Try these nine foods to ease chronic inflammation and reduce your risk of everything from cardiovascular disease to cancer.
When TV host and nutritionist Julie Daniluk developed ulcerative colitis—inflammation of the large intestine—several years ago, it ravaged her body. She not only developed severe digestive problems, she also had debilitating muscle and joint pain. But it wasn’t medication alone that ended up curing her disease; it was a healthy, nutrient-rich diet. “After one and a half years, I’m completely in remission,” Daniluk says. “If I can come back from this disease and be 100 percent healthy, imagine what you can do if you don’t have a serious health problem like this. We can do so much to shift the course of our health by just eating an anti-inflammatory diet.
But what’s all the fuss about inflammation, a so-called health bad guy that seems to gain more notoriety with every passing year? Despite its bad reputation, not all inflammation is bad; in fact, inflammation is the core of our body’s healing—and immune—response. When something harmful or irritating affects a part of our body, an inflammatory cascade of events is set in motion: Blood flow increases to that area, and along with it healing proteins and infection-fighting white blood cells. Without inflammation, wounds and infections would never heal.
As with stress, though, some inflammation is healthy, but chronic inflammation—which some experts describe as an immune system response that’s out of control—is not. “Inflammation is a form of cellular and chemical warfare in the body,” says David L. Katz, director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center in Derby, Connecticut, and author of Disease-Proof, available on page 86. “But as with all warfare, there is potential for collateral damage. Chronic inflammation stresses and injures cells, causing them to malfunction and age.” This malfunctioning, in turn, can trigger disease. Study after study suggests that everything from cardiovascular disease and cancer to joint issues and even skin problems like psoriasis can be the result of unchecked inflammation in the body.
Research finds that the more sugar, red meat, processed meat, fried foods and dairy people eat, the higher their indicators of inflammation. In one study, researchers at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City found that fried and processed foods can increase inflammation, while cutting back on these foods can “restore the body’s natural defenses.” In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, Greek researchers found that those who eat a plant-based, healthy-fat Mediterranean diet (heavy on produce but light on meat, white flour and white sugar) have lower inflammation levels. The reason: The right nutrients seem to guard against inflammation, and some even help to calm inflammation already present. Try this list of some of the best inflammation-fighting foods around.
Amaranth: “Amaranth is a seed that acts like a grain,” says holistic health coach Kristine Nicholson, a healthy eating specialist for Whole Foods Market in Millburn, New Jersey. “But it’s got a whole lot more nutrition than grains.” It contains about four times as much calcium as wheat, and twice as much iron and magnesium. Plus, it’s gluten-free and easy to digest—a good option for those with food sensitivities or allergies. Other best bets: quinoa, millet and wild rice, which is lower in carbs and higher in protein than brown rice.
Ginger: “Ginger belongs to a class of herbs called bitter herbs,” says Jeffrey Morrison, a New York City-based doctor and author of Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind. “Horseradish is another one. They’re very good anti-inflammatories.” Ginger—which contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols—helps prevent the body from manufacturing prostaglandins and leukotrienes, both of which trigger inflammation. Studies have found ginger extract reduces the swelling and pain associated with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Drink ginger tea and use fresh ginger in everything from soups to stir-fries.
Grass-fed beef: Conventionally raised red meat contains unhealthy ratios of omega-6 to omega-3, as high as 20:1—why it’s considered bad for the heart and just about every other organ in the body. But organic grass-fed red meat is rich in inflammation-quelling omega-3 fatty acids, and has a ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s around the ideal 4:1. It’s also rich in B vitamins, selenium and zinc. Daniluk, author of Meats that Heal Inflammation, suggests mixing up the kind of grass-fed meat you eat; try bison, elk and venison, too. But never chargrill meats. This creates advanced glycation end products, which promote inflammation by damaging essential proteins.
Green tea: Numerous studies prove the anti-inflammatory benefits of green tea—made from unfermented leaves. The reason? Green tea contains one of the highest concentrations of powerful antioxidants called catechins, including potent epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG. One study found that EGCG might block the overproduction of pro-inflammatory substances. Other studies have linked tea drinking (at least two cups per day) to a reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, lower cholesterol levels and even lower rates of cancer. “Drink organic, whole-leaf green tea to get the full benefits,” Nicholson says.
Kale: Bitter vegetables such as kale, spinach, radishes, broccoli raab and mustard greens have anti-inflammatory effects because of their high antioxidant levels. But all brightly colored fruits and vegetables—from blueberries to red bell peppers—are rich in inflammation-quelling antioxidants, too. These compounds help neutralize the harmful free radicals that trigger inflammation and disease.
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are the only vegetable source of vitamin D—a hormone that plays a key role in immune system health—if they’ve grown under ultraviolet (UV) light. (Like humans, mushrooms produce vitamin D when exposed to UV light.) One study in The Journal of Immunology found that vitamin D is key for inhibiting the “inflammatory cascade” in the body, particularly in people with chronic inflammatory diseases such as asthma, arthritis and prostate cancer. You typically get 400 IU of vitamin D per 1 cup of mushrooms.
Oregano: This herb contains an active agent called rosmarinic acid that’s extremely rich in free radical-fighting antioxidants. But nearly all herbs are rich in antioxidants that can help fight inflammation. Many herbs are also antimicrobial. “Much of what we’re seeing today is the presence of infections in the body that trigger inflammation,” says Kristine Gedroic, an integrative family practitioner based in Morristown, New Jersey, pointing to research on bacteria-triggered gum disease linked to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Skip the spice jars, though. Fresh is best when it comes to herbs. “Have your own herb garden—on your windowsill or in your backyard,” Gedroic says. “It truly is nature’s pharmacy.” (Learn how in 10 Easy-to-Grow Herbs for a Simple Kitchen Herb Garden.)
Organic coconut kefir: Dairy tops many pro-inflammatory food lists, which is why many experts recommend dairy-free alternatives. Coconut-based kefir (made by fermenting coconut milk), yogurt-style cultured coconut milk and fermented coconut water are all rich in live probiotics, healthy bacteria that displace bad bacteria in the gut. (See 13 Proven Health Benefits of Probiotics.) “Seventy percent of the immune system is in the digestive tract,” Morrison says. “Healthy bacteria, or probiotics, help regulate the immune system, thereby helping reduce inflammation.” Make sure the label says “live and active cultures”. Visit Carrie Forbes’ blog Ginger Lemon Girl for a recipe for homemade coconut kefir.
Turmeric: This potent anti-inflammatory seems to inhibit eicosanoids, molecules that play a key role in the inflammatory response. One study found that supplements of curcumin (turmeric’s active ingredient) reduced levels of C-reactive protein, a general inflammation marker linked to arthritis and cardiovascular disease. Another study of people with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease found that curcumin seems to inhibit formation of the inflammatory plaque that accompanies the disease. Look for organic turmeric root; make tea or add it to eggs, salad dressings and vegetable dishes. Or take supplements: Integrative doctor Andrew Weil recommends 400 to 600 mg of standardized 95 percent curcuminoids, three times a day for patients with arthritis, tendonitis and autoimmune disorders. Avoid it if you have gallstones, bile duct dysfunction or are pregnant.
Bottom line when it comes to an anti-inflammatory diet: “Eating healthy is eating anti-inflammatory,” Nicholson says. When we eat the most nutrient-rich foods we can at every meal, over time we shed excess weight, have more energy and feel healthier overall—all while reducing our risk of inflammation-driven disease. “When we take out inflammatory foods and puts into our bodies anti-inflammatory nutrition then we start to experience a profound shift,” Daniluk says. “You can quickly lose your appetite for foods that can cause inflammation.”
This list includes the biggest triggers of chronic inflammation in the body.
Just as there are plenty of ways to trigger the body’s inflammatory cascade, there are plenty of ways we can ease chronic inflammation. “The same six lifestyle factors exert the greatest influence on all major chronic disease risk factors,” researcher David L. Katz says. “These are feet (physical activity), forks (a healthy diet), fingers (don’t smoke), sleep (get enough), stress (learn to manage it), and love (cultivate loving relationships).” But most experts agree that, when it comes to inflammation, food is the first, and most important, place to start.
• Sugar and processed foods, particularly those with unhealthy trans fats: “White sugar is the most inflammatory substance on the planet,” says Daniluk, who adds that anything that causes a fast spike in blood sugar levels, such as white sugar and white flour, triggers an inflammatory response. Eat them regularly, and we’re keeping our inflammation levels on overdrive. Better sweetener bets include stevia and coconut sugar—which don’t raise blood sugar levels like processed sugar does. Raw honey and maple syrup are also good options.
• Genetically modified (GMO) foods: There’s a reason so many health experts are speaking out against GMOs. “Any food modified from its original self is no longer the same food,” says Jeffrey Morrison, a doctor and author of Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind. While to date no formal research has studied the effect of GMO foods on humans, in vivo studies have shown that when a body encounters a GMO food (or any food that doesn’t “agree” with us, Morrison says), it doesn’t recognize it and tries to protect us from it with symptoms of inflammation (this could range from bloating and digestive upset to gas and pain). Ignore our bodies’ red flags and, over time, the inflammation could become chronic.
• Chemicals in our environment: “From pesticides to parabens, chemicals in our environment have a strong estrogenic effect on our bodies,” Morrison says. “Too many estrogens can cause an inflammatory state.” To avoid as many environmental chemicals as possible, Morrison recommends eating organic fruits and vegetables whenever you can; avoiding plastics, which can contain the endocrine disruptor bisphenol-A (BPA) and other estrogenic chemicals; and avoiding food in cans lined with BPA. A few brands such as Eden Organic offer BPA-free cans; otherwise choose fresh food or food packed in glass jars.
• Heavy metals: Mercury (from fatty fish such as swordfish and tuna) and lead are heavy metals that are toxic to the body and can fuel inflammation. “Heavy metals essentially cause our bodies to rust because of oxidative stress—the same mechanism that causes rust to form on metal,” Morrison says. To find out if your levels are high, have your doctor order a whole-blood mercury test and a lead test, two separate blood tests typically covered by insurance. Then stick to lower-mercury seafood sources such as wild salmon, tilapia, clams and mussels.
Valerie Latona—the former editor-in-chief of Shape—is a health writer and editor and the founder of valerielatona.com, a healthy living website. A passionate advocate of healthy living, Latona lives in New Jersey with her husband and three young children.
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