If you’re living with a chronic illness, there’s a good chance your doctor has suggested altering your diet to help reduce or eliminate inflammation in the body. Increasing evidence suggests that there is a link between inflammation and chronic conditions like cancer, autoimmune disease, lung and heart disease, gut disorders, asthma, and diabetes.
When the body senses invaders like viruses, bacteria or toxins, or suffers from an injury, the immune system is activated. Upon activation, the body releases inflammatory cells and cytokines that begin the inflammatory response to trap the invaders or heal the injury. As a result, you may experience pain, swelling, or redness, and oftentimes, inflammation goes unseen.
Inflammation and Chronic Illness
Chronic inflammation happens when the body continues to release inflammatory cells even after the injury has healed or the invader has been eliminated. While there are many reasons why this happens and can vary between individuals, research shows that diet plays a primary role in inflammation in the body.
Many studies have shown the healing power of food, and that certain components of foods have anti-inflammatory effects. By choosing the right foods, you may be able to reduce your risk of illness. If you’ve already been diagnosed with a chronic condition, incorporating these foods into your diet can help reduce symptoms and give your body the environment it needs to heal.
An anti-inflammatory diet will include single-ingredient foods that are naturally high in antioxidants, polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals.
Berries, like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries, all contain antioxidants called anthocyanins. These antioxidants are what give berries their vibrant red and blue color, and can have anti-inflammatory. They also fight against free radicals, which can damage cells and cause illness and disease.
Studies show that blueberries increase natural killer (NK) cell, counts. NK cells are a type of white blood cell and a component of the immune system. Their primary role is to contain infections and generate T cells that clear infections. An increased number of NK cells is correlated to an increased ability to fight off infection.
Another study showed that overweight adults who ate strawberries daily for 6 weeks had lower levels of inflammatory markers commonly associated with heart disease.
You’ve probably been told to “eat your greens”, and there’s a good reason why! Leafy greens like spinach, kale, arugula, and swiss chard are all high in nutrients that fight inflammation. The darker the green, the more nutrients it contains. This is because of the molecule chlorophyll, which is high in vitamins A, D, E, and K, and minerals like magnesium, iron, and calcium. All of these vitamins and minerals have been shown to help reduce and fight against inflammation.
Many greens contain a specific omega-3 fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). Studies have shown that ALA can reduce inflammation and can help fight against chronic illnesses like heart disease, neurological conditions, arthritis, and diabetes.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and Brussel sprouts are packed with nutrients that fight disease, like antioxidants, vitamins, and phytochemicals. Broccoli in particular is a powerhouse because it contains high amounts of sulforaphane.
Sulforaphane is one of the most widely studied nutrients because of its unique ability to impact the NRF2 pathway. NRF2 plays a primary role in preventing inflammation by regulating antioxidants that protect against oxidative damage. It also aids in the anti-inflammatory process by recruiting inflammatory cells, prohibiting them to disperse throughout the body, and suppressing inflammation.
When you think of avocados, you probably think of the green mash spread on top of toast, topped with tomatoes and an egg. But avocados are so much more than that. They are loaded with monounsaturated (good) fats and fiber. These good fats help reduce cholesterol and reduce inflammation in the joints. Avocados are also packed with potassium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin K and C, and antioxidants.
Avocados contain a specific antioxidant called carotenoids, which has been shown to improve the immune system, reduce inflammation and protect from diseases like cancer.
In addition to protecting from inflammation, research shows that the high level of antioxidants found in avocados can help prevent neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s.
Not all carbohydrates are evil. In fact, some whole grains like oats, buckwheat, and quinoa have tons of health benefits and can prevent diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and chronic illness.
The main health component of oats is fiber. Fiber helps to slow down food processing which helps the body absorb nutrients better, promote fullness and regulate the insulin response. Oats and other whole grains also contain vitamin B and E, magnesium, and phytochemicals, small plant-male molecules that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. One particular phytochemical unique to oats is avenanthramide.
In a double-blind control study, researchers found that avenanthramide (AVA) slowed down the inflammatory response and increased antioxidant defenses. In the study, two groups of women between the ages of 50 and 80 were given two cookies made with either oat flour or regular flour and walked downhill on a treadmill before and after their supplementation intake. After 8 weeks, the study showed that the women who ate the cookies made with oat flour had lower inflammation and higher antioxidant markers compared to those who ate the cookies made with regular flour.
Another study showed similar results, where people who has high cholesterol were given oats every day for four weeks. At the end of the four weeks, individuals showed a reduction in inflammation and oxidative stress markers and an increase in antioxidant capacity.
Salmon and other fatty fish like trout, mackerel, and sardines are high in essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA, which have anti-inflammatory effects. EPA and DHA are “essential” because, unlike many other compounds, we can’t make them ourselves. We have to get them from outside sources. The reason they are essential is because the body metabolizes these specific fatty acids into compounds called resolins and protectins, which is where the anti-inflammatory properties come from.
Studies reveal that people who consume salmon or EPA and DHA supplements (like fish oil or flaxseed oil supplements), show reductions in the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein (CRP). CRP is a blood marker that’s commonly used to help diagnose chronic illnesses like lupus, arthritis, and heart disease.
These tiny seeds may not look like a superfood, but they pack a powerful punch. In ancient times, chia seeds were a staple food for providing energy because they are high in protein, healthy fats, fiber, and numerous vitamins and nutrients.
Like flax and hemp seeds, chia seeds are high in antioxidants. Antioxidants help prevent inflammation (and thus chronic illness) by neutralizing reactive molecules known as free radicals, which can damage cells and lead to oxidative stress. High levels of antioxidants can also help protect essential fats and reduce dangerous ones in the body.
Soluble fiber and omega-3 fatty acids found in chia seeds can also help reduce the risk of developing chronic illnesses. Fiber can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, regulate appetite, and improve the gut microbiome. The omega-3 fatty acid, known as ALA, has been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and improve bone health.
Ginger has become increasingly used for its healing properties. It contains a compound called gingerol, a phenol phytochemical that exhibits antioxidant, anti-tumor, and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies show that gingerol is the main component in ginger that targets the pathways that can prevent or reverse chronic illness, reduce inflammation, and shut down pain-causing compounds in the body.
In addition to fighting off inflammation, ginger supports digestion which helps get things moving in the intestines. A healthy digestive system has been shown to help reduce risks of certain cancers, diabetes, and depression. Because about 70% of your immune system comes from your gut, it can also give your immune system a boost,
You may recognize turmeric as that golden spice used in your favorite curry dish, but don’t underestimate the long list of health benefits this spice has to offer. The main component that gives turmeric its golden yellow color is curcumin, which also carries anti-inflammatory properties. This powerful antioxidant can help block the action of free radicals and stimulate the action of other antioxidants. With less free radicals and more antioxidants moving throughout the body, the less inflammation there will be.
Since the curcumin content of turmeric is relatively low, the best way to get the full benefits of curcumin is to take a supplement. If you chose to supplement, make sure it contains black pepper or piperine, which helps improve the body’s ability to absorb it.
Foods to avoid
While some foods, like the ones listed above, are anti-inflammatory and can promote an environment of healing in your body, others have the opposite effect and can make inflammation worse.
Foods that promote inflammation include:
- Trans fats
The body needs fats to survive, but not all fats are healthy ones. Trans fats are one of the unhealthiest fats to eat. Often referred to as partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to liquid unsaturated fats, like olive oil, to give them stability and making them a solid fat. This kind of fat has been shown to cause inflammation and increase the risk of disease by lowering HDL (good)cholesterol, increasing LDL (bad) cholesterol, and impairing the function of cells in the arteries.
Trans fats can be found in foods like fried food, microwavable popcorn, margarine and shortenings, and most processed foods. If you are unsure if the foods you are eating contain trans fats, check the food label and look for “trans fats” under the nutritional label or hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list.
- Added sugars
Sugars table sugar and high fructose corn syrup, are the two main types of added sugars found in most diets. Studies have shown that diets high in either type of sugar can lead to chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, fatty liver disease, and chronic kidney disease. Other studies have also shown that anti-inflammatory effects of other nutrients, like antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, were impaired on a high sugar diet.
Foods high in sugar are sometimes more obvious, like candy, soda, desserts, sweet pastries, and some cereals. Some less obvious foods that are high in sugar are regular non-dairy milk, flavored yogurt, store-bought barbeque sauces, marinades, and salad dressings. It’s always important to check food labels to see how much sugar is in each product and make your own versions whenever possible.
- Refined Carbohydrates
Carbs have a bad rap, but not all carbs are the problem. Some carbs, like those that come from grass, roots, and fruits, are beneficial and have anti-inflammatory properties, Other carbs, like refined carbs, are what drive inflammation.
Refined carbs go through a process that removes fiber, a specific type of carbohydrate that the body can’t digest, and promotes fullness, regulates blood sugar, and helps balance the good bacteria in the gut. Because refined carbs don’t have fiber, they can encourage the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria and increase the risk of chronic illness. They also have a higher glycemic index (GI), which raises blood sugar faster than low GI foods.
Some common types of refined carbohydrates are bread, pasta, cereal, cakes, and cookies. Most foods that are processed and contain sugar or flour as an ingredient are considered to be refined carbs and should be limited or avoided completely.
Adjusting your diet
If you have a chronic illness or want to take steps to prevent illness in the future, it may seem overwhelming to suddenly change your entire diet. Take a deep breath, and know you don’t need to change everything all at once (unless otherwise directed by your doctor). Start by making small swaps, like oatmeal with blueberries instead of cereal with milk for breakfast. Once you’ve made one or two swaps that you’ve become consistent with, start making more and adding in other foods that maybe you’ve never tried before. If there are foods you try but don’t like, or may have a bad reaction to, don’t eat them. Remember the most important thing about creating an anti-inflammatory diet is making sure it’s sustainable for you.
If you’re having difficulty making dietary changes and reducing inflammation, know you are not alone. There are thousands of members at PatientsLikeMe who know what you are going through. Join them today to learn how they have successfully changed their diet to work with their condition.