In simplistic terms, inflammation is the body’s response to a problem. It’s a normal, critically needed reaction signaling the immune system that something is wrong, so it can fight off infection or heal injuries. When you run a fever, that’s inflammation—swelling after you twist your ankle? That’s inflammation. All these cases are called acute inflammation, which our bodies require. Chronic inflammation, however, even low level, is another story. Chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs, and over time can contribute to leading to diseases like diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and heart disease.
While stress, genetics, environmental toxins, and various lifestyle factors can promote inflammation, scientific evidence shows that nutrition is also significant. Thus, an anti-inflammatory diet may provide some alternative to standard medical anti-inflammatory medications with side effects.
Research shows that what you eat can affect the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP)—a marker for inflammation—in your blood. (You may have had this test done during a physical). The excellent news: Anti-inflammatory Foods tend to be the same foods that can help keep you healthy in other ways, too, including weight loss. So eating with inflammation in mind doesn't have to be extra complicated or restrictive.
Diet is much like a domino effect that works two ways. Diet can help support your immune system by having it turn on and turn off at the appropriate times. Yet, a poor diet can alter your immune system, so it acts abnormally and can contribute to persistent low-grade inflammation. Reason being that foods like processed sugars help release inflammatory messengers that can raise the risk of chronic inflammation. Other foods like fruits and veggies help your body fight against oxidative stress, which can trigger inflammation.
For starters, a diet rich in vegetables, fish, nuts, and beans but low in processed foods and saturated fat is not only great for overall health but can also help manage inflammation. If this advice sounds familiar, it’s because these are the principles of the Mediterranean diet, which is frequently touted for its anti-aging and disease-fighting powers.
Fiber. Research suggests eating a fiber-rich diet protects against inflammation. This is because the bacteria in our guts metabolize fiber to produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), decreasing inflammatory processes and boosting the immune system. But there are plenty of other reasons to load up on fiber: It fills you up, keeps blood sugar levels in check, and helps combat chronic diseases ranging from stroke to diabetes.
Eat less red meat. Red meat can be pro-inflammatory. Choose grass-fed meat.
Colorful fruits and veggies. Whole plant foods have the anti-inflammatory nutrients that your body needs. So eating a rainbow of fruits, veggies are the best place to start. Good examples include beets, berries, tomatoes, cherries, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, and garlic. The more color, the better, since different colors supply different nutrients.
But why, specifically, you ask.
Why: Fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants. These potent chemicals act as the body’s natural defense system, helping neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals that can damage cells. Research has shown that antioxidants found in cherries and other red and purple fruits like strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries have an anti-inflammatory effect. Berries, in particular, contain polyphenol compounds purported to have anti-inflammatory activity in humans. Berries have been studied widely for their antioxidant properties; however, preclinical data suggest significant effects on inflammatory pathways. So now you know!
More good news: Citrus fruits – like oranges, grapefruits, and limes – are rich in vitamin C. Research shows getting the right amount of that vitamin aids in preventing inflammatory arthritis and maintaining healthy joints. Other research suggests that eating vitamin K-rich veggies like broccoli, spinach, lettuce, kale, and cabbage reduces inflammatory markers in the blood.
Herbs and spices. Many spices have anti-inflammatory properties, including turmeric, ginger, basil, cinnamon, cayenne, and oregano. A bonus: Replacing salt and sugar with herbs and spices is not only better for you, but it’s also tastier too.
Omega-3s. Omega-3 fatty acids play a role in regulating your body's inflammatory process and could help regulate pain related to inflammation. Omega-3s are heart-healthy, mood-boosting, and anti-inflammatory fats. Good sources include fish, especially salmon, tuna, and sardines. You can also get omega-3s from plant sources, including walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Plant sources aren’t as effective, but they are still awesome.
Why: more details as to WHY. One study found those who had the highest consumption of omega-3s had lower levels of the inflammatory proteins: C-reactive protein (CRP). More recently, researchers have shown that taking fish oil supplements helps reduce joint swelling and pain, duration of morning stiffness, and disease activity among people with rheumatoid arthritis.
Hate fish? Take a supplement. Studies show that taking 600 to 1,000 mg of fish oil eases joint stiffness, tenderness, pain, and swelling.
How much: Eat 1.5 ounces of nuts daily (one ounce is about a small handful).
Why: Multiple studies confirm the role of nuts in an anti-inflammatory diet. One study found that over 15 years, men and women who consumed the most nuts had a 51% lower risk of dying from an inflammatory disease compared with those who ate the fewest nuts. Another study found that subjects with lower levels of vitamin B6 – found in most nuts – had higher levels of inflammatory markers.
More good news: Nuts are jam-packed with inflammation-fighting monounsaturated fat. And though they’re relatively high in fat and calories, studies show noshing on nuts promotes weight loss because their protein, fiber, and monounsaturated fats are satiating. Just keep in mind that more is not always better.
Best sources: Walnuts, pine nuts, pistachios, and almonds.
How much: About one cup, twice a week (or more).
Why: In a study, scientists analyzed the nutrient content of 10 common bean varieties and identified a host of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. Beans are also an excellent and inexpensive source of protein and have about 15 grams per cup, which is vital for muscle health.
Best sources: Small red beans, red kidney beans, and pinto beans rank among the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s top four antioxidant-containing foods (wild blueberries take the number 2 spot).
How much: Two to three tablespoons daily.
Why: Olive oil is loaded with heart-healthy fats, as well as a compound having properties similar to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Oleocanthal inhibits the activity of COX enzymes, with a pharmacological action similar to ibuprofen. Inhibiting these enzymes dampens the body’s inflammatory processes and reduces pain sensitivity.
Best sources: Extra virgin olive oil goes through less refining and processing, retaining more nutrients than standard varieties. And it’s not the only oil with health benefits. For example, avocado and safflower oils have shown cholesterol-lowering properties, while walnut oil has ten times the omega-3s that olive oil has.
So as you can see, many foods can help fight inflammation and improve joint symptoms.
Studies confirm that eating foods commonly part of the Mediterranean diet can do the following:
All processed foods can cause inflammation. This is because they can alter the bacteria that live in our gut. That alteration can interact with our immune system and eventually trigger it in a way that leads to chronic inflammation. For example, fried foods soaked in oil with Omega 6 fatty acids can be pro-inflammatory. Sugar and soda may cause inflammation because of their effects on insulin.
Sugar. Refined foods, such as cookies, cakes, white bread, and sweets increase blood sugar levels and may lead to bacterial overgrowth in the gut, which in turn causes inflammation.
Saturated and trans fat. Saturated fats and trans fats linger in the body and release inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream. Meat, dairy products, baked goods, butter, and margarine are the usual suspects.
Charred foods. Foods that are grilled have more pro-inflammatory end products. This is especially true of fatty cuts of meat. So instead of firing up the barbeque to grill or blacken your favorite foods, turn to your stovetop or oven. Broiling, steaming, and baking are all excellent options.
Here are some tips:
I want to touch on a couple of interesting things...
Gluten – a protein found in wheat and other grains – has been linked to inflammation for people with celiac disease (CD) or gluten sensitivity. Some arthritis patients swear that ditching gluten has helped their joint pain; others haven’t seen any impact. So what does the research say about gluten, inflammation, and arthritis?
Celiac disease can cause arthritis-like symptoms, so from that standpoint, it makes sense that following a gluten-free diet could help people with arthritis. However, there’s also a link between celiac disease and inflammatory arthritis: Data shows that rheumatoid arthritis people are at a greater risk for celiac.
Bottom line: In the absence of a celiac disease diagnosis, there’s not enough evidence to suggest that people with rheumatoid arthritis go gluten-free. Per a review in the July 2019 Digestive Diseases and Sciences issue, there’s another increasingly recognized condition called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). The doctor runs labs for celiac; when the results are negative, but the patient improves from eating a gluten-free diet, that’s what we call NCGS. It may be the case that some people who have inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
The same goes for dairy. If you feel better not eating dairy, if your digestion and aches improve, you’re sensitive. The gold star solution is to do an elimination diet for three weeks and then slowly add dairy back to test.
Nightshade vegetables include eggplant, tomatoes, red bell peppers, and potatoes contain solanine, a chemical that has been branded the culprit in arthritis pain. There’s no scientific evidence to suggest that nightshades trigger arthritis flares. People with arthritis are sometimes advised to avoid nightshade plants because they contain an alkaloid called solanine. Although most people tolerate solanine fine, solanine can worsen symptoms such as joint pain for people sensitive to it. If eliminating nightshades from the diet for a week or two brings no noticeable improvement, it suggests that solanine sensitivity is not a factor. Tomatoes, peppers, zucchini are high in antioxidants, which reduce inflammation.
Curcumin offers a range of health benefits that include lower levels of inflammation related to arthritis, heart disease, and cancer. Curcumin comes from turmeric — which is commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and arthritis. Try adding turmeric to soups and stir-fries. If you don’t like eating turmeric, you can find it in some nutritional supplements.
Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in purplish fruits like grapes and berries and may help reduce inflammation related to insulin resistance, gastritis, and heart disease.
Green tea has improved inflammation in people who suffer from metabolic disorders and may also help prevent or reduce arthritis symptoms. Green tea can be naturally sweetened using lemon or grapefruit juice.
Fish oil supplements can help you reach the daily recommended intake of between one and 1.5 grams of omega-3s, useful for those who don’t have access to wild-caught fresh fish.
A healthy gastrointestinal (GI)tract plays a critical role in overall health and houses the body’s most significant number of immune cells. Conversely, a faulty immune system is responsible for the most common types of inflammatory arthritis, including gout, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), psoriatic.
Three key points help explain how diet gut health and inflammation are related:
The process of gaining weight is often also a process of inflammation. When you can decrease your body's inflammatory response, you will decrease your weight and waist. If your blood sugar is wonky, which creates havoc with your insulin hormone that creates inflammation and weight gain. Inflammation increases cortisol which causes belly fat. When you can decrease your body's inflammatory response, you will decrease your weight and waist. It all works together.
In conclusion, inflammation may be the root of all diseases. Eating an anti-inflammatory diet will help everybody. Aside from eating healthier foods, other things you can do to reduce chronic inflammation include getting plenty of quality sleep and staying physically active. Ten to 15 minutes of sunlight exposure per day can help fight inflammation since vitamin D helps regulate the immune system. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to inflammation. I want to emphasize that people need to focus on their eating patterns — instead of eating a few particular foods to reduce inflammation. There’s no miracle food out there that will cure chronic inflammation. It requires a consistent anti-inflammatory lifestyle and diet.