissues and organs, leading to autoimmune disease.
The Difference Between Acute and Chronic Inflammation
As mentioned, inflammation is a totally normal function of the body. Acute inflammation happens when there is an immediate need for the body to heal itself. Think: a fever when you’re sick or the swelling of your ankle when you twist it. These are signs that the body is recovering. And once the body has done its anti-inflammatory job, the signs of inflammation (the fever, the swelling) disappear. All is good.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, doesn’t happen right away and is the type of inflammation that can lead to serious damage and diseases. It can take days, weeks, months, or even years (!) to start noticing symptoms of chronic inflammation.
To paint a picture of how this works, let’s take a look at heart disease. Heart disease is actually a disease caused (or greatly exacerbated) by chronic inflammation. The thin layer of cells that line blood vessel walls, called the endothelium, can be damaged by anything harmful entering the bloodstream (toxic beauty products, cigarettes, pollution, pesticides, processed food).
This consistent injury to the endothelium causes the immune system to dispatch white blood cells, which multiply; this is how inflammation is supposed to function. But when these inflammatory cells stay within the blood vessel walls for too long over an extended period of time, they cause the build-up of dangerous plaques. And when these plaques explode inside of an artery, a heart attack or stroke may occur. (Source)
Heart disease is just one possible product of chronic inflammation, but the idea is the same for so many diseases and health issues: when the body thinks it is under attack by a stressor, the immune system fights back. Inflammation is a sign that the immune system is on the attack due to real or perceived stress.
Symptoms of Chronic Inflammation
Here are just some common symptoms of chronic inflammation:
Body pain, especially in the joints
Skin issues, like eczema
Autoimmune disease, like arthritis, thyroid, celiac disease
High blood glucose
What Causes Chronic Inflammation?
The good news is that chronic inflammation is largely due to a poor diet and an unhealthy lifestyle (…that’s good news, because we can fix it!). The most common causes of chronic inflammation are digestive issues, a highly processed diet, toxins, allergens, infections, and chronic stress.
Another common cause of chronic inflammation is a damaged gut lining, often called “leaky gut syndrome.” Without a healthy mucosal lining, the tight cellular junctions of the gut weaken, allowing food particles and bacteria to pass out of the small intestine and into the bloodstream. These food particles are not supposed to be in the bloodstream and so they appear foreign to the body, often triggering an immune response. “Leaky gut syndrome” can be caused by chronic stress, excess alcohol consumption, food sensitivities, medications (like NSAIDs), and gut infections (like SIBO or candida). (Source). So, digestion is really important, which is where we start…
How to Reduce Chronic Inflammation
Improve Your Digestion
Chronic inflammation is often the result of chronically poor digestion. Check out these tips to improve your digestion naturally. One of those tips is to eat whole, unprocessed foods, which leads us to no. 2…
Change Your Diet
This is a big one. Here are the main tenants of an anti-inflammatory diet.
EAT WHOLE FOODS / Enjoy high-fiber vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, high-quality proteins, whole grains, and healthy fats (especially omega-3s and extra virgin olive oil), which are naturally anti-inflammatory.* (Source)
DITCH THE PROCESSED FOODS / Stop eating refined sugar, trans fats, highly processed vegetable oils, refined carbohydrates, and artificial ingredients. These are inflammatory to the body. (Source)
REMOVE COMMON INFLAMMATORY FOODS / Dairy, gluten, excess caffeine, and excess alcohol can exacerbate a chronic inflammatory response. Eliminate or cut back on these foods to calm inflammation until the body has healed.
HYDRATE / Your cells need to be properly hydrated to perform their anti-inflammatory functions. Drink half your body weight (lbs) in ounces of pure water each day. If you drink diuretics (alcohol, coffee, caffeinated tea, soda), drink an extra 12 ounces for every 8-ounce diuretic beverage in addition to your baseline ounce requirement.
FAST / You don’t have to get extreme here, but giving your body a 12-hour "fast" has been shown to reduce inflammation, promote weight-loss, and improve brain health. So, for example, if you finish dinner at 8pm, try not to eat again until 8am the next day.
*NOTE: Some healthy, whole foods can be problematic for people with specific food sensitivities. If you suspect food sensitivities, work with a health professional to create a personalized nutrition plan.
Moderate exercise actually improves immune function and decreases inflammation. Try walking, running, yoga, pilates, hiking, biking, weight-training, dance, barre, swimming, spinning, pilates…. you get the idea. Ideally for 30-60 minutes per day, with 1-2 rest days per week. But don’t over do it; overexercising is a stress on your body and can actually exacerbate chronic inflammation. (Source)
Make sure to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night. And reduce excess stress in your life (…easier said than done ;). Try light yoga and/or meditation to calm the mind as mental stress can cause inflammation too. (Source)
INCLUDE FERMENTED FOODS / Naturally fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kombucha, promote healthy gut bacteria that fight inflammation and boost immunity. (Source)
EAT YOUR OMEGA-3s / Omega-3 fatty acids, present in cold water fish, like wild-caught salmon, mackerel, and sardines, and some plant-based sources, like chia seeds and flaxseeds, have been shown to significantly reduce inflammation. (Source)
TRY A BOOST / Incorporate these proven naturally anti-inflammatory foods into your diet on a regular basis!