Come with me as I explore inflammation in the body and how it can be managed through diet and lifestyle. Plus I bring you one of my favourite recipes for a quick daily dose of anti-inflammatory foods.
Not all inflammation is bad. Is it?
When we experience injury or illness our bodies respond with a protective mechanism known as acute inflammation. It’s an immediate reaction within our body which moves additional plasma and leukocytes to the damaged tissue.
You will have no doubt experienced this response at one stage or another. For example:
- High temperature when your body is fighting an infection
- Injury– when you cut your finger the healing process is a beneficial inflammatory response
- Allergic reaction.
Acute inflammation is a good thing. It is short lived and a necessary response from the body that helps you to feel better again!
Chronic inflammation on the other hand is when the inflammatory response is prolonged and persistent and not very helpful. This can cause pain and ill health.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to various diseases such as:
- cardiovascular disease
- rheumatoid arthritis
- inflammatory bowel disease
It is therefore a really good idea to keep chronic inflammation under control. Addressing your diet and lifestyle can have a big impact on fighting inflammation and promoting good health.
When inflammation causes pain
While some joint problems may be associated with the immune system (autoimmunity), the majority of them are linked to inflammation.
When we think inflammation most of us associate this with pain and swelling in our joints.
While some joint problems may be associated with the immune system (autoimmunity), the majority of them are linked to inflammation. Our bodies produce chemical agents that can reduce inflammation or switch it on. These substances are called ‘inflammatory mediators’.
Prostaglandins are one of the main chemicals involved in this process and are easily manipulated through diet.
There are 3 different types of Prostaglandins. Type 1 and 3 are anti-inflammatory and type 2 is pro-inflammatory (causes inflammation and promotes pain).
It’s important to eat a balanced diet that promotes the anti-inflammatory prostaglandins type 1 and 3 while reducing pro-inflammatory foods.
You might already recognise the impact some of these foods have on your day-to-day health?
Foods that promote inflammation
Excess sugar and dysregulated blood sugar balance
Sugar can be like lighting the touch paper to inflammation. Sugar is a powerful substance which many over-consume so working on reducing intake will benefit in so many ways such as weight reduction, increase in energy, better hormonal function (ladies listen up!) and even better sleep.
Blood sugar balance: There is a big link between inflammation and how well your body responds to insulin, the hormone produced in the pancreas to control blood sugar levels. If your body has a reduced sensitivity to insulin (or you are diabetic), sugar (glucose) or insulin stay in the blood and too much of either is toxic, triggering inflammatory reactions.
Learning to balance your blood sugar levels plays a key role in managing the symptoms of inflammation. This is achieved through eating adequate amounts of protein at every meal and snack, increasing the amount of non-starchy vegetables and considering the quality and the quantity of the starchy carbohydrates you eat.
All my nutrition plans are based on a blood sugar balancing diet, also known as low glycaemic load (low GL) diet. A low GL diet is easy to follow, focuses on real foods (not weird things you can only buy at health food shops), keeps you feeling full and helps you manage your cravings.
Omega-6 and trans fats
Overdoing these foods can produce more of the less desirable inflammatory prostaglandins. Not all foods containing omega 6 are bad; meat, dairy, nuts and seeds have them too but it’s important that the ratio of omega 6:3 is right and that we consume good amounts of omega 3 foods also.
It’s generally a good idea to reduce your consumption of the following:
- Vegetable oils
- Sunflower oils
- Anything deep fried
- Fats contained in processed foods/hydrogenated fats (read those labels!)
- Pork and beef.
Processed foods in general
Rule of thumb, the longer the list of ingredients on the label (particularly if you haven’t heard of them), the more processed it is. Foods with 10+ ingredients are classed as ultra-processed and should be avoided whenever possible.
Limit processed meats and white flour based products also.
Those suffering with joint pain and inflammation should stick to whole or minimally processed foods. Frozen veg and tinned pulses and beans undergo some processing but these are fine.
Foods that can decrease inflammation
Omega 3 fats
Omega 3’s produce the anti-inflammatory type prostaglandin. You will find them in foods including:
- Oily fish – sardines, mackerel, trout, salmon
- Nuts – walnuts in particular but also almonds, hazelnuts and pecans
- Seeds – flaxseed, chia seeds and hemp seeds in particular
- Olives and extra virgin olive oil
Antioxidants (eat your rainbow of foods!)
Free radicals are highly reactive oxygen molecules that rely on other molecules in the body to stabilise them. Unchecked they can be harmful to the body and have been linked to accelerated ageing, cancer and other diseases. Hence you will often see skincare commercials espouse their benefits in reducing the damage caused by free radicals.
The body needs an abundance of antioxidants every day in order to keep these unstable molecules in check.
They are found in large amounts in brightly coloured fruit and vegetables. The different colours tend to indicate the type of antioxidants produced – and all are very beneficial to the body. (Check out my eat the rainbow blog post to see how different fruit and veg support different areas of health).
What we know about antioxidants is that they have a synergistic effect – eating a variety of different ones (by eating a large range of different coloured fruit and veg) has a greater effect that eating the same volume of the same type.
Bottom line? Eat a LOT of vegetables and low sugar fruits like berries which have some of the highest antioxidant levels of all fruit.
Luckily, there are a number of natural anti-inflammatory agents, some of which have been proven to be as effective as drugs, without the side-effects. One of the most popular is fish oils.
You might have heard over the years that fish oils lubricate your joints. They don’t! But what they do is reduce pain and inflammation. They are converted in the body into beneficial anti-inflammatory prostaglandins, which counteract the inflammatory substances.
A plethora of good research now shows conclusively that fish oil supplementation can reduce the inflammation of arthritis and other inflammatory conditions.
Does glucosamine work for inflammation?
Glucosamine is another of nature’s best known non-drug treatments for joint pain. Glucosamine is an essential part of the building material for joints and the cellular ‘glue’ that holds the entire body together, although joint cartilage contains the highest concentration. The mechanism by which glucosamine appears to stop or reverse joint degeneration is by providing the body with the materials needed to build and repair cartilage. A study of individuals with osteoarthritis of the knee found that participants taking 1500mg of glucosamine sulphate daily had a similar reduction in symptoms to those taking 1200mg of ibuprofen daily. However, the glucosamine group tolerated their medicine much better.
Glucosamine hydrochloride appears better tolerated than the sulphate form – aim for 1000 to2000mg a day. It works especially well when combined with MSM (Methylsulfonylmethane).
But the best is turmeric, right?
The bright yellow pigment of the turmeric spice contains the active compound curcumin, which has a variety of powerful anti-inflammatory actions. Trials in which it was given to arthritic patients have shown it to be similarly effective to anti-inflammatory drugs, without the side-effects. On top of this, it’s a potent antioxidant.
Interestingly, the most recent review of turmeric in the Journal of Clinical Immunology states that curcumin at low doses can also enhance antibody responses. This suggests that curcumin's reported beneficial effects in arthritis, allergies, asthma, atherosclerosis, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer might be due in part to its ability to modulate the immune system.
There is a downside however – and you’ll know this if you’ve ever tried to cook with it…it stains everything!
Turmeric is perfect for adding flavour to a number of dishes including curries, stir-fries or add a teaspoon when cooking rice. You need about 500mg, one to three times a day (the equivalent of one heaped teaspoon or one capsule three times a day).
Specific foods to you might like to increase that will help manage inflammation
- Red peppers
- Shiitake mushroom
- Sweet potato
Anti-inflammatory smoothie recipe
One of my favourite ways to get a good dose of anti-inflammatory foods in one go is a delicious smoothie.
- Some pineapple (fresh or frozen)
- Chunk of fresh turmeric (about size of half a finger) or use a teaspoon of powdered turmeric
- Chunk of fresh ginger
- Half teaspoon cinnamon
- Dollop of Greek or natural yogurt or kefir
- Coconut/almond milk or water to top up.
Simply blend all ingredients together in a Nutribullet or blender and enjoy!