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You see a new product on the shelf that claims to decrease inflammation. Sounds good, right? It’s not quite that simple. The body responds to many diseases and injuries with inflammation, but even though some conditions are worsened by it, suppressing inflammation all the time isn’t always the best path to healing, and anti-inflammatories have some unwanted side effects for some people. Here’s a quick look at inflammation pros and cons, plus a few natural anti-inflammatories that may allow some people to use less medicine.
Inflammation A, B, Cs
Inflammation is among the most basic and necessary processes in the human body. If you step on a piece of glass, for example, a complex series of steps is initiated that ultimately leads to tissue healing:
Blood vessels in the area dilate, bringing white blood cells to remove dead tissue and help fight infection;
blood vessels become more permeable, leading to swelling;
specialized cells enter the wound to form a clot; and
new blood vessels develop to meet the increased needs in the area.
Without a properly functioning inflammatory response, healing is compromised. An example of this is the case where someone is taking corticosteroids, like prednisone. These medications directly suppress inflammation--which is sometimes necessary--but they also keep the body from mounting a strong response to invaders. Long-term use of corticosteroids increases the risk of several types of infections.
The flip side of the equation is when inflammation goes unchecked: Dozens of chronic diseases and conditions have an inflammatory component, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, cancer, atherosclerosis, allergies, asthma, gum disease (periodontitis), Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus. In these cases, inflammation causes or worsens the condition, and it should be managed appropriately.
Eat to beat inflammation
These foods make inflammation worse, so eat them in moderation or avoid them entirely:
High-glycemic-load foods: Studies have shown that foods with a higher glycemic load--like white flour, rice, pasta, bread, and sugar--can worsen inflammation. The glycemic load is a measure of how quickly a given amount of food can raise your blood sugar. Refined foods tend to have high glycemic loads, whereas whole grains and vegetables are much lower.
Dairy: People with certain inflammatory conditions, like asthma and rheumatoid arthritis, may experience a worsening of their condition when they eat foods containing dairy.
Trans fats: These fats, which are solid at room temperature, are used to make baked goods flakier (like a pie crust made with shortening) and to fry many foods. Trans fats increase inflammation, along with the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and infertility.
Other foods that cause allergic reactions/sensitivities: A food that you're sensitive or allergic to can cause inflammation in the body. Common examples include grains (especially gluten-containing grains), eggs, soy, and citrus.
These foods typically help ease inflammation, so include plenty of them in your diet:
Fish: Anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are abundant in cold-water fish like salmon, preferably wild.
Colorful fruits and veggies: Carotenoids and other nutrients in these foods act as free radical scavengers, essentially "eating up" excess inflammation. Try carrots, mangoes, sweet potatoes, spinach, watermelon, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, black beans, tart cherries, purple cabbage, collard greens, oranges, cilantro, sweet corn, oranges, kale, and bell peppers.
Extra virgin olive oil: A staple of the Mediterranean diet, olive oil is praised for its heart health benefits, such as improving blood vessel function, decreasing blood pressure, preventing free radical damage, normalizing blood fats, and keeping the blood from clotting too easily (a risk factor for heart attack and stroke).
Pineapple and papaya: Naturally rich in pain-reducing enzymes, these tropical treats are great choices for people with musculoskeletal pain.
Nuts: All nuts, and especially walnuts, are high in free radical-fighting polyphenols. They reduce inflammation and improve blood fats and blood vessel function. And despite their high fat content, they won't make you gain weight.
Magnesium-rich foods: Low magnesium levels are tied to increased inflammation. Good food sources include pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, cashews, almonds, black beans, seaweed, dark leafy green vegetables, and cacao nibs (crunchy bits of dried cacao bean).
Curry spices: Turmeric and ginger are both powerful anti-inflammatory culinary spices. One of the components of turmeric, called curcumin, is thought to be responsible for turmeric's anti-inflammatory effect. Ginger can also help reduce pain and improve function, especially in people with arthritis.
Raw honey: Pure raw honey possesses anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory properties. (Pasteurized honey doesn't retain any of its health benefits.) Honey has been shown to help improve a nagging cough better than OTC cough suppressants, improve athletic performance, heal wounds, alleviate seasonal allergies, neutralize free radicals, and enhance the immune system.
What about meat?
The question of red meat's role in inflammation is still up for debate. According to some studies, eating red meat may cause inflammation when we form antibodies against a compound in it called Neu5Gc.
Chris Kresser, an acupuncturist in Berkeley, CA and advocate of the Paleolithic diet says that this theory is far from proven. "Red meat has been part of the human diet for much of our history, and remains an important dietary element of many healthy cultures. For example, the traditional diet of the Masai was composed almost entirely of red meat, blood, and milk--all high in Neu5Gc--yet they were free from modern inflammatory diseases," says Kresser. "If Neu5Gc really caused significant inflammation, the Masai should've been the first to know, because they probably couldn't have designed a diet higher in Neu5Gc if they tried."
Take this for that
Here are some common inflammatory conditions and the foods and dietary supplements that may help them.
Raw honey may help seasonal allergy sufferers when they start taking it before allergy season starts.
Horny goat weed is an herb that may reduce levels of allergy-mediated immune cells and improve seasonal allergies.
Joint and muscle health
Ginger may decrease pain and improve function in people with osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Curcumin significantly improves symptoms such as morning stiffness and joint swelling in people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Bromelain may decrease muscle pain and help speed post-exercise recovery time.
Fish oil may reduce allergic reactions that can trigger asthma attacks.
Boswellia may decrease airway inflammation, resulting in fewer asthma attacks and improved breathing capacity in people with asthma.
Pycnogenol, an extract from the bark of the French maritime pine, may exert blood pressure-lowering effects due to its blood vessel relaxing, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Magnesium may help lower blood pressure, inhibit inflammation, and prevent deficiencies that can lead to heart arrhythmias in people with congestive heart failure.
Drinking tea can increase HDL ("good") cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and decrease markers of inflammation; all good things for people looking to decrease diabetes risk.
Alpha lipoic acid (ALA) is a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent that may help protect against diabetic complications like kidney and nerve damage.
Curcumin has been shown to improve inflammatory bowel conditions like Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis. The effects are comparable to that of corticosteroid medications, without side effects.
Green tea may help reduce inflammation in people with inflammatory bowel disease, as well as reducing bowel cancer risk.
Kimberly Beauchamp, ND, received her doctoral degree from Bastyr University, the nation's premier academic institution for science-based natural medicine. She co-founded South County Naturopaths in Wakefield, RI, where she practiced whole family care with an emphasis on nutritional counseling, herbal medicine, detoxification, and food allergy identification and treatment. Her blog, Eat Happy, helps take the drama out of healthy eating with real food recipes and nutrition news that you can use. Dr. Beauchamp is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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