Inflammation is at the Heart of Practically Every Serious Disease, Including Many Chronic Pain Conditions.
By Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D.
Have you ever been so mad you could scream? You feel the anger rising from your belly, your face turns red, your heart races, you start to sweat. That’s pretty similar to what happens to cells and tissues in your body when they battle chronic inflammation. You may not feel its wrath, but research makes clear that inflammation of some kind is at the heart of practically every serious disease, including many chronic pain conditions from arthritis and autoimmune diseases like lupus.
The good news is that you can cool the fire inside and even possibly reverse the damage caused by chronic inflammation. Inflammation can be controlled by making certain lifestyle changes, says Rafat Siddiqui, Ph.D., a cancer researcher at Methodist Research Institute, Clarian Health, and a member of Indiana University’s Melvin and Bren Simon Cancer Center, in Indianapolis.
This silent, insidious potential killer isn’t unbeatable, though, especially if you catch it early enough. Inflammation’s kryptonite is straightforward: Live a healthy lifestyle. Too much belly fat, for example, produces chemicals called cytokines that cause inflammation and can, over time, contribute to the metabolic syndrome of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and possibly even cancer. Similarly, eating a diet packed with white bread, soda and candy bars causes blood sugar levels to spike, which triggers high insulin levels that contribute to you guessed it inflammation and in turn insulin resistance and diabetes. While exercise cools down inflammation, becoming a professional couch potato encourages it to run wild. And it’s easy to see how tobacco smoke irritates the delicate lining of the lungs and arteries leading, too often, to diseases like lung cancer and heart disease. And while regular exercise and stopping smoking are essential weapons in your anti-inflammation war, what you eat is also hugely important to whether you’re dousing the fire or fueling the flames.
To help fight inflammation, turn your refrigerator into a medicine cabinet. Stock it with colorful fruits and vegetables, many of which are powerhouses of vitamin C and beta carotene, two types of antioxidants that block, scavenge and scoop up free radicals that damage cell membranes, proteins and genetic codes and cause problems from aging to heart disease and cancer. To get started on an anti-inflammatory diet, below are examples of the types of foods that should be in your grocery cart every time you shop.
This is advice that’s easy to follow: Load up on colorful fruits and vegetables. We don’t know what an optimal daily dose [of produce] is for fighting inflammation, says Winston Craig, Ph.D., R.D., chairman and professor of nutrition at Andrews University, in Berrien Springs, Michigan. But we do know that the more phytochemical-rich fruits and vegetables you eat, the more you boost your body’s defenses against disease. (Phytochemicals is a sort of catch-all category for compounds in foods other than vitamins, minerals, protein and other nutrients that protect the body against disease.) A good place to start is aiming for at least nine servings a day of a combination of fruits and veggies, including blueberries, which are packed with flavonoids that help short-circuit the inflammatory process.
Replace white-flour pasta with whole-wheat varieties and cook it al dente. Slightly undercooked pasta is digested slowly, causing a gentle rise in blood sugar instead of the spike associated with inflammation that comes from sugar, refined grains (as in white bread and processed foods made with white flour) and overcooked pasta. Opt for brown rice instead of Basmati, and steel-cut oats instead of instant or processed. When choosing a whole-grain bread, make sure it looks chewy, that is, with visible pieces or chunks of whole grain inside.
Another antioxidant powerhouse, green tea, has been found in numerous studies, including one from the U.S.D.A., to lower tissue inflammation, while other research shows it might also help with painful inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis.