Inflammation is one of those buzzwords that gets thrown around left and right - but what does it actually mean? Inflammation is essentially our bodies' response to threats from things like stress, injury, infection, and toxins. When the immune system senses one of these threats, it responds by releasing chemical messengers into the body that promote inflammation and are meant to protect us. (1)
Acute inflammation is a healthy and essential process for our bodies. This type of inflammation is generally short-lived, and helps us to heal and fight infection. Classic signs of acute inflammation might be pain, swelling and burning after falling down and scraping your knee or cutting your finger. (1,2)
Chronic inflammation occurs when the immune system is permanently turned “on” and is constantly releasing pro-inflammatory messengers into the body that can be damaging in the long term. Chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk for arthritis, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, digestive issues, autoimmune disease, skin issues, depression and mood disorders, sleep disorders, excess weight gain, allergies, chronic fatigue and more! (1,2)
Chronic inflammation can be caused by a number of dietary and environmental factors. It would be impossible to eliminate ALL triggers of inflammation, but there are things we can do on a daily basis to minimize the risk for chronic inflammation and promote a better balance for the immune system. Below are my Top Ten Diet and Lifestyle Tips for Reducing Chronic Inflammation.
1. Limit Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates including foods like white bread, white pasta, sugary cereals, crackers, etc. are highly processed, and contain very few beneficial nutrients. Because these foods lack fiber and protein, they cause spikes in blood sugar and force your body to produce more insulin. Higher levels of circulating insulin are associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers (3,4). If the majority of the carbohydrates you eat come from highly processed sources, you're also missing out on a lot of important nutrients lost in processing. Now I'm not saying that you need to avoid or eliminate refined carbohydrates entirely (you know I love my pizza and everything bagels), but I encourage you to focus on including more minimally processed and whole food sources of carbohydrates into your diet. Some of my favorites include whole fruit and vegetables, legumes, quinoa, buckwheat, brown rice and oats. These foods are a great source of fiber, and provide your body with long lasting energy and stable blood sugar.
2. Be Aware of Added Sugars
Enjoying sweets is part of an overall healthy dietary pattern. However, you don’t want to be getting added sugars in your diet when you don’t even know you’re getting them! Added sugars not only have an undesirable effect on blood sugar, but they can also significantly increase caloric intake. Research has also shown that eating foods high in sugar in excess can decrease blood levels of antioxidants (we'll talk more about these below). Added sugars are in everything. They're in our yogurts, nut milks, granola bars, pasta sauce, peanut butter, salad dressing...you get the picture.
There is no need to obsess about enjoying a bowl of ice cream or using maple syrup on your pancakes at brunch. You want to enjoy added sugars when you actually want them, not unknowingly in your daily breakfast and snacks. Read labels and become a conscious consumer -- it’s all about awareness.
3. IMprove Your ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids
Omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to reduce inflammation, boost heart health, decrease the risk of depression and sharpen cognition and memory (5). Increase intake of omega 3 Fatty Acids from foods like fatty fish (like sockeye salmon, tuna, trout) chia seeds, hemp seeds, tahini, walnuts, olive oil.
Excess intake of Omega 6 fatty acids combined with low intake of Omega 3s can contribute to chronic inflammation. Reduce omega 6 fatty acid intake from packed/processed foods such as frozen pizza, popcorn, candies, cookies, chips, crackers, etc. Many of these foods contain overly processed vegetable oils such as soy, sunflower, safflower and corn oil.
4. Eat More plants
Higher fruit and vegetable intake is associated with lower levels of inflammatory markers and a decreased risk for developing chronic disease. Fruit and vegetables are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that have an ant-inflammatory and protective effect on our bodies (6,7). I recommended aiming for 5-8 servings of colorful fruit and veggies daily (the more the better!).
5. Go heavy with herbs and spices
Not only are herbs and spices a great way to flavor your food, but they’re also really amazing chemical compounds that have the ability to disrupt inflammatory pathways and even inhibit the release of inflammatory messengers (2). Try seasoning your food with turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, black pepper, bay leaf, oregano, thyme and rosemary.
6. Nourish Your Gut with fiber and fermented foods
70% of the immune system is found within the lining of the gut (crazy, right?!). The bacteria in the gut are closely involved with the immune system and the regulation of inflammation. Gut bacteria can stimulate anti-inflammatory messengers (the good guys!) or the pro-inflammatory messengers that are associated with low grade inflammation and chronic disease (2,8). When we don’t feed gut bacteria in the right way, this can cause an imbalance in bacteria and lead to a chronic inflammatory response . In addition to all of the dietary tips mentioned (lots of plants, less refined carbohydrates, more fiber, etc.) there are a few things we can do to support our gut health:
Include more pre-biotic rich foods (food for good bacteria) including onions, garlic, artichokes, underripe bananas and whole grains.
Incorporate more probiotic rich fermented foods such kimichi, sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt and tempeh. These foods are rich in beneficial bacteria and also help to create a more desirable environment for the healthy bacteria to thrive.
7. Find ways to slow down and minimize/manage stress in your everyday life
Acute and chronic stress are both associated with an inflammatory response. When the body perceives stress, it releases cortisol (the body's stress hormone). When cortisol levels are high, we often respond by choosing highly palatable foods that are more processed, higher in sugar and higher in fat. Additionally, when cortisol levels are high, your body cannot digest and absorb nutrients from food properly. So not only does stress impact the foods we choose to eat, it also impacts how the body's ability to utilize these foods (9,10,11). Try these tips for reducing stress at meal times to improve digestion:
Use meals as a way to manage stress as opposed to a reaction to stress
Step away from the tv or computer and remove distractions at mealtime
Take 3 slow deep belly breaths prior to meals – this can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to reduce cortisol levels for improved digestion
Go for a walk and get fresh air prior to meals
Chew food slowly and thoroughly for improved digestion
8. Get active…but not too active
The relationship between physical activity and inflammation is a complicated one. There is still a lot that we don’t know here, but basically both too little and too much exercise can increase inflammatory markers. Exercise itself actually promotes acute inflammation and stress on your body. In the appropriate context, this type of acute inflammation from exercise is resolved and actually helps your body to build up its antioxidant defenses, therefor consistent exercise overtime can actually help to reduce inflammation (12,13).
That being said, acute inflammation from exercise can become chronic if you are over exercising and not giving your body a chance to rest and repair or you are are under-fueling. Over-exercising can also be extremely disruptive to our endocrine systems which can impact the balance of hormones in your body (14).
Basically, exercise is a good thing until it’s not. Exercise is going to look a little bit different for everyone, and it’s really important to listen to your body and understand when rigorous exercise is appropriate and when it’s not. I encourage you to focus on joyful movement that FEELS good whether that be a spin class, a walk around the block, or some simple stretching.
9. Sleep more
Sleep is the cornerstone of good health. A lack of sleep is associated with higher markers of inflammation and an increased risk for chronic disease (15). Sleep is your body’s time to rest, repair and remove toxins. Have you ever been sleep deprived and felt like you want to eat ALL THE FOODS? It's not just in your head! A lack of sleep also impacts your hunger and fullness hormones. Try these tips for improving quality and duration of sleep:
Eliminate caffeine after 3pm and switch to herbal tea
Establish a relaxing nighttime routine to wind down for 15-30 minutes prior to bed
Pay attention to what you eat and drink - going to bed hungry and going to bed overly full can both impact sleep!
Shut off phone + television 30-60 minutes prior to bedtime
Manage your worries - try making a to-do list for the next day or writing down your worries on a pad of paper or in your phone prior to laying down
10. Pay attention to what goes on your body
Skin is our largest organ and absorbs everything we put on it. Chemicals in commercial products can disrupt the endocrine system which can be a huge source of inflammation. Read labels and look for products free of parabens, formaldehyde, phthalates, petroleum jelly, PEG, food dye and coloring and synthetic fragrances (16). Buy natural products with short, recognizable ingredient lists (just like the goal with food!).
Minihane, A. M., Vinoy, S., Russell, W. R., Baka, A., Roche, H. M., Tuohy, K. M., … Calder, P. C. (2015). Low-grade inflammation, diet composition and health: current research evidence and its translation.
Tanmeet, Sethi. (2018). A Primer on Treating Chronic Inflammation with Food.
Martí Juanola-Falgarona, Jordi Salas-Salvadó, Núria Ibarrola-Jurado, Antoni Rabassa-Soler, Andrés Díaz-López, Marta Guasch-Ferré, Pablo Hernández-Alonso, Rafael Balanza, Mònica Bulló. (2014). Effect of the glycemic index of the diet on weight loss, modulation of satiety, inflammation, and other metabolic risk factors: a randomized controlled trial.
López-Alarcón M, Perichart-Perera O, Flores-Huerta S, et al. (2014). Excessive refined carbohydrates and scarce micronutrients intakes increase inflammatory mediators and insulin resistance in prepubertal and pubertal obese children independently of obesity.
Calder, P. C. (2010). Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Inflammatory Processes.
Slavin, J. L., & Lloyd, B. (2012). Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables.
Root MM, McGinn MC, Nieman DC, et al. (2012). Combined Fruit and Vegetable Intake Is Correlated with Improved Inflammatory and Oxidant Status from a Cross-Sectional Study in a Community Setting.
Lieke WJ van den Elsen, Hazel C Poyntz, Laura S Weyrich, Wayne Young, and Elizabeth E Forbes-Blom. (2017). Embracing the gut microbiota: the new frontier for inflammatory and infectious diseases.
Harvard Medical School. (2010). Stress and the sensitive gut.
Mertz, Howard. UNC Center for Functional GI and Motility Disorders. Stress and the Gut.
Woods, J. A., Wilund, K. R., Martin, S. A., & Kistler, B. M. (2012). Exercise, Inflammation and Aging.
Henson J, Yates T, Edwardson CL, et al. Sedentary Time and Markers of Chronic Low-Grade Inflammation in a High Risk Population.
Khazaei M. (2012). Chronic Low-grade Inflammation after Exercise: Controversies.
Mullington JM, Simpson NS, Meier-Ewert HK, Haack M. (2010). Sleep Loss and Inflammation.
Glassman K. (2018). Nutritious Life Studio.