Using herbs, spices and other foods to help reduce inflammation in the body might not seem like a big deal. But it’s actually one of the best ways to protect your health, says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, Director of Wellness Coaching at Cleveland Clinic.
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Chronic inflammation — a normal bodily process gone awry — can contribute to conditions ranging from heart disease and diabetes to cancer. The scariest part? You may not even realize you have this condition.
Flying under the radar
It’s impossible to ignore the acute inflammation that accompanies an injury — pain and swelling are the hallmarks.
In contrast, chronic inflammation happens deep down in your body and often doesn’t cause any symptoms. So it can fly under the radar. But that doesn’t stop it from wreaking havoc on your health.
The good news is that the day-to-day choices you make — what you pop in your mouth, especially — affect your inflammation levels.
Your body’s three-alarm fire
Inflammation isn’t inherently bad. In fact, we couldn’t survive without it. Normal inflammation is the body’s response to any injury or infection. It’s part of your body’s natural healing process.
Say you scrape your knee and develop a skin infection. Your immune system sends waves of specialized cells to attack the bacteria and damaged tissue, like an army of soldiers fighting off an invading force. When the good guys have gained the upper hand, they recede, and your body begins to heal.
That’s the key part: The inflammation shuts off. It helps your body heal but doesn’t damage it unless something has gone awry. The problems arise when it fails to shut off and becomes chronic — that’s when it does harm.
Fanning the flames
Chronic inflammation isn’t restricted to one area of your body. It burns slowly and steadily, releasing molecules of inflammation such as cytokines and C-reactive protein (CRP).
Over time, this causes a chemical chain reaction in the body that leads to serious problems. Arteries can become inflamed, setting the stage for heart attacks and strokes. Insulin resistance (a diabetes precursor), full-blown diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and even depression can develop.
An everyday injury or infection can spark the initial flame, but it takes more than that to keep it burning. High blood pressure can contribute to inflammation, as can being obese. Smoking and stress also encourage the destructive domino effect. And then there’s your diet.
Some foods are fire starters
Almost everything we eat either encourages or discourages inflammation. The Mediterranean diet works wonders for controlling inflammation. There are lots of reasons to avoid saturated fats, refined carbs and sugars, and trans fats (the type so prevalent in processed foods). But it turns out that these foods can also help create those molecules of inflammation.
Think of them as fire starters. In one study, the more sweets, red meat, processed meat, “white” foods and french fries people ate, the higher their levels of CRP and other indicators of inflammation.
Some foods are fire fighters
Luckily, there are fire fighters galore too. Plant foods are rich in antioxidants and other phytonutrients. These healthy compounds have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices are loaded with compounds that reduce inflammation, as are whole grains, olive oil, nuts, seeds and legumes.
And the omega-3s — the healthy fats found in fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna — also help cool the flames. Focusing on these foods will also help keep your weight healthy, which is critical for keeping inflammation in check.
Studies bear out the benefits
One large study showed that people who eat a lot of veggies and fruit but avoid meat and white flour have lower levels of inflammation. Upping your fiber alone — which will happen naturally on the Mediterranean diet — has been shown to lower levels of CRP by up to 40 percent.
So eating a Mediterranean diet might be the change that prevents you from developing inflammation that can lead to a host of medical conditions.
You may not be able to cut out every last fire-starter in your life. But you can gain the upper hand by making smart choices about what’s on your plate.