Inflammation, as a bodily process, is not entirely a bad thing. It is actually the body’s attempt at self-protection – to remove harmful compounds such as damaged cells, irritants or pathogens and then set in motion the healing process. However, when inflammation is chronic (long-term), it can lead to several disease states, including some cancers, atherosclerosis, autoimmune conditions such as psoriasis or lupus and arthritis. Some foods have nutritional properties to overcome inflammation, due to antioxidants and other beneficial compounds.
Inflammation is part of the body’s immune response. The first stage of inflammation is often called irritation, which is then followed by suppuration, and then granulation – ultimately ridding the body of the concerning invader and returning it to a healthy state. Acute inflammation, such as from an infected cut, cold or flu, or dermatitis, starts rapidly and quickly becomes severe. The five signs of acute inflammation are pain, redness, immobility, swelling, and heat. Chronic inflammation, lasting several months or even years, result from the failure of the body to eliminate whatever is causing the problem.
Anti-inflammatory medications are often used to reduce inflammation. However, medicines are not always needed. A change in diet to include more anti-inflammatory foods can be a natural way to manage some symptoms of chronic inflammation.
Blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries and strawberries are among the fruits with the highest levels of disease-fighting antioxidants, which prevent and repair the stress that comes from oxidation. Wild blueberries, for example, contain over 13,000 total antioxidants, in just one cup –about 10 times the USDA’s recommendation in one serving.
Anthocyanins are plant pigments that give berries their rich and deep red, purple and blue colors and, in lab studies, have exerted the potential to prevent such diseases as cancer, diabetes, neurological disorders and inflammation from arthritis and gout. Berries and other antioxidant rich foods also have the ability to enhance the brain’s ability to generate a heat-shock protein known as HSP70 which protects the nervous system from stress.
Another interesting recent study found that even the inability to completely breakdown and digest berries can be beneficial. Blueberry fiber, for example, is not entirely digested and remains for a period of time in the large intestine, protecting the lining from inflammatory-causing substances which are then transported out of the body where they cannot do harm.
Capsaicin is the ingredient within cayenne pepper with powerful anti-inflammatory properties. This compound within chili peppers protects the body with nuclear transcription factor (NTF)-activation blockers. The nuclei of human cells contain NTFs, two of which are important targets when it comes to the prevention of chronic inflammation that can lead to cancer and premature aging. NTFs are activated by pro-inflammatory free radicals, however capsaicin can block that action, turning down inflammation.
Cayenne pepper may especially be beneficial in relieving arthritis and back pain.
Celery, Celery Seeds
Celery contains an antioxidant known as apigenin which has been found to stop certain types of cancer cells from multiplying and growing. Some types of tumors grow because of inflammation, and the flavonoids in celery are protective by blocking this process. (Note: In addition to celery, apigenin is most prevalent in parsley, artichoke, and basil. It is also found in apples, oranges, nuts and other plant foods.)
Celery is also rich in another anti-inflammatory compound – luteolin. This nutrient has been studied for treating multiple sclerosis that this linked to inflammation leading to degeneration of nerve fibers. Luteolin may also help the brain recover after stroke.
Tart cherries, in particular are known as powerful anti-inflammatory foods. Tart cherry extract has been found to be ten times more effective than aspirin! Researchers from Oregon Health and Science University have found that tart cherries may be especially beneficial for those with inflammatory osteoarthritis, helping patients to manage their pain more effectively.
However, both sweet and sour cherries contain anthocyanins which may help inhibit COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes involved in the creation of pain sensation – thus acting as a pain reliever. But nutrition experts warn against the consumption of maraschino cherries. Many of the cherry pigments that were present in the fresh fruit have been removed during processing, and replaced with red food dye, thus stripping the cherry of its beneficial healthy compounds.
The most well-known compound within green tea is epigallocatechin-3 gallate, or EGCG. This antioxidant is thought to ward off the body-cell damage that can lead to cancer and other diseases by protecting cell membranes. Researchers with the Laura W. Bush Institute for Women’s Health at Texas Tech University found that regular tea drinking can reduce inflammation, particularly in post-menopausal women, and it may also enhance bone health.
Dark Green Veggies
Dark, leafy green vegetables such as kale and spinach contain minerals that may help the body fight inflammation. Calcium, for example, has been found to enhance the anti-inflammatory effect of aspirin in rats. Magnesium is another mineral that may reduce various inflammatory markers in the body, such as C-reactive protein, TNFa (tumor necrosis factor alpha), and IL6 (interleukin 6). These common markers are often elevated with diseases of aging.
Among the many antioxidants found in dark green veggies, quercetin is a bioflavonoid with anti-inflammatory activity. It may also be useful as a natural allergy relief remedy.
Fish, Fish Oil
Omega-3 fatty acids alleviate inflammation by acting on a receptor (GPR120) found in fat tissue and on inflammatory immune cells called macrophages. Activation of this receptor by omega-3’s block all inflammatory pathways, notes Dr. Jerrold Olefsky of the University of California San Diego. “They are more potent than any other anti-inflammatory we’ve ever seen,” he said following a study on fish oil in mice.
Omega-3’s also suppress 40 to 55% of the release of cytokines, immune system molecules known to destroy joints and cause inflammation.
Flax Seeds, Flax Oil
Flax seed is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, for those who prefer to get their nutrients from plants. However, even regular fish-eaters can benefit from the addition of flax for not only their omega-3’s, but also fiber and phytochemicals such as lignans. Diets rich in plant lignans, such as whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes and fruits and vegetables, have been consistently associated with reductions in risk of cardiovascular disease.
Ginger has been used for hundreds of years as a natural anti-inflammatory to relieve pain, such as that in rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. The beneficial nutrients in ginger are known as gingerols which offer free radical protection. These have been shown in studies to reduce discomfort and swelling related to arthritis. Ginger can also suppress pro-inflammatory compounds such as cytokines and chemokines.
Researchers from Michigan Medical School reported that ginger supplements were found to reduce the markers of colon inflammation. Chronic colon inflammation is associated with a higher risk of developing colon cancer.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa) is also a plant of the ginger family and is used widely in cooking. Curcurmin, a substance found in turmeric, may have a positive effect on the mechanisms that cause inflammation and pain in tendonitis and similar conditions by inhibiting the biological “switch” called NF-kB which is activated during the inflammatory process. Curcurmin may also suppress pain through a similar action as COX-1 and COX-2 inhibitors such as NSAID drugs.
Nuts and seeds are an important part of a healthy diet, but some research indicates that walnuts rank above all others for their antioxidant content. Walnuts are also 4-15 times higher in Vitamin E than other nuts, especially the gamma-tocopherol form which has been found to provide significant protection from heart problems. In previous studies, walnuts improved endothelial function, lipid profiles, and blood pressure.
Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet Plan
Dr. Andrew Weil, the founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, offers the following advice for an Anti-Inflammatory Diet, including foods such as those listed above for protection against inflammation plus avoidance of foods known to invoke the inflammatory process.
General Diet Tips:
• Aim for variety, including as much fresh food as possible
• Minimize your consumption of processed foods and fast food.
• Remember that if you are eating the appropriate number of calories for your activity level, your weight should not fluctuate greatly (weight maintenance). If you eat less and move more, you could potentially even lose excess weight.
• Include a full range of nutrients at each meal: 40 to 50 percent from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fat, and 20 to 30 percent from protein.
• The majority of your carbohydrate intake should be in the form of less-refined, less-processed foods with a low glycemic load. Reduce your consumption of foods made with wheat flour and sugar, especially bread and most packaged snack foods (including chips and pretzels). Eat more whole grains such as brown rice and bulgur wheat, in which the grain is intact or in a few large pieces. Eat more beans, winter squashes, and sweet potatoes. Avoid products made with high fructose corn syrup.
• Reduce your intake of saturated fat by eating less butter, cream, high-fat cheese, unskinned chicken and fatty meats, and products made with palm kernel oil. Use extra-virgin olive oil or expeller-pressed organic canola oil as a main cooking oil. Avoid regular safflower and sunflower oils, corn oil, cottonseed oil, and mixed vegetable oils. Strictly avoid margarine, vegetable shortening, and all products listing them as ingredients. Strictly avoid all products made with partially hydrogenated oils of any kind.
• Include in your diet avocados and nuts, especially walnuts, cashews, almonds, and nut butters made from these nuts. For omega-3 fatty acids, eat salmon (preferably fresh or frozen wild or canned sockeye), sardines packed in water or olive oil, herring, and black cod (sablefish, butterfish); omega-3 fortified eggs; hemp seeds and flaxseeds (preferably freshly ground); or take a fish oil supplement (look for products that provide both EPA and DHA, in a convenient daily dosage of two to three grams).
• Decrease your consumption of animal protein except for fish and high quality natural cheese and yogurt. Eat more vegetable protein, especially from beans in general and soybeans in particular. Become familiar with the range of whole-soy foods available and find ones you like.
• Try to eat 40 grams of fiber a day. You can achieve this by increasing your consumption of fruit, especially berries, vegetables (especially beans), and whole grains. Ready-made cereals can be good fiber sources, but read labels to make sure they give you at least 4 and preferably 5 grams of bran per one-ounce serving.
• To get maximum natural protection against age-related diseases (including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and neurodegenerative disease) as well as against environmental toxicity, eat a variety of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms. Choose fruits and vegetables from all parts of the color spectrum, especially berries, tomatoes, orange and yellow fruits, and dark leafy greens. Eat cruciferous (cabbage-family) vegetables regularly. Choose organic produce whenever possible.
• Drink pure water, or drinks that are mostly water (very diluted fruit juice, sparkling water with lemon) throughout the day. Drink tea instead of coffee, especially good quality white, green or oolong tea.
• If you drink alcohol, use red wine preferentially.
• Enjoy plain dark chocolate in moderation (with a minimum cocoa content of 70 percent).
Join Dr. Weil on Healthy Aging for more in-depth information on the anti-inflammatory diet, plus over 200 anti-inflammatory recipes, dozens of diet tips designed to help prevent age-related disease, and an exclusive version of Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid.