We hear a lot about inflammation playing a role in our health, but what is it exactly? And what do we do to reduce its harmful effects? Inflammation is a natural process that assists the body in defending itself. When trauma occurs – a virus, bacterial infection, a broken bone or skin – a complicated chemical symphony begins in our blood and tissues that helps us repair. This is known as acute inflammation and it appears as fever, redness, swelling, tenderness and pain which subsides once we’ve healed from a temporary assault.
Problems arise when inflammation is chronic. This type of inflammation is caused by poor diet, obesity, cigarette smoke or excessive alcohol, and environmental and genetic factors. Chronic inflammation is mostly silent for quite a while. We might not know it’s there until we have a significant problem such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or an autoimmune disorder. Digestive upset, skin problems, headaches, joint pain, fatigue or brain fog can be warning signs of inflammation out of control.
While we want our acute inflammation response in good working order at all times, we want to prevent or mitigate the effects of chronic inflammation. True wellness has several facets – what I call the Four Pillars of Wellness - and I address each with all of my clients. First, whole foods bursting with nutrients; second, getting your beauty sleep; third, moving your body in a way that feels like empowerment, not a chore; and fourth, getting creative about managing inevitable stress.
Here’s what you can do to start fighting inflammation right now:
1) EAT WHOLE FOODS and limit those that are processed. Foods in their natural state provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and in the case of fruits and vegetables, hydration. Very few foods in bags, boxes or cans can compete nutritionally. Choose whole grains, beans and legumes; lean, unprocessed meats, poultry; wild-caught fish; organic, grass-fed dairy; and aim for 6 servings of veggies and 3 servings of fruit per day. We can no longer deny that the Standard American Diet, high in processed foods, red meat, refined grains, fried foods and sugary beverages contributes to inflammation. We have the power to make better choices.
2) STOP DRINKING CALORIES! In my opinion, the simplest and most effective dietary change you can make today to reduce inflammation is to eliminate calorie-laden beverages. That’s your soda, fruit juice, smoothies, lattes and excessive alcohol. The average person can reduce their caloric intake by 300-500 calories a day by avoiding sugary drinks. That can mean a pound lost per week!
3) MOVE YOUR BODY! We are not meant to be sedentary; we are designed to move. There is no excuse for not getting in at least 30 minutes of quality movement everyday. Every community is exploding with choices - a gym, yoga, pilates, barre, CrossFit, Power Plate, online or on Demand fitness classes that can be done in the comfort of your home. And don’t forget about the great outdoors for a simple walk or run outside. Find something you love and get going!
4) TAKE SLEEP SERIOUSLY! Quality sleep is crucial to wellbeing, but so often we ignore the signs we’re not getting enough (fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, headaches). Be good to yourself and create an evening routine that allows for winding-down, drifting into slumber and staying that way until you’re restored.
5) MANAGE STRESS WITHOUT FOOD! It’s important to find ways to soothe yourself that don’t include eating. Especially because when we’re stressed, we don’t typically crave veggies, but rather chips and cookies. Meditation, deep breathing, calling a friend, taking a walk, listening to a great podcast. Tune into your triggers and be prepared with creative ways to combat them.
There are so many healthy, anti-inflammatory foods available, but here are a few of my favorites. They’re at the top of my list for their nutritional value, consistent availability at the store and versatility in recipes.
1) AVOCADO provides vitamin E, potassium, fiber and phytonutrients. Rich in texture and delicious in both sweet and savory recipes, this lovely fruit is a wonderful way to up your consumption of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. OLIVE OIL and AVOCADO OIL provide similar benefits and are my favorite go-tos for cooking and dressings.
2) CRUCIFEROUS VEGGIES include cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, spinach and kale and have long been studied for their cancer-fighting properties. It’s a big family, so get experimental – you’re sure to find one that you love.
3) ALMONDS & WALNUTS contain antioxidants galore along with abundant fiber and protein. Just go raw and unsalted. My favorite power snack is 2 T raw almonds, 1 T raw pepitas, 1 T dried tart cherries and 1 square of 73% dark chocolate. Delicious, energizing and packed with anti-inflammatory goodies. TART CHERRIES are abundant in anti-inflammatory compounds and recent research suggests they aid muscle recovery after exercise. DARK CHOCOLATE is a prebiotic food that helps healthy gut microbes create heart-healthy compounds. Just be sure to purchase a product that is 73% cacao or higher.
4) WILD CAUGHT SALMON (and other cold water, fatty fish): Omega 3’s are key to reducing inflammation. There are several plants (flax, chia) that are abundant in Omega 3’s, but the form they contain is not readily absorbed and converted to EPA and DHA (the essential fatty acids our bodies can use). If you are vegetarian, or simply don’t like fish, you may consider a fish oil supplement (always check with your doctor before beginning a supplement protocol).
5) PUNGENT SPICES including turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, garlic and cayenne appear to be particularly beneficial in reducing inflammation, and several studies have demonstrated their use in pain relief (particularly turmeric and cayenne). Flavorful herbs and spices are also a great way to reduce salt intake.
What we know about how to best fight inflammation is ever-evolving. We’ll always be in the midst of exciting discovery. What we know right now is that attention to good self-care, daily exercise and a plate bursting with nutrients are our best defense against disease. If what’s outlined here seems overwhelming, choose just a few small changes to implement a few weeks at a time. Keep it simple, honor your health and wellness will be your new normal.