If you're more klutzy than graceful, you're painfully aware of the inflammation associated with a sprained ankle or a bump on the head. This classic form of inflammation results when the immune system sends in a SWAT team of white blood cells to repair damaged tissue or overpower infection-causing intruders. The resulting redness and swelling are signs that the body is healing itself.
On the flip side, "silent" or chronic inflammation is a subtle form of inflammation that you can neither feel nor see, yet it can undermine your health every day. Basically, the science goes like this: various instigators cause your immune system to fail to shut off—instead it releases a continuous stream of inflammatory compounds that spread throughout the body, damaging cells and tissues.
"What makes low-grade inflammation deadly is that it can operate in stealth mode for years until it reveals itself as heart disease or stroke," says Christopher Cannon, MD, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and coauthor of The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Anti-Inflammation Diet. "Inflammation plays a key role in causing plaque deposits in the arteries to rupture, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke as debris barricades the artery."
In fact, the more the medical community examines chronic inflammation, the more it’s been associated with maladies such as diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis, Alzheimer's, and autoimmune diseases such as lupus. In a report published in the Journal of Epidemiology last year, researchers found that of more than 80,000 people studied, those who developed cancer had significantly higher plasma levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a compound in the blood that signals the presence of inflammation, than their disease-free counterparts. Hay fever, skin allergies, acne, and asthma have also been linked to chronic inflammation.
Finger on the Triggers
What ignites the kind of inflammation that overstays its welcome? Multiple factors are at work, including aging, weight gain, and stress. "But a major player is a diet that is more proinflammatory than anti-inflammatory," says Monica Reinagel, MS, LN, author of The Inflammation Free Diet Plan. When you overdo it on proinflammatory foods, your immune system may ramp up production of proinflammatory compounds. "Inflammation is one of the tools in the immune system's toolbox, but while a hammer is a good thing to have when you need to drive a nail, simply walking through the house swinging one around is likely to do more damage than good," Reinagel says.
While you can't change factors such as age, you can cool the fire within by making smart decisions regarding what you put in your grocery cart. "Your daily diet is one of the most effective ways to control inflammation," says Cannon.
Tracy Wilczek, MS, RD, a nutritionist at Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami, is bullish on a plant-based, whole-foods diet that is low in saturated fats, refined grains, and added sugars. "The anti-inflammatory effect of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and other whole foods likely results from a synergy of their nutrients and that they often replace proinflammatory, processed foods in the diet," she says.
The lauded Mediterranean Diet, rich in plant foods and flavored with olive oil, is a healthful model that fits this description. In fact, a study in a 2010 issue of The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society determined that participants who followed a Mediterranean-style eating pattern had lower markers of inflammation, including CRP.
Part of the inflammation-thwarting effect may stem from the high antioxidant content in plant foods, particularly brightly hued vegetables and fruits. "Antioxidants may reduce the inflammation-inducing oxidative damage that is caused by free radicals that roam the body," says Reinagel. A Greek study published in 2010 found that a diet high in antioxidants raised blood levels of the anti-inflammatory compound adiponectin.
The low-calorie, nutrient-dense nature of a plant-based whole-foods diet often results in weight loss, which can also help squelch inflammation. "Fat cells churn out inflammation-inducing compounds such as cytokines—a big factor in why inflammation is such a pervasive problem in an America that is generally too pudgy," notes Cannon. For this reason, it's not surprising that the risk for developing almost every chronic disease is elevated when you're overweight. "Dropping just 5 to 10 percent of your excess weight through a combination of healthy eating and exercise can have a huge impact with respect to lowering inflammation," Cannon says.
Balance Your Fats
A diet heavy in saturated or trans fats is thought to promote inflammation, and so is an out-of-whack ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. The body uses fatty acids to make prostaglandins, hormones that control inflammation. "Fatty acids from the omega-6 family are converted into inflammatory prostaglandins, while those of the omega-3 family are used to make anti-inflammatory ones,â? says Wilczek. "So when you consume too few omega-3 fats in relation to omega-6 fats, you risk encouraging inflammation in the body."
Early humans probably consumed a nearly balanced ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats. People today, however, often ingest 10 to 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. Why? First off, a glut of cheap omega-6-rich vegetable oils, predominantly soy and corn oils, have infiltrated packaged processed foods and restaurant kitchens. "Ironically, well-intentioned advice to replace saturated fats, like butter, with unsaturated fats, such as vegetable oils, often increases the intake of omega-6," notes Reinagel.
Mind Your Sensitivities
Ignoring an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten, lactose, or other substances may also exacerbate chronic inflammation. "When the body recognizes these items as hostile invaders, the immune system revs up and increases the circulation of inflammatory compounds," says Reinagel. She adds that foods that are proinflammatory for one person may be benign or even anti-inflammatory for another: "For example, plants in the nightshade family, such as tomatoes and peppers, are considered anti-inflammatory due to their high antioxidant content. But for people with a sensitivity to solanine (an alkaloid in nightshades), they can cause inflammation and joint pain."
If you suspect you're sensitive to a particular substance such as gluten or lactose, try eliminating it from your diet for at least two weeks to see if you notice a difference in symptoms, such as reduced bloating, diarrhea, and fatigue.
Be Less Refined
Refined grains, starches, and sweets, which quickly spike blood sugar, can also trigger an inflammatory response. â??A vegetarian who shuns fatty meats but still has a menu full of packaged processed foods and baked goods could be setting up an internal environment prime for inflammation,â? says Wilczek.
Start by swapping refined grains for higher-fiber whole grains and eating them at meals with healthful fats, such as olive oil, and proteins, such as tofu, to slow digestion.
Matthew Kadey, MS, RD, is a dietitian, nutrition writer, and recipe developer. He blogs at muffintinmania.com.