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Reduce inflammation for better health

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March 1st, 2016
salmon fights inflammation
salmon fights inflammation

Inflammation, in its adaptive form, is the body’s response to infections and injury. In a nutshell, swelling occurs because fluid leaks out of blood vessels. This fluid carries cells and chemical mediators that can heal.  

But ongoing inflammation eventually becomes harmful. According to experts from Harvard University, low-level inflammation is associated with atherosclerosis, strokes, peripheral artery disease, and certain types of dementia. There is some evidence that this process may also be associated with the development and acceleration of cancer. 

Many irritants kick off the process, including tobacco smoke, a sedentary lifestyle, and eating the wrong foods. Being overweight fans the flames. “Fat cells produce chemicals called leptins that aggravate inflammation,” says Nathan Wei, M.D., board-certified rheumatologist and medical director at the Arthritis Treatment Center in Frederick, Md.

Increased focus on sugar

Research results show that sugar is a potent pro-inflammatory. It causes your body to release cytokines—a general term for proteins involved in communication and interactions among cells. Certain types of cytokines directly stimulate inflammation. Aside from obvious dietary sources of sugar, there are other not-so-obvious ones. Simple starches such as crackers and white bread change to sugar in your bloodstream. And a significant amount of sugar may also be hiding where you don’t expect it. “Common sources are salad dressings, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and pasta sauces,” says Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D., spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Whole grains have been shown to reduce the amount of cytokines released, but at the same time, you need to choose wisely. “Whole-grain foods can contain a surprising amount of sugar,” Gerbstadt says. “Breakfast cereals and whole-grain breads almost always contain some added sugars.” 

Because of the increasing concerns about sugar’s harmful effects, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will soon require that nutrition labels differentiate between naturally occurring sugar and added sugar in products. 

Inflammation-busting foods

Certain types of foods accelerate the inflammation process, including those that are high in certain types of fat. “Fat in red meat has been shown to speed up inflammation, but fats called omega-3 fatty acids have the opposite effect,” Wei says. “Omega 3s are found in cold water fish such as cod, tuna, mackerel, and salmon. Flaxseed is a good source of healthy fat for people who don’t eat meat.”

Nuts, when eaten in moderation, are also an excellent fat source, as are most plant-based oils. 

Inflammation decreases when your intake of produce increases. Anti-inflammatory chemical compounds abound in practically all fruits and veggies. “Brightly colored produce, especially berries, contain anthocyanins, which act as antioxidants,” Wei says. You can add even more antioxidants by spicing up your foods. “Spices such as garlic, ginger, pepper, basil, and turmeric are concentrated sources of antioxidants,” Wei says. 

To maximize the positive effects of your diet, get moving. “People may be tired of hearing it, but exercise combats essentially any disease process,” says Matt Narrett, M.D., chief medical officer at Erickson Living.

No easy way out

Prescription drugs to fight low-level chronic inflammation are in preliminary stages of development, but there is no way to know whether they will be effective. In addition, you shouldn’t take ibuprofen or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in an effort to reduce inflammation throughout your body. The American Geriatrics Society recommends that NSAIDs should be avoided by people over age 65. “Seniors are much more likely to develop gastrointestinal bleeding from NSAIDs than younger adults,” says Tom Morris, D.O. “There have also been cardiovascular problems associated with these drugs.”

Dietary supplements containing antioxidants or other compounds have not been shown to be beneficial, and in some cases, they could be dangerous. “The FDA does not regulate dietary supplements,” Morris says. “They may contain unlisted ingredients that can be harmful.”

Most people aren’t going to notice the healthy changes that are occurring in their bodies once they’ve started an anti-inflammation diet. But for certain conditions, they may. “I have recommended anti-inflammatory foods for arthritis patients,” Wei says. “Some of them say that they can definitely detect an improvement.”

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