Inflammation is our body’s way of sending help to heal wounds, prevent infection, and fend off germs. Without all that heat, redness, and swelling surrounding the area needing immediate attention, we wouldn’t heal. But when inflammation lingers long after the emergency has passed—or when it has nothing to do with one—it causes long-term negative effects on our overall health.
Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP, cofounder of the Women to Women clinic and author of Are You Tired and Wired? calls chronic inflammation an “unattended fire” that “can slowly spread and lead to serious metabolic breakdown.”
Already linked to rheumatoid arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease, new studies have shown a connection between inflammation and a host of other metabolic disorders and diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, and cancer. Pick is not surprised.
“In the functional medical world, we view all chronic and degenerative illness—and even biological aging—as rooted in chronic inflammation,” she says.
Why does inflammation linger?
Experts agree an imbalanced immune system plays a huge part in contributing to chronic inflammation. They blame a Western diet rich in animal protein and refined carbohydrates and low on plant foods and omega-3 fatty acids, in particular.
The symptoms of inflammation are clear, ranging from bloating, weight gain, and indigestion, to shortness of breath, swelling, and joint pain. But alternative health practitioners and researchers say a change in diet can just as dramatically reverse the inflammatory cycle.
A recent study from Johns Hopkins Medicine showed switching to a lowcarb or lowfat diet can reduce inflammation throughout the body, particularly when overweight.
“Our findings indicate that you can reduce systemic inflammation and possibly lower your risk of heart disease no matter which diet,” says Kerry Stewart, EdD, the director of the study.
How foods can lessen inflammation
Subbing whole grains for white flours and eating less red meat and poultry (their fats send the body’s inflammatory signals into overdrive) can reduce inflammation naturally.
“Replace these with healthy fats such as omega 3s and olive oil and unrefined carbohydrates like antioxidant-rich vegetables,” Pick advises.
Add more vegetable proteins from soy, lentils, and beans (a new study gives the nod to mung beans for curbing inflammation) as well as eating oily fish. These give your body a healthy balance between omega 3s and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega 3s have the reverse effect on the bloodstream as meat and poultry fat cells and are abundant in oily fish like Alaskan salmon; a form that the body partially converts is found in flaxseed and walnuts.
Nutritionist and naturalist John Bagnulo, PhD, goes one step further. A leading expert on nutrition, metabolism and health, he’s on the faculty at Kripalu’s Healthy Living Immersion program and the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington.
Dr. Bagnulo recommends lowering your grain intake if you’re serious about combating chronic inflammation for good.
“That’s the biggest source of inflammation, hands down,” Dr. Bagnulo says.
Dr. Bagnulo suggests adding cranberries to your diet along with another surprising food group: fermented vegetables of the brassica genus, such as cabbage in the form of sauerkraut or nonpasteurized kimchi.
“The fermentation of brassica family vegetables produces molecules that are potent modulators of inflammation in comparison to nonfermented brassicas,” he says.
The ancient probiotics produced by the fermentation process creates the lactic acid needed to kick-start digestion. These fermented veggies also offer amino acids that are beneficial to the gut.
Dr. Bagnulo stresses exercise too.
“The best exercises are those that promote improved circulation,” he says, but “without too much impact or wear-and-tear-associated damage,” such as running on pavement.
Try stretching daily, which releases muscle tension and therefore reduces inflammation.