Inflammation is central to the body’s ability to defend, maintain and repair itself. Its symptoms appear as redness, heat, swelling and pain, announcing a part of the body that is inflamed.
Heat and redness are signs of blood rushing to the injured area. Swelling is from changes in the small blood vessels that allow plasma to seep into the tissues. Pain results from the release of compounds used by the immune system to draw defensive support to the injured area.
The inflammatory response is regulated by hormones which both intensify and dampen the response.
Unchecked inflammation, or chronic inflammation, is abnormal, and occurs upon an imbalance of these hormones which inhibits the ability to turn off the defensive action when healing is complete.
Chronic inflammation extends beyond the location of the original injury, and spreads to areas of the body which are healthy.
It is at the cellular level that chronic inflammation begins and is most often due to oxidative stress, brought on by the burning of energy in our bodies along with toxic elements in our environment.
Toxins in the form of free radicals build up over time in our bodies, from both external and internal sources (internally, the consumption of fuel by our cells). These free radicals cause an inflammatory reaction at the cellular level, becoming chronic over time.
It is becoming widely known that this inflammation at the cellular level is at the root of over 200 common degenerative, chronic diseases.
A broad category of inflammation related disease is autoimmunity. These diseases include Type I Diabetes, Rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, eczema, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS, and even cancer.
There is also mounting evidence of a critical role of inflammation in the development of hypertension. Metabolic syndrome, marked by increased levels of C-reactive protein, is associated the inflammatory response, and a known precursor to high blood pressure, and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Oxidative stress promotes the inflammatory response because the body sees the oxidation of cells as injury, and where excessive oxidative stress exists, inflammation begins to cause the body’s immune system to attack otherwise healthy cells.
Inflammation can be avoided by choices in the diet.
The macronutrients (fats, carbohydrates, and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, enzymes and phytonutrients) we consume have a direct role in maintaining a healthy inflammatory response.
We all know about the bad fats (the saturated fats) and the good fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats). The saturated fats will have a more pro-inflammatory response in our bodies.
Some fats are extremely pro-inflammatory. These are the artificially hardened fats: margarine, vegetable shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These products include oxidized fatty acids and trans fats.
Balancing essential fatty acids (EFAs) is critical in maintaining the body’s ability to temper the inflammatory response. In general, the hormones synthesized from omega-6 fatty acids, which are abundant in our SAD (Standard American Diet) increase inflammatory reaction, while the hormones we create from omega-3 fatty acids have the dampening effect on this response.
In the distant past our diets consisted of a more equivalent amount of these fats, but are now heavily weighted in the omega-6 fats.
Unfortunately, omega-3’s are much harder to come by than omega-6’s. They are found in low concentrations in leafy greens, a few seeds and nuts (pumpkin seeds, walnuts, flax, hemp) and a few vegetable oils (soy, canola), sea vegetables, and oily fish from cold waters (salmon, sardines herring, mackerel, black cod, and bluefish).
Animals that are allowed to graze on grass rather than being fattened on grains accumulate omega-3s in their fat.
Oxidized fatty acids occur when oils are exposed to air, light and heat. Rancidity is a sign of oxidation; if your oil smells at all funny, toss it! This includes nuts and seeds, which do not have a long shelf life.
The omega-3’s in these foods break down with oxidation, and as with oils, dispose of them when they begin to smell the least bit rancid. Refrigeration can extend their shelf life.
As with the fats, our sources of carbohydrates can be pro-inflammatory. The glycemic index and glycemic load are indicators of the oxidative stress that will occur as a result of ingesting certain foods.
As you eat more high-GI foods, such as bread, white potatoes, white pasta, sugars, chips, crackers and snack foods, your body processes these foods as simple sugars.
It burns these sugars very rapidly, causing excessive oxidation which results in an inflammatory response.
Eat foods with a low-GI such as whole grains, beans, sweet potatoes, winter squashes and other vegetables, temperate fruits (berries, cherries, apples and pears) and less refined or processed food.
Eating these foods will avoid inflammation, as the body will process these foods in a more regulated manner.
The influence of proteins on inflammation is not as direct, but are more a result of their fat and carbohydrates. Animal fats are more commonly saturated, while they also come with greater environmental contamination than plant foods.
Toxins from this environmental contamination cause inflammatory response from the resulting oxidative stress. Vegetable sources of proteins include soy and other legumes. These sources of protein are no less nutritious than meat protein but limit and even aid in controlling chronic inflammation.
Fish is highly recommended in favor of meat for its omega-3 fatty acids, but it is desirable to avoid some fish, such as tuna or shark, for their levels of mercury and PCBs. Good choices are wild Alaskan salmon, Alaskan black code (sablefish or butterfish), and sardines.
If fish oil supplements are taken, they should be distilled and toxin free, and not from farmed fish as they will contain no omega-3s which are derived from plankton and other natural sources not available to farm fish.
If you are taking EFA supplements, try to find those which have parental rather than derived fatty acids, and contain the the correct balance of omega 3, 6 and 9s as described in this post.
Vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytonutrients are obtained for the most part from fruits and vegetables. We are told by the FDA that we should consume from 5-9 servings of fruit per day (1 cup of raw or 1/2 cup of cooked is considered one serving).
However it is now recommended that variety and raw foods are extremely important considerations. But it is well known that these nutrients are critical in reducing oxydative stress and related inflammation.
Phytonutrients are indicated by the colors of fruit and vegetables. There are tens of thousands of known phytonutrients, and more are being studied every day.
For example, the phytonutrients creating the red, blue, and purple in fruits and vegetables contain anthocyanins, which are water soluble. Anthocyanins are part of a larger subgroup of plant compounds called flavanoids, which are a subclass of plant polyphenols.
Plant polyphenols are known to have significant antioxidant capabilities, and so in turn, limit inflammatory response. Plant polyphenols have been studied for some time now for their role in protecting cells against cancerous conditions.
For more on phytonutrients, see “Phytonutrients; Your Foods Rainbow of Healing Power and Antioxidant Army“.
Whatever you do, make very sure that you understand that your body is a battleground of free radicals and anti0xidants every day, and aging is a result of that battle. So do what you can to detoxify and battle the inflammation brought on by oxidative stress!