Although there are many causes of chronic inflammation, the nutritionally poor average American diet is more than likely one of the largest contributors to the uncomfortable and dangerous inflammation plaguing our body systems, particularly the digestive system.
Dr. Andrew Weil M.D., talks about inflammation and diet. He says that it is becoming increasingly clear that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many serious illnesses – including heart disease, many cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease. Inflammation is considered by many a health professional to be a silent epidemic that produces a cumulative negative effect over time.
Now, emerging studies from both biomedical and nutritional research groups are finally beginning to confirm what practitioners specializing in alternative and holistic medicine have long noted and advised patients about. “When we don’t see the inflammation system switch off, we end up in a detrimental state,” says Julie Daniluk R.H.N., author of “Meals That Heal Inflammation”.
Let’s discuss for a moment what an average American diet looks like and how many of our favorite foods are probably doing us more harm than good. One of the heaviest hitting examples of an inflammation producing component of diet is Omega-6 fat. In general Americans love to indulge in fast, processed foods. Not surprisingly, this throws our bodies into a terrible imbalance between Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids.
As we know, Omega-3’s are the crucially necessary fats our brains use in order to maintain healthy cognitive functioning. However, we rarely find any Omega-3’s in the snack isle at the grocery store. What we find are highly processed and refined oil-laden foods heavy on the Omega-6’s. As more data emerges, the more we are realizing that our bodies prefer to process naturally occurring oils, as opposed to the manipulated or hydrogenated varieties.
Another culprit of inflammation in the digestive tract is gluten. Gluten has been getting lots of attention as of late, as many people begin to eliminate it from their diet and rave of the results. To be sure, the science behind the exact causes of gluten intolerance is still unfolding. However, one could easily hypothesize that lacking an ability to properly digest refined wheat products is again a case of the human body’s failure to adapt to a modern diet.
Our advancements in food science have out-paced our evolutionary trajectory in regards to our nutrition.
Another front-runner of the inflaming foods group is an ingredient which seems to be included on literally every label you read at the market. Sugar has been a valuable commodity in our society since the colonization of the new world in the 14th century. Its popularity has only increased and in recent years it has found its way into almost every non-whole food item that we consume.
Experts have attributed many ailments and diseases to the over-consumption of sugar, including weight gain and diabetes. Yet, food manufacturers remain relentless in encouraging America’s addiction to it.
Sugar alone is dangerous to our health, but no discussion of sweetener can be complete without mentioning sugar’s man-made cousin high-fructose corn syrup. This highly processed sweetener has begun to largely replace sugar in many foods and soft drinks. Since it was only developed for use in the 1950’s, experts can’t even be sure what long-term effects its use may have on the body.
There are indeed several other foods common to our daily intake here in the U.S. that are believed to contribute to digestive inflammation, however since we have highlighted those which doctors are most concerned with, let’s now shift gears and discuss some foods experts agree are well-known for their anti-inflammatory properties.
Many specialists, including Dr. Andrew Weil, founder, professor, and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, promote a balanced diet, rich in whole foods, whole unrefined grains, low-fat meats and foods rich in Omega-3 fatty acids.
This type of anti-inflammatory diet closely resembles the Mediterranean Diet which has gained popularity amongst both experts and the general public in recent years.
Aside from observing the more common guidelines associated with everyday healthy eating, one should also strive to choose foods which data has shown can actually decrease existing inflammation. Studies have suggested that vitamin E may play a key role in protecting the body from pro-inflammatory molecules called cytokines—and one of the best sources of this vitamin is dark green veggies, such as spinach, kale, broccoli, and collard greens.
Another source of inflammation-fighting healthy fats is nuts—particularly almonds, which are rich in fiber, calcium, and vitamin E, and walnuts, which have high amounts of alpha-linolenic acid, a type of omega-3 fat. All nuts, though, are packed with antioxidants, which can help your body fight off and repair the damage caused by inflammation.
If you aren’t already comfortable cooking with the spices ginger and turmeric, then you might consider looking up a few recipes, as both of these flavorful ingredients have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties. Ginger has also been shown to reduce inflammation in the intestines when taken in supplement form.
Turmeric, the ingredient that gives curry its yellow color, works in the body by helping to turn off a protein that regulates the immune system and triggers the process of inflammation, researchers say. Turmeric is very popular in Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cooking and studies have repeatedly shown much lower prevalence of diabetes and cancer in those societies, a fact that must not be overlooked.
Some other, more familiar foods that can be included or increased in your favorite recipes are garlic, onions, and olive oil. All three have been shown to contain strong naturally occurring chemicals that have an effect similar to the inflammation reducing action of Ibuprofen.
As our understanding of chronic inflammation evolves, it is important that we remain informed and tenacious in our responses to it. However, it is also important to remember that healing and preventing inflammation is not only about diet.
We must also consider inadequate sleep, irregular elimination, lack of exercise and excessive stress as triggers. We will discuss these other factors in more detail in follow-up posts.
In Good Health,
Dr. Pamela Nathan DHM, L.Ac.