When Swelling Isn't So Swell: Curbing Chronic Inflammation

By Dr. Mickey Barber

Of the 10 leading causes of death in the United States, chronic, low-level inflammation contributes to at least seven, including heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and kidney failure (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2011). It is now widely believed that chronic inflammation that goes undetected for years is the underlying cause of these illnesses, along with autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis), inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s disease), as well as other diseases which have unknown causes, like allergies, fibromyalgia and migraines.

We know inflammation on the surface of the body as redness, heat, swelling and pain. It is the body’s healing response, bringing nourishment and immune activity to a site of injury or infection. But when inflammation persists or serves no purpose, it damages the body and causes illness. Stress, lack of exercise, genetic predisposition, and exposure to toxins (like tobacco smoke) can all contribute to such chronic inflammation, but dietary and lifestyle choices play a big role as well.

Fortunately, you can reduce inflammation through lifestyle changes. It all goes back to the fundamentals of taking care of yourself: nutrition, exercise, healthy sleep, and a positive attitude.

Nutrition: Trans and polyunsaturated fats get converted in the body to an amino acid which generates pro-inflammatory cells and hormones. If your diet includes these fats, replace them with omega-3 (not omega-6) essential fatty acids that are found in anti-inflammatory foods like wild Alaskan salmon. Also, foods that spike our blood sugar levels quickly, like white breads, cakes, cookies and sodas, prompt our body to produce more insulin to normalize our glucose levels. But excess insulin also elevates the levels of arachidonic acid in our blood, increasing the production of cells and hormones that are pro-inflammatory.

A quick list of foods to avoid/consume less frequently if you want to reduce inflammation: Refined sugar and grains, trans fats, dairy products, commercially produced red meat and processed meat, alcohol, and artificial food additives. Each of these has a role in the body’s inflammatory response. “Clean eating” (foods that are not processed/laden with chemicals) is the best way to lower risk. Replace refined sugar with natural sweeteners like stevia or honey. Replace saturated cooking oils with heart-healthy extra virgin olive oil. Replace processed meat with organic, free-range low-fat meats that contain more omega-3 fats and fewer chemicals. Reduce alcohol consumption (to one glass of red wine a day) and drink more filtered water and green tea.