Updated: Apr 10, 2020
What is inflammation?
Inflammation has a purpose: to protect our bodies from injury and infection. Sometimes we can see inflammation, but more often than not, we can’t. This is when we run into trouble. We can all handle a little paper cut or mosquito bite, but it’s the “silent” inflammation that bites us in the ass…and the mosquito. Where does inflammation come from? Well, the truth is that many things can trigger inflammation. Some common ones include insulin resistance, stress, pollution, smoking, leaky gut, and an unbalanced diet. Inflammation is a major factor in the development of most- if not every- chronic and degenerative conditions including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s. Let’s face it; our society is not exactly the most health-promoting, and our cities not the cleanest. But the good news is that we can, for the most part, beat inflammation if we choose to. I share with you these SIX inflammation-busting tips.
1. Start Walking, Biking, Running, or doing Yoga…
…for at least 20 minutes a day. Research has shown that as little as 20 minutes of daily physical activity can lower inflammation (1). Not only can exercise reduce inflammation via reduction of inflammatory markers (i.e. cytokines), but also by contributing to the prevention of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes. Exercise is one of the most effective ways to reverse high blood sugar levels and insulin resistance. High blood sugar causes an inflammatory response in the body which can lead eventually to organ damage (2). Yoga can also reduce inflammation by helping to lower cortisol and inflammatory markers. You can read more about the benefits of yoga here.
2. Eat more Omega-3s
Simply stated, omega-3 fatty acids are anti-inflammatory whereas omega-6s are inflammatory. We still need to consume omega 6s as they are needed for specific metabolic functions, such as supporting the immune response. The issue with our Western diet is that we consume way too much omega-6, most of which is poor quality, and not enough omega-3. This is what contributes to excessive inflammation.
Our Paleolithic ancestors consumed an estimated ratio of 1:1 omega 6:3 (3). The ideal ratio is somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1 (omega 6:3), depending on who you ask, but we are currently consuming a ratio of around 20:1(3). Omega-6 is found in many packaged foods (i.e. cookies), processed meat, and vegetable oils like soybean.
Higher quality sources of omega-6 include hemp seeds, nuts and seeds, borage and evening primrose oil. Sources of omega-3 include cold-water fish such as salmon, mackerel, trout, herring, halibut; pumpkin, flax, chia seeds, and walnuts.
Reducing your ratio of omega 6:3 doesn’t have to be complicated. It’s a 2-step process essentially: 1. Cut down on processed foods, 2. Eat more omega-3-rich foods…daily!
3. Ditch the Refined Carbs and Added Sugars
It’s no news flash that added sugars and refined carbs are bad for health. They are void of nutrients and fibre, and send your blood sugars through the roof. This blood sugar spike increases inflammation by triggering the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and free radicals (4). This is particularly a problem for people with chronic high-blood sugars, such as those with diabetes, leading to cardiovascular damage and complications (4).
Sugar is not only bad for people with diabetes but also for pretty much any condition on the planet, including arthritis. The American Arthritis Foundation discourages the use of sugar claiming it to be inflammatory and worsening symptoms (5). Keep in mind that naturally occurring sugars in fruit are not inflammatory. Fruit also contains fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. It’s a package-deal! So make sure to eat at least two pieces of fruit every day. If you are active or on-the-go constantly maybe even more.
4. Eat the Right Type of Fat
As mentioned above, it’s important to eat more omega-3-rich foods and less omega-6. But don’t stop there. If you want to beat inflammation, you need to eat the right type of fat. Unless you are allergic, good-for-you oils include extra-virgin olive, avocado, cold-pressed coconut, and seed oils (preferably organic) like flax, pumpkin, and hemp. The seed oils should be kept in the fridge and never heated. I often use flax oil in smoothies.
Olive oil is one of the most studied oils. We know it is an important component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. Both olive and avocado oil are high in oleic acid (aka omega-9), a type of monounsaturated fat, which is anti-inflammatory (6, 7). Olive oil also contains phenols (antioxidants) which reduce inflammation (8). Studies have found that olive oil can reduce the inflammatory markers CRP and IL-6 which are markers for cardiovascular disease (CVD) (8).
As for the not-so-good fats, stay away from trans fats, refined vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils, excess meat- especially processed meat-, rancid oils (i.e. expired oils, even if they are healthy), and fried foods. Vegetable oils such as canola, cottonseed, grapeseed, sunflower, among others, are chemically treated, void of nutrients, high in omega-6 fatty acids, and may contribute to oxidized LDL cholesterol (9). To read more about the damaging effects of vegetable oils click here.
5. Eat Your 5-10 Servings of Vegetables and Fruit (mostly veggies)
Vegetables and fruit contain high amounts of nutrients and phytochemicals. No surprises there. Generally speaking, you do not need to be choosy with produce as they are all beneficial and good for your health in one way or another. A few that are more often in the spotlight for their anti-inflammatory properties include broccoli, asparagus, celery, beets, cabbage, kale, berries, pineapple, and apples. And garlic and onions of course! Eat them raw as much as possible (not the garlic and onions necessarily). Lightly steamed or sauteed is okay too. Make sure to eat at least five generous vegetable servings daily. One portion is approximately one cup of leafy greens or half cup non-leafy greens (i.e. carrots).
6. Throw Turmeric & Ginger in your Smoothie!
Turmeric, Curcuma longa, is related to ginger. Turmeric has been used for thousands of years. In the last decade, the popularity of turmeric exploded in the west because of its potent anti-inflammatory benefits. The anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric
come from the curcumin, which is the yellow pigment. Some studies have shown curcumin to be comparable to anti-inflammatory drugs like hydrocortisones and ibuprofen (10). One review which analyzed eight research studies concluded that curcumin helps relieve pain and symptoms associated with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and osteoarthritis (“arthritis”) (OA) compared to a placebo (11). These studies found a comparable effect between curcumin and medications for RA. Symptoms it helped included stiffness, walking time, and joint swelling (11). Curcumin is thus beneficial to people suffering from RA and OA, since it has been shown to help relieve pain and inflammation. Curcumin is poorly absorbed by the body. Absorption of curcumin is enhanced with black pepper and a good fat source, like coconut oil. Some supplements include pepper in their formula to optimize absorption. You can always add extra pepper to your fat containing meal to maximize absorption.
Similarly, ginger is another anti-inflammatory root. Ginger contains potent anti-inflammatory compounds called gingerols. Gingerols inhibit inflammatory cytokines and can reduce pain levels in people with OA (12, 13). Ginger also has anti-diabetic effects. Studies have shown that supplementing with ginger reduced fasting blood sugars and HbA1C, your blood-sugar three month average (13). It can also lower cholesterol levels (13). Pretty amazing stuff huh? Though studies tend to use ginger in supplement or powder form, you can include ginger in your diet and still benefit from its anti-inflammatory effects. Boil two or three thumb-sized pieces on medium heat for 20 minutes for a spicy ginger tea. Throw it in your smoothie. Grate it in your food. Add it to your stir-fries. And if you suffer from inflammation and pain, consider investing in a good quality supplement. I would recommend taking a good quality curcumin supplement and drinking two to three cups of fresh ginger tea daily.
Remember, inflammation is a normal part of the immune response. It’s the silent inflammation that is dangerous and a major factor in the development of chronic diseases. This list is by no means complete. Other factors that contribute to inflammation include smoking, excessive drinking, abdominal obesity, chronic stress, poor sleep, among many others. My advice is, before buying expensive curcumin supplements to address your pain, try reducing stress. Wait, before that even, work on getting more and better quality sleep. With a good night’s sleep, stress becomes much more manageable. It’s your response to stress, not the stress itself.