You’ve been prescribed an anti-inflammatory diet. What does that even mean?
In my daily interactions with patients, there are certain buzzwords that always seem to weave into conversation: gluten-free, coconut, protein, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the big one — and often most obscure — anti-inflammatory.
Many people come to me because they read about “inflammatory food,” or their doctor has put them on an anti-inflammatory diet. Few know what that even means or how diet even plays a role.
Inflammation can come from a variety of sources. First, let’s look at the role our immune system plays in our health: It protects the body from foreign invaders, called antigens. These invaders can take shape as the pollen that triggers your allergies, the bacteria in the nail you step on that causes swelling and soreness, or the food you may be sensitive to that causes hives and itching.
The response to each antigen comes from our immune system doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: attack the foreign substance and put you back in a state of homeostasis (normality). It does this by releasing cytokines, which induce inflammation and respond to infections. Swelling, for example, is your body’s mechanism to isolate an injury and spare other cells around it.
So essentially, during the process of inflammation, defense mechanisms develop. The injury is repaired and the inflammation is eventually resolved. We also have antigens that live within us called human leukocyte antigens (HLA). They're friends with your immune system and won’t be attacked. This is a simple explanation as the entire process involves a complex cascade of reactions within the body.
When inflammation takes a turn for the worse
Sometimes, the immune system backfires and either responds too much or too little, or views a relatively harmless substance as a deadly threat. At this point, our normal inflammation can turn into a systemic or chronic version.
The inflammation occurs, even though it was not necessarily needed, and may not get the signal from the body to stop. The result is chronic disease. It can occur in the brain, the arteries, the gut and the joints. Autoimmune conditions may occur when those friendly HLA antigens become enemies and the body starts attacking its own tissues. That’s probably why people are looking for a way to silence inflammation, get rid of it and avoid getting it in the first place. Enter the anti-inflammatory diet.
Before it became trendy, most of us equated anti-inflammatory products with medications such as acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin). The drug works by blocking body mechanisms that cause inflammation. There are foods that can do this as well.
How inflammation is measured
Blood tests look for “inflammatory markers” by measuring acute phase proteins in the blood triggered by cytokines. For example, C-reactive protein (CRP), sedimentation rate (ESR) and plasma viscosity (PV) are common tests. They all may demonstrate the presence of inflammation. However, they won’t tell you if you have a specific condition or disease.
What to eat:
Hippocrates once said, “Let food be thy medicine.” He was right. We know from many rigorous studies our food choices can impact our inflammation status. The foods with the highest anti-inflammatory benefits are:
• fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy vegetables),
• colorful roots and herbs (including turmeric and ginger)
• omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish and chia seed)
• healthy fats (including olive oil)
• high fiber whole grains.
These foods also stimulate growth of healthy gut bacteria that have an anti-inflammatory impact.
What to skip:
On the flip side, these are foods you want to consume less of:
• sugar, which has been shown in one study to activate inflammatory pathways that may increase the risk for breast cancer.
• gluten, because studies have found it may cause inflammatory side effects when consumed by people with either celiac disease (an autoimmune condition) or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
What really matters is your overall eating pattern and lifestyle rather than individual foods. The next frontier in eliciting the body’s anti-inflammatory factors will most likely result from the work on stress and relaxation methods such as meditation and yoga.
Eat real (unrefined) food, practice stress relief techniques on a regular basis and be physically active — the ultimate anti-inflammatory drug. Chances are you’ll set the stage for less inflammatory disease and a longer, healthier life.
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Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, R.D., is the manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, and the author of "Skinny Liver." Follow her on Twitter @KristinKirkpat. For more diet and fitness advice, sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter.