You whack your toe on the coffee table. Moments later it’s red, sore, and radiating heat. These are signs of inflammation — we all know what that feels like, right?
But what you might not know is that inflammation comes in different forms. The type that makes your toe swell is called acute inflammation and is actually good for your body as it’s the healing process that makes that stubbed toe feel better a few days later.
However, chronic inflammation is not so good. It’s a systemic condition that’s largely undetectable, unless you can convince your doctor you need a special blood test to look for it. Instead of helping your body heal, it is linked to a wide range of problems ranging from Alzheimer’s and arthritis to diabetes and hair loss.
The root of all sickness begins with inflammation, and it’s so much more than what happens when you sprain an ankle or scrape your knee. Inflammation can happen to essentially any tissue that exists in your living body and is the quickest and surest way that your body can communicate to you that something is amiss.
The most worrying link between inflammation and poor health is that of heart disease and improper brain functioning. Chronic stress, which translates as chronic inflammation, can lead to heart disease, heart attacks and strokes, and dementia and memory problems. If you don’t lower your stress levels and provide your body with support, it could break down in a dangerous way as a result.
In many cases, such as brain disorders and heart disease, the symptoms are not there although the immune response is — and that’s what often goes undetected. This can go on for years and be at a chronic level with the body firing back with inflammatory chemicals as it tries to heal the damage.
However, doctors are learning that one of the best ways to quell possible inflammation lies not in the medicine cabinet, but in the refrigerator.
“Many experimental studies have shown that components of foods or beverages may have anti-inflammatory effects,” said Dr Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, on the university’s website.
Not surprisingly, the same foods that contribute to inflammation are generally considered bad for our health, including sodas and refined carbohydrates, as well as red meat and processed meats.
“Some of the foods that have been associated with an increased risk for chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease are also associated with excess inflammation,” Dr Hu explained. “It’s not surprising, since inflammation is an important underlying mechanism for the development of these diseases.” Unhealthy foods also contribute to weight gain, which is itself a risk factor for inflammation.
Yet in several studies, even after researchers took obesity into account, the link between foods and inflammation remained, which suggests weight gain isn’t the sole driver. “Some of the food components or ingredients may have independent effects on inflammation over and above increased caloric intake,” Dr Hu added.
Choose the right foods, and you may be able to reduce your risk of illness. Consistently pick the wrong ones, and you could accelerate the inflammatory disease process.
So, what foods typically cause inflammation — and which help diffuse it?
“Foods are often identified as having an inflammatory response in both the digestive tract as well as other systemic symptoms,” says Stephanie Karl, nutritionist at Dubai’s JTS Medical Centre. “An IgG food intolerance test can identify foods that are not being digested well.
“Culprits tend to be genetically altered foods such as hybridised dairy, genetically modified glutenous wheat, barley, corn, soy, potato and pea — but not necessarily all wheat. Seed oils heated such as soy, sunflower, safflower, canola, peanut, rice bran and vegetable oils can be bad news too, as well as too much red meat and processed meats high in nitrites, refined cereals and sugar.”
Karl adds, “As for anti-inflammatory foods, they tend to be fruits, vegetables, wholegrains, plant-based proteins such as beans and nuts, fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, and sardines, and fats and oils such as coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, grapeseed oil and macadamia oil. Foods with probiotics can help too such as yogurt, naturally fermented vegetables and green teas.
“Fresh lemon juice, ginger root, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cloves and many fresh herbs also have anti-inflammation properties due to the high levels of phytochemicals and anti-oxidants and are alkalising to create a less reactionary environment in extra cellular fluid.”
Experts generally advise limiting your intake of saturated fats from meat, and stress that processed meats in particular are so alien to human digestion that they are most likely going to be treated as a foreign invader by the immune system.
The right type and amount of exercise helps to reduce inflammation, but a note of caution — overdoing it can actually work the other way.
Relaxation and sleep help reduce inflammation and balance blood sugar, and unsurprisingly smoking causes increased inflammation, as do pollution and allergies.
We may all experience inflammation at some time, but following these health guidelines will help any side effects be minor. But long-lasting inflammation can cause sudden episodes such as blood clots leading to stroke, tendon and bone swelling, and aches despite no known cause.
It can trigger auto-inflammatory syndromes, where the innate immune system response becomes exaggerated, resulting in unexpected spontaneous inflammatory reactions in multiple organs.
Aside from an improved approach to diet, a quick search online may bring up moringa as a “miracle” cure for inflammation.
If you don’t know what moringa is now, it’s likely you will be hearing lots about it in 2018. The bright green, slightly bitter leaf is set to be the new superfood everyone will be clamouring for.
Moringa oleifera grows in the African savannah and has been used for centuries in folk medicine for the treatment of rheumatic and joint pain. Often referred to as the tree of life, some researchers have suggested that moringa might be helpful in treating acute inflammatory conditions, with one study stating that the bright green plant not only reduced inflammation markers in mice but also helped reduce obesity, insulin, and cholesterol.