You’ve likely heard about inflammation, but how much do you know about it? Could your lifestyle choices be leading you towards chronic inflammation? In 2000, almost 125 million Americans were living with a chronic inflammatory condition, and 61 million had more than one. Read on to discover how many illnesses are related to inflammation and how small tweaks in your daily routine and diet can prevent you from suffering from this increasingly prevalent illness.
What is Inflammation?
The simple answer is that inflammation is the result of your body protecting itself from a foreign and possibly damaging substance – whether that be a virus, bacteria, toxic chemical, or an injury. When you encounter one of these toxins or suffer an injury, your immune system first sends out cytokines (basically first responder cells that trigger the inflammatory response) followed by white blood cells that either trap the foreign toxin and destroy it, start healing injured tissue, or both. Obviously, inflammation is an incredibly important function in maintaining a healthy body, and a certain amount of inflammation should be expected as exposure to viruses, bacteria, and to a certain extent, even minor injuries, are all part of living an active life.
The problem with inflammation is when it becomes chronic. Acute inflammation results in localized pain or tenderness of an injured area or the symptoms of a cold or flu that dissipate after 5 to 7 days. In these cases, the inflammatory response has done its job – by increasing heat and the movement of healing and protective immune cells (either through pain and swelling or in the form of a fever), your body is successfully rid of damaging foreign substances and can safely return to a normal, healthy state. Systemic, chronic inflammation (SCI) however, occurs when a foreign substance stays or is continually released in the body for a prolonged amount of time and the protective reaction by the body becomes detrimental – basically creating an autoimmune response. An example of this would be a person who has an unhealthy amount of visceral fat surrounding their internal organs, such as their liver. Their immune system considers those fat cells to be foreign substances, thus attacking them. And unfortunately, SCI is on the rise, with more than 50% of all deaths currently attributable to inflammation-related diseases. These include, but are not limited to:
- Heart Disease and Stroke
- Type II Diabetes
- Non-alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD)
- Crohn's Disease
- Ulcerative Colitis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Systemic Lupus
What Causes Systemic Chronic Inflammation (SCI)?
Diseases related to SCI have increased dramatically amongst people living in industrialized countries who follow a Westernized way of life. These same diseases remain relatively rare, however, in non-Westernized populations whose diets and lifestyles mimic the ancient, hunter-gatherer societies present during most of human evolution. Current causes of SCI are believed to include:
- Chronic infections, such as Epstein-Barr virus or Hepatitis C
- Physical inactivity
- Obesity where visceral fat is present
- Intestinal dysbiosis (or weak gut lining which leads to conditions such as Inflammatory Bowel Disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome)
- Diet (particularly diets low in fruits, vegetables, and other fiber-rich foods and high in refined grains, alcohol, and processed emulsifiers)
- Stress (or more specifically, chronic elevations in the stress hormone cortisol)
- Disrupted circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation
- Exposure to toxins such as air pollutants, hazardous waste products, or industrial chemicals
- Tobacco smoke
What Can You Do to Avoid SCI?
As outlined above, an argument could easily be made that one of the main causes of SCI is living in an industrialized society. The conveniences, processed foods, and pollutants that industrialization has brought have taken the human species further and further away from the ways of life that primarily dictated its evolution. But other than leaving the only home you’ve ever known and living in a completely different environment and culture, how else are you to avoid the inflammatory effects of Western civilization?
Start by moving more or exercising regularly, staying within a healthy weight, increasing gut flora with probiotics, eating less processed foods – especially meats – and more fruits and vegetables, reducing alcohol intake, and managing stress through meditation, yoga, social activities, or group sports, developing regular sleeping habits, installing water and air filters in your home to reduce your exposure to heavy metals or pollutants, and refraining from cigarette smoking. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? But taking the stairs more often to work, parking your car further away from the grocery store, incorporating one night a week with a home-cooked meal that doesn’t contain any animal products, reducing your alcohol intake to just one glass of wine or beer a night, joining a group softball team or yoga class, meditating for just 15 minutes twice a week, or switching processed snacks for carrot sticks and hummus are just a few small changes which actually add up quickly and can have a profound effect on your immune system and overall health.
Anti-inflammatory Foods and Spices
Besides the lifestyle tweaks mentioned above, it may also be wise to incorporate certain foods into your diet if you are looking to reduce SCI. But what specifically?
- Olive oil
- Oily fish such as salmon, tuna, or sardines
- Dark colored berries including blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and cherries
- Leafy greens like kale, spinach, and broccoli
- Nuts and seeds, for example, almonds, hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, and walnuts
All of these foods contain high levels of vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids, but most importantly when it comes to inflammation – antioxidants. Antioxidants reduce inflammation by protecting tissues from damage caused by free radicals, thus preventing inflammatory responses from occurring in the first place. Research has shown that these foods also block signaling pathways in the body whose main function is to produce various pro-inflammatory mediators – also known as cytokines, which were discussed earlier as a primary factor in the inflammatory response.
What other foods contain high levels of antioxidants? Spices! Cloves and Ginger are especially high in antioxidants but Cinnamon, Cardamon, Turmeric, Black Pepper, and Cayenne Pepper also exhibit powerful antioxidant properties. All of these spices can also be found in a delicious and spicy chai blend known as Turmeric Tango Tea. These ingredients, plus Vanilla Extract for added flavor, create a delectable beverage that can be consumed hot or cold but is best enjoyed with milk or a plant-based milk substitute that is high in fat, such as coconut or almond milk. Not only does the presence of milk make this drink a true chai, but the added creamy texture balances the sharp, spicy flavors, creating a fuller, sweeter taste. You are welcome to add your favorite sweetener to this drink if you so choose but either way, don’t forget the milk!
The reason why it is so important is that Turmeric contains a powerful antioxidant called curcumin, but its bioavailability – or the rate at which is it metabolized by the liver – is very quick, meaning it is excreted from the body so fast that its healing properties are not wholly consumed. The presence of fat (like in milk!) with turmeric slows down your body’s ability to metabolize it, thus allowing more of it to absorb. Black pepper is also an important element in increasing the bioavailability of curcumin, as it contains piperine, a constituent in black pepper that inhibits the liver’s and intestine’s ability to metabolize curcumin (thus not allowing it to be expelled into the kidneys and bile) while also making it easier for curcumin to pass through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream. The addition of black pepper to Turmeric Tango Tea was no accident! Try this tasty tea with a friend after a long walk or a yoga session and you are one step closer to living an anti-inflammatory lifestyle!