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Inflammation is a term that's commonly used but poorly grasped. "Think of inflammation as irritating chemicals that are released by your immune cells, producing swelling, redness and pain," says Susan Blum, MD, MPH, author of "The Immune System Recovery Plan" (Scribner, 2013). "When the immune system is triggered to release inflammatory chemicals in an ongoing way, damage occurs, and health problems can show up in any part of the body." This long-term inflammation often lurks silently, below the threshold of perceptible pain, but it is a common risk factor for a broad range of diseases and health conditions, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and many others.
Although several lifestyle factors contribute to inflammation, diet is important to help keep it in check and reduce disease risk. Specific foods can directly or indirectly supply anti-inflammatory compounds, as well as help balance the immune system and moderate insulin levels. Here are five inflammation-reducing diet strategies:
1. Omega-3 fats. "The fats you eat are converted into substances called prostaglandins, and different types of prostaglandins either increase or decrease inflammation in your body," Blum says. "Consuming foods rich in omega-3 fats leads to decreased production of inflammatory prostaglandins." The most abundant source of omega-3s is oily fish, such as wild-caught salmon and canned sardines. Walnuts, flaxseed, eggs from hens given omega-3 rich feed, and grass-fed meats provide smaller amounts of omega-3 fats.
2. Slow-digested carbs. Opting for foods that produce a more gradual rise in blood sugar (low-glycemic load foods), such as lentils, berries and other high-fiber foods may help reduce inflammation, especially in people carrying extra pounds. A well-controlled study in the February 2012 issue of The Journal of Nutrition reported that overweight and obese men and women who ate a low-glycemic load diet for a month reduced a blood marker of inflammation, called high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (CRP), by about 22 percent compared to when they ate a high-glycemic-load diet. CRP has been linked with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
3. Antioxidant-rich foods. "Every day your body produces free radicals, which can damage body tissue and trigger inflammation," Blum says. The antidote? Antioxidants. "Antioxidants are sort of like sponges, which mop up free radicals in the bloodstream and help quiet the immune system." Antioxidants are especially abundant in fruits and vegetables with rich hues, such as berries, broccoli, and dark leafy greens, as well as less-than-colorful garlic and onions. Extra virgin olive oil and nuts are also rich in antioxidants.
4. Probiotic foods and supplements. Beneficial bacteria (probiotics) can help reduce inflammation in the gut, as well as in other parts of the body, according to a July/August 2013 study in Gut Microbes. In the study, 70 percent of the adults with inflammatory diseases, including psoriasis, chronic fatigue syndrome, and ulcerative colitis, who were given a probiotic Bifidobacteria infantis supplement for six to eight weeks, had a significant reduction in inflammatory markers, compared with only 9 percent of adults given a placebo. "Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir and kombucha tea all supply probiotics, but if you've been diagnosed with an inflammatory disease, probiotic supplements are recommended," Blum says. She also encourages consuming prebiotics, which are indigestible fibers that act as "fertilizer" to help the good bacteria grow. Prebiotics, such as inulin, which are added to some probiotic supplements, are found in foods such as garlic, onions and asparagus.
5. Spices and herbs. Many studies have shown herbs and spices have significant anti-inflammatory as well as antioxidant activity. A 2012 laboratory study in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity found that amounts of rosemary, sage and thyme typically used in cooking retain significant anti-inflammatory activity after heating and digestion. Other spices well known for their anti-inflammatory compounds include cayenne pepper, cinnamon, clove, ginger, nutmeg, oregano and turmeric, among others.
What foods fuel inflammation?
Limit your intake of these inflammatory culprits:
--Fried and charred food, which are high in advanced glycation end products
--Refined sugars and grains, and other highly processed foods and fast foods
--Excesses of omega-6 fats, prevalent in refined vegetable oils, such as corn and soy
--particular food sensitivities -- particular to the individual -- that may trigger immune based reactions
--Partially hydrogenated oils/trans fats, such as those found in some stick margarines and fried foods
(Environmental Nutrition is the award-winning independent newsletter written by nutrition experts dedicated to providing readers up-to-date, accurate information about health and nutrition in clear, concise English. For more information, visit www.environmentalnutrition.com.)