Chronic inflammation arises when the immune system doesn't shut off. It continues its healing response and the inflammatory cascade of events can occur for weeks, months or even years. You might think that having the immune system working all the time is a good thing. However, it's a case of too much of a good thing, because over time this abnormal response can damage body tissues. Research has identified that chronic inflammation can be the springboard for many diseases, like Alzheimer's, asthma, emphysema, bronchitis, chronic pain, various cancers, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, stroke and diseases where the immune system attacks the body's own tissues.
Clearly with chronic inflammation linked to so many diseases it's important to prevent it. There are several lifestyle changes that make a big difference in limiting chronic inflammation:
- Nutrition - According to the Linus Pauling Institute at University of Oregon, "Overall, studies suggest that diets rich in saturated fats, trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils), and high glycemic index foods stimulate inflammation." The take away here is - avoid animal products, refined sugar, refined vegetable oils, and refined carbohydrates.
- Eat at least 5 and shoot for 7 servings of anti-oxidant rich, low glycemic index (GI) fruits and vegetables a day. You can find the University of Sydney's GI listing of foods here and the National Cancer Institute's list of anti-oxidant rich foods here. The table below shows a few of the anti-oxidant powerhouse foods. Note the serving sizes.
Estimates of antioxidant capacities of selected foods. Micromole TE per household measure and grams. (Credit: USDA)
- Eat wild salmon, walnuts, ground flaxseed, purified fish oil and leafy greens rich in the good Omega 3 fat. Exclude all commercially produced fats like those found in margarine, crackers, chips, cookies and deep fried foods like french fries. Read food labels and be on the look out for partially hydrogenated oils.
- Eat fresh herbs and spices that reduce inflammation like ginger, turmeric, green tea and nettles. The American Cancer Society lists oregano as the herb containing the highest levels of anti-oxidants. "It has 42 more times antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times more than potatoes, and 12 times more than oranges." Evidently good things do come in small packages because "gram for gram, oregano and other fresh herbs ranked even higher than fruits and vegetables that are known to be high in antioxidants." Check out the Phytochemicals website here, for their list of the herbs and spices highest in anti-oxidants.
- Eat whole grains and skip the refined, white flour. Whole grains have a lower glycemic index than refined grains and more fiber. The Whole Grains Council has details on types of whole grains and daily serving requirements here.
- Speaking of whole grains, it's best to eat whole foods in general. They contain fiber and vital nutrients that are lost when foods are processed.
- Another great resource for information on an anti-inflammatory eating plan can be found at Dr. Weil's website.
- Physical Activity - Excess body weight and chronic inflammation are linked. Studies have shown that "various forms of exercise decrease both acute and chronic inflammation" (Linus Pauling Inst.). This is because increasing physical activity usually has the effect of reducing body weight. The more healthy the body weight, the less chronic inflammation results.
- Persistent Stress - Researchers are linking the ways physical and psychological stressors such as poor sleep, PTSD, and depression, trigger the inflammatory response and increase the risk of disease. Try to limit stress and get some sleep.
- Tobacco Use - Tobacco products contain toxins that cause inflammation to the mouth, throat and respiratory tract, among other things. Don't smoke and if you do, quit.
- Environmental Toxins - Take a look at your cleaning products. Learn what's in your water. Become familiar with which foods contain the most chemical residues here and which fish have the most mercury content here. Limiting your exposure to chemicals, airborne irritants and heavy metals, like mercury, is important in reducing chronic inflammation.
Making lifestyle changes isn't easy. Attempting to tackle all of these suggestions at once may feel overwhelming. Try implementing one change at a time. Since chronic inflammation is something we can't see or feel, it may not seem like that big of a deal. However, as more research continues to reveal the increasing numbers of diseases being linked to chronic inflammation, it seems prudent to take steps to reduce this silent condition.