No one wants to have inflammation.
You eat a little too much salt before bed, you wake up with inflammation in your hands, feet, and face.
Twist your ankle dancing with your kids? Your ankle swells with inflammation.
Live in a heavily polluted area? You'll have inflammation.
While inflammation seems like a non-negotiable negative, there are times when inflammation is a good thing. Inflammation is actually caused by an immune response to protect the body, but sometimes it goes haywire, and when it does, our body can have problems.
Understanding the reasons behind inflammation helps us understand what our body needs and doesn’t need to keep it in a normal rhythm. Our whole food approach to nourishing the body is important to keep in mind when learning about inflammation.
Once we understand the function and dysfunction of inflammation, we can learn about foods that can either help or hinder this response. Most importantly, you will find nutritious recipe options that will incorporate anti-inflammatory foods in an easy, delicious way.
What Causes Inflammation?
Inflammation is caused when your immune system recognizes anything in the body that is foreign. This could be anything from chemicals in your air or food, to an injury or infection in your body. This type of inflammation is called acute inflammation. Acute Inflammation is a needed process in your body to heal itself, but sometimes the inflammatory response can get off-balance, remaining inflamed even after the body is healed. This is how you can end up experiencing chronic inflammation.
Immune Reactions to Pollutants, Injuries, or Infections
When cell tissues are injured by pollutants, injuries, or infections, an inflammatory response will occur. When this occurs, damaged cells will release chemicals, alerting the blood vessels in that area to leak fluid into the tissue and cause swelling. The swelling helps your body isolate the damaged area which protects the rest of your body.
Autoimmune diseases are closely tied with inflammation.
While acute inflammation is a part of the healing process of the body, in some people the inflammation continues even after the original injury or infection happened/ Additionally, sometimes the body’s immune system mistakenly targets the body’s own cells as foreign invaders.
When this happens, it can trigger chronic illness and autoimmune disease, causing the body to set off an inflammatory reaction where it constantly attacks itself.
Celiac disease is one of the most common autoimmune diseases that can cause massive inflammation, and it’s characterized by an allergic reaction caused by consuming gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. When someone with a gluten allergy consumes gluten, it causes inflammation throughout their digestive tract that can affect nutrient absorption as well as cause potentially dangerous side effects like bloating, diarrhea, and anemia.
The worst part? A lot of people who have celiac disease may not even associate their symptoms with their diet, which is why going gluten-free may help improve your everyday wellness — you may be allergic or sensitive to gluten and not even know it!
An Unhealthy Diet
You have heard the old saying, you are what you eat. Well, when it comes to health, it couldn't be more true. If your diet is full of unhealthy food choices, like fried foods, refined carbohydrates, sodas, sweets, and processed foods, your body can become unhealthy as well. These types of food trigger an inflammatory response because your immune system sees them as a foreign object.
When you smoke, you are quite literally inhaling toxins into your body. This will activate an inflammatory response to the cells that line blood vessels, causing your blood vessels to narrow. There is a direct link to smoking, inflammation, and a decrease in your heart health.
As we age, there is a dysregulation of the immune system. When the inflammation reaction fails to resolve what caused the immune response, more inflammation chemicals will respond. This can trigger chronic inflammation.
Stress is a normal response to things in life that overwhelm us, like a big presentation or a flat tire on the way to work. Normal stress will cause our body to release cortisol, which lifts your immune system and limits inflammation. In the normal case, once the stress is gone, your immune system should go back to normal.
When you have chronic stress, your body will get used to the additional cortisol and cause more inflammation. Practicing mindfulness can help your body switch off your stress response.
While you sleep, you may think your body is resting, but your body is actually healing. During sleep your immune system ramps-up, which is why some good rest during a cold can really perk you back up. If you are not sick, this immune system ramp-up helps strengthen your immune system — almost like a self tune-up. In this self-regulating system, once you wake up, the inflammation goes back to normal levels. If you don't get enough sleep or have insomnia, this system can fail and lead to chronic inflammation.
How Does Inflammation Harm My Body?
As mentioned, acute inflammation is a natural immune response in the body. Without inflammation our body can't heal itself. When our bodies are in a constant state of inflammation (i.e., chronic inflammation), it is like an emergency alarm is sounding to our immune system at all times.
This can cause the immune system to damage healthy cells, tissue, and organs.
Which Superfoods Fight Inflammation?
With all this information about what can cause inflammation and the negative health impacts chronic inflammation can have, you might be wondering what you can do.
We are inspired by the belief that food is medicine. Boosting your health through real, nourishing foods will support this natural immune response, keeping the inflammation acute, when needed, and not letting it get to a chronic issue.
There are a host of superfoods that can help you keep inflammation a natural immune response instead of a cause for concern.
Ginger is a root from a tropical flowering plant related to turmeric and cardamom. Ginger has been used as a healing ingredient since the 1500s in China, Japan, and India. Long known for its soothing qualities for an upset stomach, research is now coming out about the benefits of its anti-inflammatory qualities for joint health.
You can make a delicious ginger tea by steeping grated ginger in hot water. Once your ginger is steeped, strain out the ginger and add lemon and honey. This is a perfect, soothing tea at any time of year. Try it over ice for a refreshing summer tea — just use half of the water you steep the ginger as the ice will melt and dilute the tea.
Also a root, turmeric has been used in traditional Indian and Chinese medicine and cuisine, and continues to be used today. The active ingredient in turmeric is curcumin. Not only does curcumin give turmeric its yellow color, but it is also responsible for its anti-inflammatory properties. Turmeric is often added to curries, spice rubs, or even salad dressings.
Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, and help combat the compounds involved in inflammation pathways. One of the best ways to get your omega-3s is from fatty fish, like salmon, makrel, sardines, and tuna.
Unfortunately, fish with higher levels of omega-3s can also be high in mercury. Typically, because of its place on the food chain, the smaller the fish the less mercury. The larger fish eat all the smaller fish, therefore accumulating mercury with every meal.
So, what’s the workaround? Look for farmed fish. The more research you do on where your fish come from, the better.
There is also another way to get your omega-3s — a high-quality fish oil supplement. By taking a supplement, you are getting the nutrients you need without going through the trouble of buying a fish, cooking it, and possibly taking in mercury.
You probably already use olive oil every day to make your meals, but did you know it has anti-inflammatory properties, too? Olive oil is full of antioxidants, which actively combats inflammation.
As with most foods you are using for health support, make sure you get a good-quality olive oil. You should always start with extra virgin olive oil, as this has been processed the least. You know you have a good quality olive oil by the taste, it should be slightly floral and a little bitter, like the olives it is made from. If there's no taste, it’s been far too heavily processed to be as beneficial as less refined oil.
Leafy greens are a delicious way to fight inflammation in the body. They are full of vitamins and minerals that are known inflammation reducers. The darker the greens, the more nutrients. Whether you saute your greens, put them in a soup, or keep them cold in a smoothie or salad, the benefits of leafy greens are easy to attain.
Nuts are packed with a big nutritional punch in a small package. By snacking on nuts, you get anti-inflammatory benefits from fiber, calcium, magnesium, zinc, vitamin E, and omega-3s. The nuts with the highest levels of these nutrients are almonds, peanuts, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts. Not only are nuts a great snack on the go, but you can add them to your morning muesli for more flavor and texture.
A high-fiber diet is beneficial to a healthy gut. When you have a healthy gut, your body can absorb all the good nutrients you are feeding it. High-fiber foods also increase the good bacteria in your gut, which release substances in your body to soothe inflammation. High-fiber foods include beans, broccoli, berries, avocados, apples, and dried fruits. You will find the most fiber in unprocessed foods.
Which Foods Worsen Inflammation?
Not surprisingly, the foods that are generally thought to be bad for our health are foods that worsen inflammation. These foods usually include highly processed or sugary foods. When our diets are filled with inflammatory foods, our body can end up having chronic inflammation, which makes us tired, lethargic, and in overall poor health.
Fried or Processed Foods
Both fried and processed foods are loaded with trans fats. These trans fats are known to cause spikes in inflammation. Trans fats are especially harmful because they cause inflammation throughout your entire body.
Sugary Drinks and Candy
Not only do sugary drinks and candy offer next to zero nutritional value, but the added sugars also increase inflammation. People who eat a high-sugar diet will have more inflammatory markers in their blood. When eaten in excess, the sugars in these products can actually lessen the positive effects of omega-3s.
Red meat includes beef, pork, venison, and lamb, to name a few. Meats from these animals are high in saturated fats, which cause inflammation in fat tissue.
Saturated and Trans Fats
Saturated fats can trigger an inflammatory response in fat tissue. This can deter the health of your heart and cause arthritis inflammation. Trans fats can actually cause systemic inflammation, which is inflammation throughout the whole body.
What Are the Best Anti-Inflammatory Recipes?
Inflammation is unavoidable — we all come into contact with pollutants, injury, and infections. While inflammation is a natural immune response, our bodies can only take so much.
By adding high-quality recipes into our diets that incorporate known superfoods that help reduce inflammation, we can help our bodies' natural inflammatory response stay at low, healthy levels.
Here are some easy ways to add anti-inflammatory foods into a healthy lifestyle:
Golden Milk Latte
A traditional Indian tea, golden milk is made with turmeric and ginger, two highly anti-inflammatory foods.
By grating turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and a pinch of black pepper into coconut, hemp, or almond milk, you will get a delicious, golden tea.
The black pepper may seem like a strange addition, but be sure not to leave it out — the black pepper increases the bioavailability of turmeric.
A green smoothie is the perfect alternative to a salad while still retaining all of the benefits. First, add your greens to your blender — spinach, kale, broccoli, parsley — make sure to add a variety. Next comes your fruit, like pineapple, bananas, berries, or mango. Fruit will help to naturally sweeten your green smoothie and make it enjoyable to drink while adding in antioxidants like vitamin C. Add a little water or unsweetened plant milk and watch your blender do the work. You'll have a perfect meal or snack on the go.
Berries are high in antioxidants, which help fight inflammation. Making a smoothie full of berries is a great way to get your fruit intake for the day and boost your antioxidants.
Berry smoothies are made by adding berries (frozen are best here), non-dairy yogurt, and a small amount of base liquid like coconut water or non-dairy milk. (We don’t recommend oat milk — it spikes insulin in most.)
If you want to really boost the inflammation properties of this smoothie, you can add in some of your bone broth. The sweetness from the berries will typically hide the broth taste.
Cauliflower may be a superfood because of its nutritional content, but it also earns its cape for being one of the most versatile ingredients. Cauliflower is delicious simply roasted and used as a side dish, but you can also use that roasted cauliflower for gluten-free, grain-free nachos. You can make rice from cauliflower and use it anywhere you would use regular rice. You also can’t go to any grocery store or restaurant without seeing cauliflower pizza crust as an option.
Veggie bowls are an easy meal to make for lunch or dinner on busy days. Usually, veggie bowls have grain at the bottom — you can use brown rice, bulgar wheat, quinoa, or even that cauliflower rice to keep it grain-free (don’t forget to aim for gluten-free, too!). Next comes your choice of veggies. Here you can have a mix of roasted or raw veggies. You may want to roast your broccoli and Brussels sprouts, but you can leave your spinach raw. Finally, top it with homemade dressing. Make sure your dressing is full of olive oil for an added anti-inflammatory ingredient.
Carbohydrates or a gluten-free grain, protein, and fat make a complete macro bowl. The macro bowl and veggie bowl are very similar, with the addition of protein to the macro bowl. Here is a great place to add your fatty fish to increase your intake of omega-3s.
We can't control everything we come into contact with every day. There will always be the inopportune traffic jam or the cupcake at the office birthday party. There will be times we stub our toe or get a cold. Sometimes we’ll just be a little more stressed than usual — it’s part of life.
Even so, our bodies are incredible machines. There are systems in place, like our immune system and inflammation response, that protect our bodies from these everyday issues. The problem is when too much bad is coming in and not enough good.
What we can control is the food we consume. We can decide not to fill up on overly processed, fried foods. We can fill our diet with whole foods, with an emphasis on superfoods, and support those natural anti-inflammatory pathways.
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Foods that fight inflammation | Harvard Health
Immune response | MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia
Smoking and Cardiovascular Disease | cdc.gov
Redefining Chronic Inflammation in Aging and Age-Related Diseases: Proposal of the Senoinflammation Concept | nih.gov
What Happens When Your Immune System Gets Stressed Out? | Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic
Sleep & Immunity: Can a Lack of Sleep Make You Sick? | Sleep Foundation
Ginger: Boundless Culinary and Medicinal Applications | Bastyr University
Can Increasing fiber reduce inflammation? | arthritis.org
Sucrose counteracts the anti-inflammatory effect of fish oil in adipose tissue and increases obesity development in mice | PubMed (nih.gov)
8 Food Ingredients That Can Cause Inflammation | Arthritis Foundation