We talk a lot about inflammation being bad for our health, but what exactly is it and how can we reduce the load on our body? We talk to the experts…
With so much bad press, it’s easy to forget that at its basic level, inflammation is a natural reaction in the body – and a vital part of our immune response.
“Ultimately, inflammation has been designed to be beneficial,” explains Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist who has studied inflammation extensively (drjennamacciochi.com). “It’s a vital immune response and fundamental to our health. If we didn’t have an inflammatory response we would be unable to fight infection and recover and heal from injury.”
Our inflammatory response is perhaps most visible and recognisable when we cut ourselves, are stung by an insect or suffer from a muscle sprain – and the feeling of pain, redness and swelling is a clear indicator that your body is working to help the wound.
However, a similar mechanism also works inside the body when other triggers set off the inflammatory response. For example, the itchy eyes and runny nose associated with animal allergies or hay fever is a result of our immune systems fighting allergen proteins which have triggered an inflammatory response.
“Inflammation occurs after an injury or exposure to an external aggressor (such as bacteria, viruses or toxins) to support the healing process,” adds Dr Laure Hyvernat, a naturopath, nutritionist and expert in inflammatory conditions (thenaturalconsultation.com). “It releases a cascade of inflammatory chemicals such as histamine and prostaglandins, causing the tissue to swell. This natural response is protective and aimed to isolate the foreign substance from further contact with body tissues.”
But – as we all know – while inflammation can be beneficial and useful, too much inflammation in the body can have a huge impact on our health and wellbeing.
“It’s important to see inflammation as a spectrum,” explains Dr Laure. “As a first line response to external aggression it is a part of our immune response and very beneficial in acute situations, but inflammation becomes an issue when your body is constantly exposed to external aggressors, which leads to a chronic inflammation state.”
So, when exactly do the scales tip? To understand this, it’s important to know there are two types of inflammation: acute inflammation and chronic inflammation.
“While inflammation is a vital immune response, it is, by design, an acute short-term assault,” explains Dr Jenna. “This is because it is as damaging to our own tissues as it is to any invaders. Triggered incongruously, it becomes more than a short-term problem. Like lingering, unwanted house-guests, if inflammatory immune cells continue to stay active and recruited to a part of our body, they eventually cause problems long after the danger is gone.”
Indeed, if left for too long, the inflammatory response can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs – a process which is linked to the development a variety of conditions. “Inflammation is now emerging as a key factor in negative health issues and chronic ‘non-communicable’ diseases that plague our modern lives including heart disease, certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, allergy and autoimmunity,” Dr Jenna says.
Some of the more common causes of chronic inflammation include:
Lifestyle factors can also contribute to chronic inflammation, including smoking, obesity and stress. Some people can even react in an inflammatory way to certain foods containing gluten, dairy or other components. Of course, it’s important to remember that everyone is individual and people’s bodies react to certain triggers in different ways.
If you’re worried you may be suffering with the effects of chronic inflammation, it’s time to tune in to your body to see what it’s telling you. “A myriad of symptoms rings the bell before it is too late and make us aware that chronic inflammation is rising at the cellular level,” explains Dr Laure. “Low energy levels, joint pain, food intolerance, poor digestion, regular infections, acne, dull skin, dark circles, low mood, depression and weight gain are all concrete signs that your body is overwhelmed by chronic aggression and a lifestyle change is much needed.”
So, how can we go about reducing the inflammation in our body in a holistic way? There are a number of tweaks we can make to our lifestyle to help limit internal aggression and improve our health. According to our experts, one of the most important things we can do is reduce the amount of stress we’re subjecting our bodies to. Dr Jenna and Dr Laure also have the below tips:
Sleep well: As Dr Jenna explains, both the quality of your sleep and the duration are important. “Melatonin is our natural sleep hormone, produced when it gets dark,” she says, adding that it’s antiinflammatory. Make sure your body is creating the right levels of melatonin by limiting screen use at night (technological devices emit blue light which suppresses the production of the hormone), and try eating foods rich in tryptophan which can be converted into melatonin. Such foods include nuts and seeds, poultry and fruits including apples, bananas and peaches.
Avoid pro-inflammatory foods: Saturated fats and excess sugar and salt can all increase inflammation in the body. “Steer clear of highly processed food such as fried foods, those laden with refined sugar such as biscuits and cakes, alcohol and processed meat,” Dr Laure adds. “My philosophy with food is simple, focus on quality rather than quantity and see your plate as a fuel of energy for your cells.”
Exercise regularly: “Exercise is a natural anti-inflammatory,” says Dr Jenna. “Just the act of moving our muscles leads to the production of anti-inflammatory chemicals that help quench any unruly inflammation.”
Eat anti-inflammatory foods: Studies show that some foods can actually help reduce inflammation and these include the likes of berries, avocados, fatty fish and green leafy veg. “One of my favourite anti-inflammatory prescriptions in the winter involves mixing one tablespoon of grounded ginger, another of turmeric, with a sprinkle of black pepper in a cup of warm water,” Dr Laure says. “As a morning shot, it not only soothes the digestive tract but also drastically reduces the oxidative stress.”
Practice gratitude: “Gratitude has been scientifically proven to reduce inflammation, improve immunity and boost feel-good hormones among many other things,” says Dr Laure, who recommends journaling on a daily basis. “Doing something daily that helps you focus on the positive aspects of your life allows you to reset your mind and eliminate the toxic thoughts that act as stress factors and generate cellular inflammation.”
Add more of these nutrients into your diet, says Dr Jenna
Rather than opting for specific foods, aim for an anti-inflammatory diet. The most researched one is the Mediterranean diet. There are specific aspects of it that make it beneficial, including…
Omega 3s – You can get these either from supplements or from regular oily fish. Aim for EPA and DHA rather than ALA unless you are vegetarian or vegan – ALA comes from vegan sources but its conversion to the active forms EPA and DHA is low.
Phytonutrients – These are biologically active chemical compounds found in plants. They act as a natural pesticide which helps protect plants from predators, so it’s no surprise that regular consumption helps to prevent us from getting sick through their unique anti-inflammatory properties. There are over 20,000 phytonutrients including polyphenols, carotenoids and flavanoids. Some of the most thoroughly researched include lycopene from cooked tomatoes, curcumin, which is found in turmeric, resveratrol in grapes and epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) in green tea. I’d steer away from focusing on consuming one specific phytonutrent or even relying on phytonutrient supplements. Like an orchestra, they tend to work best when consumed together as part of a balanced diet.
Fibre – Our microbes in our gut actually help us fully digest our food, liberating many of the phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals from our diet. They specifically like to eat fibre from plant-based foods.
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