Inflammation is now being linked to just about every health condition. What are some examples of inflammatory diseases? According to a Harvard Medical School report, “Chronic inflammation plays a central role in some of the most challenging diseases of our time, including rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and even Alzheimer’s.”
It’s “an emerging field,” says UCLA’s Dr. David Heber. “It’s a new concept for medicine.” This is a quote from 2009! Thankfully, inflammation has gotten a lot more attention in the past 10 years, but the problem still remains: Modern medicine focuses on treating symptoms, not addressing the root cause of a health issue, which in many cases is inflammation.
According to a scientific article published in 2012, “An increasing body of evidence shows that chronic inflammation causes and advances many common diseases.” Arthritis is inflammation of the joints. Heart disease is inflammation of the arteries. The list goes on and on.
Instead of taking a medication to reduce an inflamed area of the body, we would be better served by reducing inflammation in the first place. The good news is that there are a lot of ways to avoid or reduce chronic disease-causing inflammation, including an anti-inflammatory diet plus other scientifically-proven inflammation-reducing tactics you can start doing today!
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is part of the body’s inherent immune response, and it isn’t always bad. What is inflammation? When it’s acute and not dangerous, it’s the body’s natural defense against damaged cells, viruses, bacteria, etc. It aims to remove these harmful or foreign invaders and heal itself. Without inflammation, wounds would just fester and infections could be deadly.
A standard inflammation definition: a local response to cellular injury that is marked by capillary dilatation, leukocytic infiltration, redness, heat, and pain and that serves as a mechanism initiating the elimination of noxious agents and of damaged tissue. This is more specifically an acute inflammation definition (more on that in a minute).
What does the inflammation process look like exactly? First, chemicals from white blood cells are released into the bloodstream or the affected tissue to guard your body from foreign substances. This release of chemicals increases blood flow to the area of injury or infection. This heightened blood flow can lead to visible redness and a feeling of warmth in the affected area. The chemical release can also trigger fluid leakage in the body’s tissues, which causes the symptom of swelling. Nerves are often stimulated during this protective process and can cause temporary pain.
Inflammation can sometimes be mistaken for infection, but the two are not the same. Infection can, however, cause inflammation because infection is caused by harmful substances like bacteria or fungus. In fact, inflammation is the body’s response to infection. In this way, inflammation is good. But not always.
Acute vs. Chronic Inflammation
There are two very different types of inflammation. One type is acute inflammation; the other is chronic. While acute inflammation starts quickly and generally disappears in a few days, chronic inflammation can last for months or years as a result of failure to eliminate the cause.
It can be beneficial when, for example, your knee sustains a blow and tissues need care and protection. However, sometimes, inflammation can persist longer than necessary, causing more harm than benefit.
Symptoms of inflammation are different depending on whether the inflammatory reaction is acute or chronic.
Acute inflammation often occurs because of an injury to the external body or skin. Symptoms and signs of acute inflammation (which are typically on the skin) include:
- heat (the affected area may feel warm to the touch)
If acute inflammation is occurring deep inside the body, such as in an internal organ, only some of these signs may be noticeable. For example, some internal organs like the lungs don’t have sensory nerve endings nearby, so there may not be pain even though lung inflammation may be present.
Some symptoms and signs of inflammation that is chronic include:
- mouth sores
- chest pain
- abdominal pain
- joint pain
Chronic inflammation can affect any organ. Examples of organs being inflamed include:
- swelling and loss of function of blood vessels (vasculitis)
- enlargement and loss of function of the kidney (systemic lupus erythematosus also called SLE)
- swelling and loss of function of muscles (juvenile dermatomyositis)
What is the main cause of inflammation in the body? There are actually several possible causes of chronic inflammation.
What causes inflammation? A poor diet, stress, minor food allergies, a sedentary lifestyle and more can contribute to chronic inflammation.
Medical experts point out some additional possible causes as follows:
- Your individual inflammatory response: If your body doesn’t handle infection well with a normal acute or temporary inflammatory response then you could end up with some out-of-control or chronic inflammation.
- A malfunctioning protein: Researchers at Georgia State University’s Institute for Biomedical Sciences, in Atlanta, have discovered that a protein called CYLD is key to managing the body’s inflammatory response to pathogens like bacteria and viruses and bacteria. According to the lead study author Jian-Dong Li, M.D., Ph.D., “It acts like a brake pedal to turn off that defense. Uncontrolled, overactive inflammatory response could likely be due to some defect in this brake pedal.”
- Excess weight or obesity: Extra fatty tissue produces inflammatory cytokines in the body. According to Catherine Duggan, PhD, a principal staff scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, in Seattle, “So being overweight can mean your body is in a state of long-term, low-grade inflammation.”
- Mood: “Chronic stress changes gene activity of immune cells before they enter the bloodstream,” says Victoria Maizes, MD, the executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, in Tucson. There’s also a suspected link between depression and increased blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), which increases in response to inflammation.
- Personality traits: Research has shown that people who are less conscientious are more likely to have unhealthy habits that encourage inflammation like smoking, eating unhealthy food and exercising less.
- Your gut health: Having imbalanced gut bacteria can result in inflammation that can be behind digestive health concerns like such as irritable bowel syndrome along with conditions outside the digestive system. “Problems with the microbiome can contribute to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, depression, and neurological disease,” says Eamonn Quigley, MD, the section chief of gastroenterology at Houston Methodist Hospital.
- Pollution exposure: Studies show a link between greater exposure to air pollution and higher levels of inflammation-related substances in the body including CRP and IL-6 (a pro-inflammatory cytokine).
Examples of diseases, conditions, and situations that can result in acute inflammation include:
- sore throat due to a cold or flu
- skin wound such as a cut
- infected ingrown toenail
- some type of physical trauma to the body
- acute bronchitis
Do you already struggle with a chronic inflammatory disease? There are actually many health conditions that fall into the category of inflammatory diseases such as:
- heart disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- multiple sclerosis
- chronic peptic ulcer
- systemic lupus erythematosus
- ulcerative colitis
- Crohn’s disease
- active hepatitis
Foods that Cause Inflammation
Are you eating a pro inflammation diet? According to the Arthritis Foundation, these are some of the main inflammatory foods or food ingredients that can cause inflammation in the body:
- Sugar: Be careful when reading ingredient labels because sugar can really destroy your body, and it goes by many names including sucrose and fructose,
- Bad saturated fat like trans fats: Found in fast foods and other fried products, processed snack foods, frozen breakfast products, cookies, donuts, crackers and most stick margarines. You’ll also want to stay away from foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil.
- High omega 6 oils and products: Omega-6 fatty acids are important to the body in moderation, but excess consumption is known to trigger the body to produce pro-inflammatory chemicals. Omega-6 fatty acids are found in oils such corn, safflower, sunflower, soy, peanut and vegetable. They’re also found in mayonnaise and many salad dressings.
- Refined carbohydrates/white flour products: Common food items like breads, rolls, crackers and cereals often mainly consist of refined carbohydrates that are severely lacking in nutrients and are also high-glycemic index foods. High-glycemic index foods fuel the creation of advanced glycation end (AGE) products in the body and can trigger inflammation.
- MSG: This controversial food additive is often found in prepared Asian food, fast foods, soy sauce, prepared soups, salad dressings and deli meats. MSG can trigger two important pathways of chronic inflammation and negatively impact liver health.
- Gluten: People with celiac disease absolutely need to avoid gluten. People with a gluten intolerance may find that they have autoimmune reactions and increased inflammation levels when they consume foods with gluten.
- Casein: Some people with inflammatory issues such as arthritis find improvement in symptoms when they avoid casein, which is found in dairy products.
- Aspartame: Aspartame is one of several scary artificial sweeteners. As the Arthritis Foundation points out, if you are sensitive a chemical such as aspartame, your immune system may react to this “foreign substance” by attacking the chemical, which then causes an inflammatory response.
- Alcohol: Alcohol is a burden to the liver. Excessive intake of alcohol is terrible for the liver because not only does it weaken liver function, but it also disturbs other multi-organ interactions in the body and can cause inflammation. To reduce inflammation, it’s best not to consume alcohol or only to do so in moderation (and make healthier choices, which I’ll talk more about shortly).
Diagnosis and Conventional Treatment
Doctors typically diagnosis inflammatory diseases by reviewing your medical history and current symptoms, conducting a physical exam and analyzing the results of any testing including x-rays or a blood test. A simple blood test measures C-reactive protein (CRP), which is a marker of inflammation in the body.
What does it mean when your blood test shows inflammation? According to Mayo Clinic, “For a standard CRP test, a normal reading is less than 10 milligram per liter (mg/L). A test result showing a CRP level greater than 10 mg/L is a sign of serious infection, trauma or chronic disease, which likely will require further testing to determine the cause.”
Conventional inflammation treatment may include medication, rest, exercise and surgery (when other options don’t work). The most common over-the-counter medications conventionally recommended for short-term acute inflammation are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, naproxen (Aleve) and ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin).
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is another common pain reliever that may be recommended or taken for inflammation. However, as the U.S. National Library of Medicine points out, acetaminophen does not relieve inflammation.
Corticosteroids, such as cortisone and prednisone, are often prescribed as chronic inflammation treatment for conditions like arthritis and asthma. Side effects of oral corticosteroids used on a short-term basis include fluid retention, increased appetite, weight gain, insomnia and mood changes.
Side effects of oral corticosteroids used on a long-term basis (for more three months) include:
- high blood pressure
- weight gain
- increased vulnerability to infection
- muscle weakness
- thinning of the skin
- bruising easily
What is best anti inflammatory medication? I personally wouldn’t recommend any of the conventional options. Instead, I would opt for natural remedies that really get to the root of the problem.
Natural Remedies for Inflammation
As part of an anti-inflammatory diet, you’ll want to avoid the problematic foods that cause inflammation mentioned above while also making sure your diet is loaded with anti-inflammatory foods. These anti-inflammatory foods are also high in antioxidants, which help to reduce damage caused by inflammation.
The Mediterranean diet is a great example of an eating plan that contains many anti-inflammatory foods and has been shown to decreases levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol while also lowering the risk for heart disease, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
My Healing Foods diet is also anti-inflammatory in nature. By reducing inflammation, you can help to place your body in a state that is conducive to healing from diseases and other health conditions.
Let’s take a look at specific foods and beverages that are wise choices while following an anti-inflammatory diet:
- Vegetables: A minimum of 4 to 5 servings per day of beets, carrots, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower and kale), dark, leafy greens (collard greens, kale, spinach), onions, peas, salad greens, sea vegetables and squashes.
- Fruits: 3 to 4 servings per day of healthy fruits like apples, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, nectarines, oranges, pears, grapefruit, pineapple, plums, pomegranates, or strawberries.
- Water: Make sure you drink enough high quality purified water for your body weight. Sparkling mineral water or unsweetened herbal tea are other hydrating options.
- Beans and Legumes: 1 to 2 servings per day of soaked and sprouted Ansazi beans, adzuki beans, black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas or lentils.
- Healthy Fats: 5 to 7 servings per day of healthy fats like avocados, extra virgin olive oil, flaxseeds and hemp seeds.
- Herbs and Spices: Unlimited amounts of antioxidant-rich herbs and spices like basil, chili peppers, cinnamon, curry powder, garlic, ginger, rosemary, turmeric and thyme.
- Protein: Think organic eggs, grass-fed meats, healthy cheeses, organic poultry and cultured/raw dairy.
- Tea: Tea is an excellent natural anti-inflammatory beverage. Try having 2 to 4 cups of green, oolong or white tea per day.
- Fresh Veggie & Fruit Juices: If you own a juicer, you can try making fresh juices that discourage inflammation such as this anti-inflammatory juice recipe with celery, cucumber, ginger, pineapple, spinach and lemon.
Red Wine/Quercetin-Rich Foods
For some people, complete elimination of alcohol is a smart choice to eliminate their elimination. Talk to your doctor about whether or not you should abstain completely. If you are going to drink alcohol, opt for organic red wine. Research studies show that quercetin, one of the most important flavonoids present in red wine, has potent anti-inflammatory ability along with anti-carcinogenic and antiviral activities as well. Quercetin is actually able to modulate inflammation and inhibit inflammatory enzymes.
Red wine contains another highly anti-inflammatory component known as resveratrol. According to research published in Frontiers in Aging and Neuroscience, resveratrol may control the main features of Alzheimer’s disease and slow dementia progression. This is thanks to resveratrol’s ability to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress while also acting as a neuroprotectant.
In moderation, alcohol may also help to decrease LDL “bad” cholesterol, prevent blood clots and help to maintain a healthy blood pressure. Typically, a woman should have no more than one drink a day and a man should have no more than two drinks per day.
This doesn’t mean you should start drinking alcohol if you don’t, but if you’re going to imbibe, organic red wine is certainly a healthier, anti-inflammatory choice when not consumed in excess. If you would rather stay away from alcohol, quercetin can also be found in healthy foods like red onion, apples, kale, blueberries and green tea.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) recommends the following supplements, which have a long history of use for treating inflammation and the pain associated with inflammation:
Omega-3 fatty acids: Especially known for helping with the inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis. In general, omega-3 fatty acids are omega-3 fatty acids have been shown in numerous studies to decrease system-wide inflammation making them helpful to a wide range of health concerns, especially ones with inflammation at the root.
Willow Bark: This herb comes from the willow tree and is traditionally used for pain and conditions of inflammation. It is commonly used for general pain, low back pain, osteoarthritis, bursitis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Exercise is a key habit to practice regularly for optimal health. Specifically, it can actually help to lower inflammation! A study published in 2017 in the journal Brain, Behavior and Immunity finds that even just 20 minutes of moderate exercise can decrease inflammatory responses and may protect against chronic conditions with low-grade inflammation.
Prayer and Meditation
Daily practices like prayer and meditation can also help to reduce inflammation. A study published in 2014 demonstrates how a meditation practice can reduce psychological stress. Research also points towards mind-body practices like meditation and tai chi as ways to dampen the activity of genes associated with inflammation.
Is there such a thing as healing prayer? Not only are spiritual practices like prayer linked with less illness and a longer life, research has also shown that long term daily spiritual practices help to deactivate genes that trigger inflammation. (29)
- Inflammation is a key aspect of the immune system’s response to injury and infection. Acute inflammation helps to heal damaged tissue and defend itself against pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
- Problems arise when the inflammatory process goes on for too long and becomes chronic. Chronic inflammation is at the root of most diseases.
- Inflammation causes include poor diet, stress, being overweight,
- Begin incorporating one new anti-inflammatory food to your diet each day. Don’t be afraid to try new things!
- How to reduce inflammation in the body:
- Consume foods that reduce inflammation on a daily basis
- Eliminate all sources of inflammation from your diet. This includes unhealthy saturated fat foods (like those that contain trans fats or rancid oils), sugars, conventional meats and conventional dairy products.
- Consider incorporating anti inflammatory supplements into your daily routine like fish oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids, turmeric, willow bark, and bromelain.
- Exercise, prayer and mind-body practices like meditation are scientifically shown to reduce inflammation.
- If you’re pregnant, nursing, being treated for a medical condition or are currently taking medication, always speak with your doctor before try any natural remedies.
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