Is your immune system over-reacting? If so, an anti-inflammatory diet may help!
Inflammation: A Necessary Evil?
Yes, we need inflammation.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to infection or injury. Heat, pain, redness, swelling, and (sometimes) loss of function are all signs of in-FLAME-mation. Although it can be uncomfortable in the moment, inflammation is a necessary step in healing.
How Much Is Too Much? (A Quick Inflammation Analogy)
Inflammation is like a crime show.
When you catch a cold or cut your finger chopping vegetables, immune cells travel to the site of the crime, remove the bad guys, clean up the mess, and rebuild any damaged property. When everything goes as planned, inflammation helps your body fight infection, help remove foreign bodies (e.g., splinters), and heal from trauma.
However, sometimes the immune system over-reacts. When this happens, the result is too much inflammation that lasts too long (a.k.a., chronic inflammation). Instead of healing and resolution, chronic inflammation is more likely to result in scar tissue and loss of function. Common examples are arthritis and overuse sports injuries.
If your immune system is over-reacting, diet can help calm the inflammation storm.
List of Anti-inflammatory Foods
The following foods help calm inflammation in the body and encourage healing.
Immune cells take omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DHA, ALA) and make anti-inflammatory signaling molecules. In other words, eating more omega-3s “tells” the body to reduce inflammation. Good sources of omega-3 fatty acids include cold-water fish (salmon, tuna, sardines, mackerel and herring), fish oil supplements, walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds. Learn more at Good Fat vs. Bad Fat.
Colorful fruits and vegetables
The color compounds (phytochemicals) found in plants are antioxidants. They reduce inflammation. It may be cliché, but the best advice is to “eat a rainbow.” Reach for red foods like cherries, berries, pomegranate, and tomatoes. Opt for orange foods like carrots, sweet potato, melons, and peaches. Include yellow foods like bell peppers and squash. Grab green foods like bok choy, kale, collard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, broccoli, and arugula. Bring in blue foods like blueberries and blackberries. And pick purple foods like red cabbage, radicchio, and beets.
Spice it up
Plant-based flavoring agents are also anti-inflammatory. Try herbs such as rosemary, thyme, oregano, sage, and basil. Sprinkle on spices like cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, turmeric, and curry powder.
Choose whole grains
Whole, unprocessed grains (e.g., brown rice) have a lower glycemic index than refined grains (e.g., white rice). Whole grains take longer to chew. And longer to digest. In this way, whole grains keep blood sugar stable. In contrast, refined grains spike blood sugar, and insulin—both of which drive inflammation. In addition to brown rice and whole wheat, try other grains like quinoa, wild rice, buckwheat, amaranth, millet, and teff.
Grass-fed meat and dairy
The meat from grass-fed, pastured, and free-range animals contains higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, and fewer inflammatory omega-6. In comparison, conventionally raised animals eat grain-based diets high in omega-6 (inflammatory) fats. Similarly, the eggs and milk produced by grass-fed or pastured animals also contain healthier fat profiles.
Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrates allows the body’s cells to function most optimally, promoting the healing process.
List of Inflammatory Foods
The following foods increase inflammation in the body, delaying healing and contributing to chronic injuries.
Immune cells take omega-6 fatty acids (AA and LA) and make pro-inflammatory signaling molecules. In other words, eating too many omega-6s “tells” the body to amplify inflammation. Arachidonic acid (AA) is found in animals (beef, pork, chicken). When eating meat, choose grass-fed and free-range options to limit omega-6 intake. Even if you avoid animal products, the body makes AA from linoleic acid (LA). LA is found in common cooking oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean, and cottonseed. Traditional cooking oils like olive oil, butter, and coconut oil are healthier cooking alternatives.
Sugar and refined carbohydrates
Lacking fiber, the body quickly digests refined carbohydrates into sugar. While this is ideal during exercise (when the body requires “fast sugar” to fuel the activity), eating sugar and refined carbs during periods of rest can elevate blood sugar and cause inflammatory insulin spikes, contributing to the inflammatory process.
Most packages foods contain a combination of inflammatory ingredients, including refined grains (e.g., enriched wheat flour), added sugars, food additives, and preservatives (which may kill commensal microbes!).
At this point you may be thinking “Hmm, this ‘anti-inflammatory diet’ just seems like a healthy diet.” Indeed, it is. In addition to reducing inflammation and expediting the healing process, the anti-inflammatory diet provides the body with nutrients it needs to work hard and play hard. Be kind to your body and provide it with the nutrients it needs to function optimally.