Q: What exactly is chronic inflammation, and should I be worried about it?
A: Inflammation is your body's natural response to injury. It aims to stop the damage and start the healing process. If you were to fall down and skin your knee, you'd see inflammation in action. The redness and swelling all around the wound means that your blood vessels are expanding, bringing in white blood cells and antibodies to knock out invading bacteria, along with proteins and other nutrients to repair the damage. So inflammation is a good thing, and even essential—up to a point. The problem is all that swelling and repair work can be painful (which is why anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen, are effective painkillers). Also, sometimes inflammation kicks in at completely inappropriate times. In common rheumatoid arthritis, for example, joints become painful and swollen when there's been no injury at all. Worse, this process can sometimes happen, not just in a skinned knee or arthritic joints, but all over your body. It is as if your whole system has gone on red alert, ready to attack potential infections and repair injuries. Your cells release various compounds into your bloodstream that keep inflammation going when you don't actually need it. This exaggerated response plays a role in a wide variety of health problems. In your lungs, inflammation leads to asthma. In your digestive tract, inflammation causes the pain and diarrhea of Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis. In the arteries, it contributes to heart disease.
Q: Are there certain foods that trigger or quiet inflammation?
A: Yes, plenty of them. Common food allergies are inflammation in overdrive. The most extreme example is a peanut allergy, which can be life-threatening. Most other food allergies are much milder, but they all mean that something you ate triggered inflammation. In research studies, certain foods have been shown to trigger arthritis symptoms, presumably by sparking inflammation of the tissues lining the joints. The most common triggers are dairy products, corn, meats, wheat (and sometimes rye and oats), eggs, citrus fruits, potatoes, tomatoes, nuts, coffee, and sugar. Certain fats and oils can fan the flames of inflammation. Meats contain arachidonic acid, which, in your body, is converted to prostaglandin E2, a compound that sparks inflammation. Plants do not contain arachidonic acid, but some common cooking oils—particularly corn, sunflower, safflower, and cottonseed oils—can produce prostaglandin E2. On the other hand, diets rich in vegetables and fruits help prevent inflammation from kicking in unnecessarily. In a recent study at the University of Minnesota, researchers tracked the diets of 285 adolescents and looked for signs of inflammation on blood tests. It turned out that the more vegetables and fruits the adolescents ate, the less inflammation they had. Many other studies have shown the same thing.
Q: Are there any supplements that can help?
A: Yes. Flax oil is loaded with alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, an essential omega-3 fatty acid with strong anti-inflammatory effects. ALA is also found in flaxseeds, walnuts, soy products, wheat germ, and canola oil; trace amounts are in common vegetables, fruits, and beans. A second natural fatty acid, gamma-linolenic acid (GLA), is found in evening primrose, borage, black currant, and hemp oils. You will find all these oils at natural food stores. A typical daily regimen would include each of the following:
Flaxseed oil: 1 tablespoon.
Evening primrose, borage, or black currant oil: look for brands containing 1.4 to 2.8 grams of GLA.
Vitamin E: 400 IU. Vitamin E protects against oxidation of the other oils. Researchers have found an anti-inflammatory effect of ginseng in test-tube studies of human cells. The effect appears to be due to natural compounds called ginsenosides. It pays to choose foods that limit inflammation. That means avoiding meats, fried foods, and any trigger foods that seem to cause symptoms for you, and emphasizing vegetables and fruits. If you need an extra anti-inflammatory boost, natural supplemental oils may be helpful.