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Improving Health by Reducing Inflammation

Woman with Joint Pain

Inflammation is part of the body’s natural protective process; it’s 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 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.


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. All starches (including potatoes and rice) have high levels of healthy resistant starch when they’re cooked, cooled, and reheated. That’s the only method of preparation I recommend for starchy foods.

Garlic Bulbs

Garlic is especially important, and I recommend liberal use. The health benefits of garlic are greatly enhanced if you wait ten minutes after chopping, allowing the enzyme alliinase to react with alliin. This process creates allicin, which has all the heart and immune boosting benefits. If you’re making a dressing or vinaigrette (or when cooking), garlic should be added at the end. This not only ensures the best flavour, but avoids exposure to heat and acids which can degrade allicin.

If you eat raw broccoli (or other cruciferous vegetables), waiting for forty minutes after cutting or chopping allows the enzyme myrosinase to react with glucoraphanin. This produces sulforaphane, a compound with anti-cancer properties that can also help protect our brains and eyesight. Once the sulforaphane is produced, heating will not destroy it, but if you heat before the enzymatic reaction has time to take place, you’ll kill the enzyme myrosinase, resulting in no sulforaphane. An interesting “hack” to obtain sulforaphane from cooked cruciferous vegetables (if you didn’t have time to wait for the reaction) is to add a small amount of ground mustard to the cooked cruciferous. The mustard contains myrosinase, and studies have found the resulting levels of sulforaphane are almost the same as when chopped raw vegetables are allowed to stand for forty minutes.

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.

Controlling Insulin Levels

Sugar (including honey, maple syrup, agave syrup) and carbohydrates (especially refined and processed carbohydrates) cause an insulin response in the body to control blood sugar levels. Insulin is the most inflammatory hormone, depressing the immune response and increasing inflammation. I highly recommend the book “Why We Get Sick” by Benjamin Bikman, which thoroughly describes this process and how we can change our diet to lower insulin levels.

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, resulting in too much pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.

For cooking, choose oils that are minimally processed (cold-pressed and organic when possible) and that are high in medium chain triglycerides (coconut, palm, butter), and monounsaturated (macadamia nut, olive, high-oleic sunflower, avocado). Monounsaturated oils contain oleic acid, an omega-9 fatty acid that reduces insulin resistance, improves energy, mood, and heart health, while working to help balance the immune system.

Bottle of NOW Foods Flaxseed Oil

I recommend flax oil (as fresh as possible), which is high (57%) in alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3), with only 16% linoleic (pro-inflammatory omega-6). Not everyone likes the taste of flax oil, but when combined with spices and garlic it can be delicious in salads. For salads, in addition to flax, olive and avocado oil, I recommend Styrian pumpkin seed oil (amazing health benefits for the bladder and prostate), high oleic sunflower oil, and sesame oil. Sesame oil is anti-inflammatory, heart healthy, supports healthy blood sugar levels, and when used externally can improve sleep quality.

Fats that are highly processed and composed largely of omega-6 (linoleic acid) can contribute to inflammation. Some pro-inflammatory oils to avoid include corn, sunflower, safflower, soybean, walnut, rice bran, peanut, sunflower (low or mid oleic), grape seed, and canola oil. For additional information, I recommend the book “The Big Fat Surprise”, by Nina Teicholz. The heavy promotion of high omega-6 vegetable oils was undertaken to help support agriculture, but Teicholz explains that use of these vegetable oils comes with a variety of health risks linked to inflammation.

Saturated Fat

In one of the largest studies on the relationship between different types of fats and our health, those who consumed more saturated fat had a 20% lower risk of stroke. High carbohydrate intake was associated with higher total mortality, while total fat was related to lower total mortality, with saturated fat having an inverse association with stroke.

Saturated fats raise HDL (the good cholesterol), help build stronger bones, and improve liver, lung, immune system, and brain health (the brain is primarily composed of fat and cholesterol). Saturated fats found in lard, butter, coconut, and palm oil promote proper nerve signaling which improves our metabolism, and helps control insulin. I also recommend butter, beef tallow, and lard, which is also high in monounsaturated fats and has many health benefits. According to the Journal of the American Journal of Cardiology, there is no evidence that limiting saturated fat will prevent cardiovascular disease or reduce mortality.

Nitric Oxide (NO)

The "miracle molecule" nitric oxide dilates blood vessels, naturally lowering inflammation and boosting circulation. Include leafy green vegetables that boost nitric oxide like Swiss chard, collard greens, spinach, kale, beets, and watercress. Hibiscus tea is the antioxidant champion of teas, and can boost NO levels. 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.

Anti-inflammatory dietary supplements can significantly lower inflammation. Curcumin, the antioxidant derived from the turmeric spice has a broad range of anti-inflammatory benefits, and also helps the body produce nitric oxide. The problem with curcumin is it is normally poorly absorbed. Supplement formulators have found that combining curcumin with a fat increases absorption (superior to the use of black pepper), and recent advances have further improved free blood levels of curcumin. Boswellia is another important antioxidant, with studies showing a strong anti-inflammatory effect when combined with curcumin. Omega-3 derived from fish oil has over 60 researched health benefits and is a powerful anti-inflammatory. I recommend 3 grams of EPA and DHA per day, in a ratio of 2/3 EPA to 1/3 DHA.

The most impressive anti-inflammatory supplement is a relatively new product called SPM Active. I had a stubborn inflammatory issue that would not resolve, but which finally resolved (and never returned) within three weeks of use. SPM Active concentrates the anti-inflammatory compounds called resolvins, found in omega-3 from fish oil.

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, almonds, brazil nuts, Styrian pumpkin seeds (one of nature’s richest sources of magnesium), 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 and dietary supplements can help manage inflammation and bring significant long-term health benefits.

Health Disclaimer. Copyright ©2017-2022. First published in March 2017, latest major update in February 2022. Nathan Zassman is a trained nutrition practitioner and the owner of Aviva Natural Health Solutions.


Saturated Fats and Health: A Reassessment and Proposal for Food-Based Recommendations: JACC State-of-the-Art Review. JACC 2020 Aug, 76 (7) 844–857.