Is it hot in here? My back hurts. I feel bloated. My skin is red and itchy! They may be common, but these symptoms aren't normal—and they don’t have to be written off as side effects of growing old. Sure, reaching for a bottle of ibuprofen can help, but before you head to the medicine cabinet, consider trying a diet full of anti-inflammatory foods instead.
Acute inflammation is the body’s natural response to protect itself from intrusive pathogens—it ebbs and flows, and that’s a good thing. But when this inflammation is prolonged—manifesting as acne, allergies, weight gain, digestive issues, joint pain, depression, and even neurological disorders and autoimmune diseases such as type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis—the clear message is that the immune system is stuck in overdrive. What causes it? Well, stress and environmental toxins are factors, but of course, diet plays a huge role.
It all starts with the good-ole gut, which is designed to fight viruses and bacteria in food before they can infect the body. When experiencing bloating, diarrhea or constipation, gas, pain, heartburn, or acid reflux, this is probably an inflammation of the digestive tract. One of the biggest agitators plaguing the modern American diet is fast food, overwhelming metabolism and the GI tract.
The best way to cool inflammation on a cellular level is to eat a diet of anti-inflammatory foods. Some nutritionists tout the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy oils. It’s based on the traditions of Crete, Greece, and southern Italy during the 1960s, when the region boasted super low rates of chronic diseases and long adult life expectancy compared to the rest of the world, despite minimal access to medical care.
Whether you’re going to go Mediterranean or not, registered dietitian, Kathryn Bloxsom says there are lots of foods that are anti-inflammatory.
“Fiber is one of the best and most well studied anti-inflammatory foods,” says Bloxsom. “Foods high in fiber like vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and seeds can help lower inflammation.” Fruits and vegetables with vitamin C and E, papain (a protein digesting enzyme), beta-carotene, manganese, and lots of dietary fiber are ideal for soothing inflammation.
“Omega-3 fatty acid is found in foods like fatty fish. Of course, when it comes to eating omega-3, it is important to balance the ratio of anti-inflammatory omega-3 to inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids; it should be between 1:1 and 1:5 omega-3 to omega-6.” Foods with a high concentration of plant-based omega-3s may also have tons of antioxidant phytonutrients and polyphenols that are anti-inflammatory.
“Herbs and spices are also potent antioxidants. Many of them have been used for their anti-inflammatory benefits for centuries in cultures around the world, and science is starting to back up what folk lore has long known.” Turmeric is believed to be as effective as hydrocortisone in fighting inflammation. A little heat goes a long way, too.
Outside of these categories, green tea contains flavonoids that are naturally anti-inflammatory and reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer. You can’t go wrong with broccoli—its phytonutrients help to rid the body of potentially carcinogenic compounds. Shiitake mushrooms contain compounds that may lower cholesterol, boost immune function, and fight cancer. Just don’t go breading and frying them.
“Of course, eating anti-inflammatory foods won't do much good if you are also eating pro-inflammatory foods. One of the biggest culprits is refined sugar found in processed foods.” Foods high in trans fats breed bad cholesterol (LDL), and inflame arteries, as well as welcoming free radicals into the body.
- Saturated Fats
- Refined Sugars
- Polyunsaturated Vegetable Oils (safflower, soybean, corn and sunflower)
- Preserved Dried Fruit
- Red Meat
So, it’s pretty simple—anything processed could leave your body feeling like it’s under siege. Foods that come from the earth can really quiet the storm inside.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont