Is Your Diet Causing Chronic Inflammation?
Few of us think about eating something that we know doesn't agree with us, indulging in high fat/high sugar foods or keep on ignoring our gut problems or exposing ourselves to toxic chemicals; all of these things trigger an inflammatory response and an underlying imbalance in our body’s chemistry. Each individual has his or her own innate ability to deal with this imbalance, but, as we get older, the immune system finds this equilibrium harder to hold.
Inflammation and disease are often intertwined. Any illness that has ‘itis’ on the end of its name (which simply means ‘inflammation of’) involves an immune process whereby the bodily tissues involved are in an ongoing battle of destruction and healing. Arthritis, bronchitis, colitis, dermatitis, hepatitis (in fact you can go through the whole alphabet doing this), plus, of course, the big guns like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, all of these – and many more - have inflammation at their root.
Low-grade inflammation is also linked, unfortunately, to ageing. As we get older, and fatter around the middle, with changing hormones and gut flora, and a system full of pathogens that we have encountered along the way, it seems that it doesn't take much to trigger disease symptoms.
Addressing the problem
Sadly there is little we can do about the genes we have inherited or the pathogens we have encountered, but there is certainly a lot we can do when it comes to making choices about nutrition and lifestyle. The good news is, these choices really do count, right down to what you choose for lunch. A 2008 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology looking at the immediate effect food has on certain health markers, including inflammation, finds that damage to your arteries occurs after just one unhealthy meal.
The study goes on to say that your body, nevertheless, begins to repair that damage by “exerting profound and immediate favorable changes” following just one healthy meal. This is an inspiring reminder of how responsive our bodies really are and, in the spirit of that, here are some key ways to dampen down inflammation.
Encourage healthy liver detoxification
Avoiding toxins (traffic, pesticides, detergents, cosmetics) and by eating foods that support the liver. Beetroot, radish and bitter greens are good for bile flow; zinc (high in pumpkin seeds) is crucial for alcohol detoxification; and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower) significantly increase important liver enzymes.
Avoid sugar and processed foods
High blood glucose and high insulin (released in response to high glucose) trigger inflammatory reactions. Choose high-fibre wholegrain alternatives that slow down the stomach emptying into the small intestine, preventing an excessive insulin response. Also make sure you eat protein with every meal as it takes longer to digest and keeps blood sugar balanced for longer.
Choose good fats
Saturated animal fats (meat and dairy) contain Arachadonic Acid which is pro-inflammatory so they should be eaten in moderation. Omega-6 fatty acids from nuts and seeds (sunflower oil, margarine) can be anti- or pro-inflammatory depending on your general diet. A high sugar/carbohydrate diet shunts omega-6 fats down a pro-inflammatory pathway. Eat more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats from cold water oily fish (salmon, trout, sardines, mackerel), flaxseed or walnuts or take a good quality fish oil supplement (containing DHA and EPA). Trans fats and hydrogenated fats (found in processed foods) are unsafe in any amount and should be avoided.
Deal with allergies
If you suspect that a food doesn’t agree with you (often wheat, dairy, eggs, soya) eliminate it from your diet completely for 2 weeks and observe what happens when its reintroduced. Most people with inflammatory diseases have food intolerances and an inflamed gut wall. Cutting out the offending food and healing the gut wall are crucial steps in the fight against inflammation.
Don’t ignore gut problems
Diarrhea, constipation, bloating, pain and wind are signs that something isn’t right with your gut. It is important to determine the cause – perhaps a nasty bug, low stomach acid, unbalanced gut flora or an allergy. Any of these things can cause the gut wall to become inflamed, making it permeable to large food proteins that play havoc with your immune system.
Inflammation in the body triggers it to produce harmful oxidants to protect itself from the ‘invader’, thus worsening the situation. Make sure you are eating plenty of beneficial anti-oxidants (AOs) to protect your cells from damage. Key AOs are vitamins A, C, E, selenium, zinc, magnesium and quercetin, found in fruit, vegetables, nuts and wholegrains. The spice turmeric is also an important AO with powerful anti-inflammatory properties.