by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
You’re enjoying a nice walk with your family, when all of a sudden you take a little stumble and feel that little pull in your ankle. Oof! Sprained ankles are the worst! When this happens on the outside you may not see anything immediately, but inside the body your immune system senses the injured ligament, releases white blood cells to the site, and they do their work to repair your body. During the repair time you may notice your ankle becomes swollen, tender to touch, and maybe even red. All of these are signs of inflammation, which is exactly what you want to happen. If your body wasn’t able to react in this way you wouldn’t be able to heal correctly.
However, there’s another type of inflammation, an invisible form that can show up as fatigue, mouth sores, joint pain, rashes, or even chest pain. This is often called chronic inflammation. It is when the body’s immune system is stressed and begins the inflammatory process on healthy tissues and organs (without injury like detailed above). There are several reasons the immune systems’ “on switch” gets flipped, which we will discuss next. When we don’t take steps to fight the inflammation, or turn the process off, we start to see long term effects on our health. These effects can present as unhealthy arteries, increased risk for developing certain cancers, damaged organs, chronic pain, and fatigue.
Causes of Chronic Inflammation
The main reasons the body develops chronic inflammation are related to habitual lifestyle factors. These are the choices you make day-in and day-out that can slowly deteriorate your health. Studies have been able to narrow down the inflammation culprits to a few:
Diets high in sugar: added sugars and those found in high-processed foods
Refined and processed carbohydrates: the ones you are buying in packages and are also (likely) high in sugar too
Cut back on alcohol: excessive alcohol intake has been correlated with increased inflammation in the body. This means, for women, more than one drink per day or 7 glasses over the course of a week.
Excessive amounts of processed meats: diets with high amounts of packaged and processed meats have been linked to increased inflammation in the body.
Sedentary lifestyle: even if you exercise a few times a week you may be sitting a majority of the remaining hours leading to an overall sedentary lifestyle.
Vegetable oils: this one is a little more complicated as it is not specifically the vegetable oils causing inflammation; however, scientists believe that when you consume larger amount of vegetable oils it creates an imbalance in the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acid ratios. This imbalance is believed to cause inflammation. Want to know more about these fatty acids? Read this.
Unmanaged stress: You probably don’t need another article on the importance of self-care but even from a chronic inflammation standpoint it is super important to take care of yourself and find ways to de-stress.
What Can I Do?
The good news about chronic inflammation is there are many things we can do to combat it, and most are found in our grocery aisles.
Limit: Before you go shopping, clean out your fridge and pantry. Limit items that are highly processed, contain trans fats, are high in added sugars, and also red meat items. This does not mean you can never have these foods, it just means you want these foods to make up a small percentage of your diet. Enjoy anti-inflammatory foods: Load up on fruits, vegetables, foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, and whole-grain carbs. The main thing in these foods is the plethora of antioxidants. Antioxidants are awesome because they go around sucking up free-radicals which are the things that lead to inflammation. Try this QUICK FIX – water infused with strawberries & blueberries or a warm water with lemon and a sprinkle of cinnamon.Move and relax: Find ways to be more active above and beyond what you are doing now. If you find yourself at the desk most the day, get up and walk around a few times, if you are at home with little ones add in a walk or a light exercise while everyone is playing.
Exactly What Should I Eat?
Greens: spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, cabbageColorful fruits: grapes, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, oranges, avocadoVeggies galore: cauliflower, tomato (technically a fruit), bell peppers, olives, celeryOmega-3 foods: salmon, tuna, tofu, walnuts, flaxseed, soybeans, almondsSpices: garlic, rosemary, turmeric, gingerSome extras: Olive oil, green tea, red wine* (yes those antioxidants are floating around in there so enjoy within the recommendation noted above) *Side note about alcohol: Some forms of alcohol can actually lead to MORE inflammation in the body, particularly those high in sugar. Don’t bank on alcohol to help fight inflammation in the body, instead, when you are choosing to enjoy a sip reaching for a red wine with phenolic compounds is your best bet.
While it may take some time to increase your activity level or decrease your stress, adding anti-inflammatory foods to your diet can happen today. Here are some of the top foods to add to your meal plan, especially when you goal is to fight inflammation:
When you think about fighting or preventing inflammation think about foods that are colorful, unprocessed, and add variety in those choices. Here are two of my favorite recipes: