Chronic inflammation causes no outward symptoms such as swelling or pain.
Instead, it creates an insidious slow burn that can set the stage for heart disease and
other health disasters. The good news is that watching what you eat and adopting
an anti-inflammatory supplementation program may help cool this hidden flame—
before it seriously singes your well-being.
When Shauna first showed up at her practitioner’s office, she was in sorry shape: 55 pounds overweight, exhausted, depressed. Her troubles had begun six years earlier, when she starting taking artificial hormones to fight menopausal hot flashes and wound up on blood pressure medication to deal with the hormone’s side effects.
Her practitioner ordered blood tests and was shocked by the results for an inflammation marker called C-reactive protein (CRP). Anything over 3.0 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) would be considered high—and Shauna’s level was 22.0. Metabolically, Shauna was on fire.
Two years later, Shauna’s blood pressure is normal and her CRP is 1.8 mg/dL. She’s managed to lose those 55 extra pounds. What’s more, “she looks ten years younger,” says Mark Hyman, MD, Shauna’s practitioner and the author of UltraMetabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss (Atria Books). “The importance of finding the source of, and treating, inflammation cannot be overstated.”
Finding inflammation may not be easy, since low levels may produce no symptoms. Or, as in Shauna’s case, a person may feel miserable—and never suspect inflammation as a possible culprit.
Turn an ankle and your immune system creates pain, heat and swelling to keep you from moving it. This reaction, called acute inflammation, shuts itself off after the crisis passes. The problem starts when the immune system is always irritated, like someone swatting repeatedly at a persistent mosquito. This results in a similar reaction that causes low-level chronic inflammation, which affects the entire body.
One cause of chronic inflammation can be found in what’s called toxic overload. “We’re so bombarded with toxins from an early age—heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides,” says Jessica Black, ND, co-founder of A Family Healing Center in Portland, Oregon and author of The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book (Hunter House). “It sets off an imbalance in the immune system.”
Food allergies and intolerances are another inflammation factor. “I believe they are incredibly common and nobody has a clue,” says Nancy Appleton, PhD, nutritionist and author of Stopping Inflammation: Relieving the Cause of Degenerative Diseases (Square One). When the immune system reacts to a particular food—dairy and wheat are frequent offenders—as if it was a threat to the body, a chain reaction ensues that leads to inflammation. Digestive distress isn’t the only sign of an abnormal food response; these reactions can produce dozens of seemingly unrelated symptoms, such as achiness, fatigue and itching.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to numerous health hazards, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and several types of cancer. “It’s an extreme risk to have any low-level inflammation because it’s going to accumulate over time,” says Black. This hidden flame also shares a nasty two-way feedback loop with obesity. Hyman says that the inflammatory substances produced by fat cells “wreak havoc on your metabolism by increasing inflammation, increasing your appetite, slowing fat burning and increasing stress hormones.”
A nutritionally aware health practitioner can provide a biological smoke detector for silently smoldering inflammation. In addition to testing CRP, Black tests adrenal function. What’s more, she says, “high cholesterol is like a ‘check engine’ light—it can be related to inflammation if there aren’t other risk factors.” Other tests can help pin down any food allergies or intolerances, as well as check for any low-level infections that may be present.
Dietary Fire Extinguishers
If testing shows that you have chronic inflammation, changing your diet can help hose down that inner fire. First, avoid the bad stuff. Right at the top of the taboo list, as least as far as Appleton is concerned, is sugar. “You could be eating a perfect meal and ruin it by drinking a cola or eating a candy bar,” she says. “Start reading food labels—if you see anything that has more than 6 grams of sugar per serving, stay away.” It almost goes without saying that artificial sweeteners aren’t going to make the grade either; actually, staying away from synthetic ingredients of any kind is a good idea.
Trans fats, fake fats present in many processed foods, should also go, along with (of course) any foods you react to.
Hyman says that eating excess calories can fuel the flames, which makes exercise “one of the best-known anti-inflammatories on the planet.” Exercise also helps lower stress, itself an inflammation feeder.
After cleaning out your kitchen, it’s time to restock with foods that can help keep inflammation under control. Experts agree that one thing everybody should eat more of is cold-water fish, such as halibut, mackerel, sardines and salmon. The oils in these species supply omega-3 fatty acids. They help inhibit the inflammatory process by balancing out another group known as omega-6 fatty acids, which predominate in the typical modern diet. Because most people don’t get enough omega-3, practitioners will often recommend fish oil supplements; in fact, Black calls fish oil “one of my favorites.” For cooking, especially at high temperatures, Black recommends coconut oil for its chemical stability, with cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil reserved for use in for salads.
Any anti-inflammatory pantry worth the name also comes stocked with plenty of fresh produce.
Fresh vegetables and fruits are bursting with phytonutrients, chemicals that promote health in countless ways. They also provide a bountiful store of vitamins and minerals, many of which themselves have inflammation-fighting properties—vitamins A, C and E along with the mineral zinc come to mind. (While nothing substitutes for a proper diet, whole-food concentrates can help fill in any nutritional gaps, as can a high-grade multivitamin.)
Black says to stay with the lowest-carbohydrate vegetables possible, since excess carbs can spike blood sugar and increase inflammation. Leafy greens, asparagus, brassicas (broccoli, cabbage and such), radishes and cucumbers are your best bets. String beans, beets, onion, red pepper, pumpkin, turnips and zucchini are also good, but yams and sweet potatoes, heavily carb-laden, should be reserved as special treats. Black recommends not eating tomatoes and potatoes because, as members of the nightshade family, they can help promote inflammation.
Fruits are also on the carb-heavy side; Black says to eat only one or two servings a day of mainly such lower-carbohydrate types as berries, melons, plums and kiwis. One sweet exception is pineapple; it contains bromelain, an anti-inflammatory agent. (Pineapple is off the diet if you have blood-sugar issues, but bromelain is available in supplement form.) Black suggests buying all organic produce to avoid the kinds of chemical residues that stir up inflammation.
Because intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains, is so common, Black says to skip wheat entirely. Instead, go for such gluten-free grains as amaranth and brown rice. Whole grains and beans provide plenty of fiber, which Black says can help fend off food allergies. She’s not a fan of cow’s milk and recommends that beef (organic) and poultry (free-range) be eaten sparingly.
Spice It Up
Such simple, hearty fare can wander into gourmet territory when you start stocking up on spices and herbs. “I love spices,” says Black, who practices at home what she preaches to her patients. “I love to make eggs with rosemary. I use a ton of fresh parsley—it is a blood purifier.”
Some herbs are famous for their healing abilities. Black favors garlic, ginger and turmeric, all three of which have long histories of traditional medicinal use as well as a wealth of modern research into their beneficial properties. For example, scientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center believe turmeric shows potential in easing the inflammation associated with chronic lung disease (Molecular Nutrition and Food Research 9/08).
If you suspect that hidden inflammation may help explain your problems, see a practitioner. Then ask that person for help in designing a diet and supplementation program to help keep your metabolism running cool. In Black’s words, “This is something everyone should be doing for their health.”