Improving Health by Reducing Inflammation
Inflammation is part of the body’s natural protective process, a response to potential threats. Chemicals are produced that promote healing in response to an injury, or exposure to allergens or infection. Characterized by redness, painful or stiff joints, or swollen tonsils, inflammation is a component of our immune defense system that helps to determine what is safe and what is dangerous. We need to appreciate when we get a sore throat or a swollen ankle, as that vital response is part of the healing process. But when the immune system overreacts, that can contribute to health concerns including fatigue, insomnia, depression, anxiety, digestive problems, skin conditions, and weight management issues.
While normally caused by trauma, inflammation can also be caused by autoimmune reactions to physical and emotional stress, digestive problems, poor diet, high insulin levels, and hormonal imbalances and infections we’re not even aware of including periodontal disease. Lifestyle and environmental triggers may include lack of exercise, allergies, chemicals found in cleaning products and cosmetics, and insufficient sleep.
Health has been described as the ability of an organism to adapt to stress. From the moment we’re born, our immune system is challenged by these internal and external elements that all produce a response. Unless the system over-reacts, this adaptive immunity makes us stronger and more resilient to disease, as our immune system helps manage and mitigate the stresses, creating a balanced, healthier, mind and body.
Inflammaging: As we age, low-grade infections, injury, and exposure to environmental toxins can result in a moderate, continual state of stress tied to inflammation, sometimes referred to as “inflammaging.” This inflammatory state normally resolves itself but can progress to more chronic non-resolving inflammation. While moderate inflammation can be beneficial, low-grade continual inflammaging produces higher levels of inflammatory compounds that are associated with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious conditions linked to the immune system.
Healthy Digestion: With the body’s highest concentration of immune cells (70-80%), our digestive system is foundational to achieving optimum health. I encourage everyone to focus on a whole-food, high-fibre, nutrient-rich diet that includes colourful vegetables, berries, nuts, seeds, and spices. Try to incorporate more seafood (rich in healthy fats), as well as sprouted foods which are easier to digest. Naturally anti-inflammatory, these foods contain higher nutrient levels and beneficial bacteria. Dietary choices should support digestive function, which can be enhanced by consuming fermented foods, and foods like legumes, beans, lentils, and peas that are high in resistant starch when cooked and cooled.
Eat Slowly, Chew Well: Victorian health food enthusiast Horace Fletcher proposed that “nature castigates those who don’t masticate.” One of the most important habits for maximizing the benefits of healthy foods is to eat slowly and chew thoroughly. Thorough, slower chewing and finishing your meal when you are about 80% full can help take the stress off the digestive system and also assist with weight control.
Healthy Fats: Eating enough healthy fats is critical, as one of the major sources of inflammation is the consumption of the wrong types of fats and oils. Choose oils that are minimally processed (cold pressed and organic when possible) and that are high in medium chain triglycerides (coconut, palm, butter), monounsaturated (macadamia nut, olive, avocado), and alpha-linolenic (camelina, flax). Fats that are highly processed and composed largely of pro-inflammatory omega-6 (linoleic acid) can actually contribute to inflammation. Oils to avoid include corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean, sesame, walnut, rice bran, peanut, grape seed, and canola oil.
Nitric Oxide (NO): Include leafy green vegetables that boost nitric oxide like Swiss chard, collard greens, spinach, kale, beets, and watercress. The "miracle molecule" nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, naturally lowering inflammation and boosting circulation. Nutritional supplements including freeze-dried beet juice powder, L-Citrulline, Neo-40, and Pycnogenol can further increase nitric oxide levels and provide amazing overall health benefits.
Don’t Overcook: Even the healthiest foods can produce inflammatory disease-causing chemicals when overcooked. Acrylamide, advanced glycation end products (AGEs), heterocyclic amines (HCAs), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) can all be created when foods are heated to temperatures exceeding 248 °F. These toxic chemicals can be reduced by using lower-temperature cooking methods like sous vide, and by eating raw or lightly steamed vegetables.
Cook Colourful Vegetables and Fruits: Contrary to what some raw foodies believe, the important antioxidants in brightly-coloured fruits and vegetables are more bioavailable when cooked and consumed with a healthy fat. I generally recommend eating green vegetables raw, but the bioavailability of critical antioxidants found in red, yellow, orange, blue, and purple vegetables can be enhanced with light steaming. I also recommend lightly steaming cruciferous vegetables, which when consumed raw can potentially interfere with thyroid function. To learn more about reclaiming the lost nutrients of fruits and vegetables, I recommend the book “Eating on the Wild Side” by Jo Robinson.
Anti-inflammatory Superfoods: In addition to NO-rich leafy greens like spinach and kale, I also recommend arugula, parsley, cilantro, and bok choy, as well as cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, and gai lan. Sardines, herring, and salmon are great sources of protein and omega-3 essential fatty acids. Just a few of the other nutrient-dense superfoods to eat regularly include raw cacao, beets, chia seeds, sprouted flax seeds, blueberries, walnuts, ginger, and turmeric. Antioxidant-packed matcha green tea and hibiscus tea are great drinks to mix into your daily routine.
Regular consumption and better preparation of these foods can help manage inflammation and bring significant long-term health benefits.