Heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes—researchers have determined these devastating illnesses have something in common. What is it? They all appear to be linked to “sustained low-grade inflammation”, the ongoing release of inflammatory immune compounds that have been identified as a major contributor in the development and progression of many life-threatening diseases.
When inflammation is short-lived it’s not a problem. A certain degree of inflammation is a natural process of the immune system that helps the body fight infection and promotes healing, as when we stub our toe or the irritating itch of a mosquito bite. However, inflammation can also wreak havoc in the body. It can lay the foundation for serious health consequences when it goes awry and becomes chronic rather than transitory.
The connection between chronic inflammation and degenerative disease has been significantly strengthened by a blood test that measures a marker for inflammation. The marker is known as C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance produced in the liver that indicates the presence of inflammation in the body. Research shows that people with high C-reactive protein levels have an increased risk of heart attack, stroke, cancer and other chronic diseases.
Some of the factors that promote overactive inflammation include obesity, high cholesterol, cigarette smoking, high stress, excess blood sugar, anger, high blood pressure and a lack of exercise.
One of the most important things we can do to reduce the risk of chronic inflammation is to eat the right foods. According to scientific research, poor nutritional habits can lead to chronic inflammation. We consume an excess amount of foods that can be classified “pro-inflammatory” or inflammation-causing foods. To help prevent chronic inflammation, limit or avoid fast food, trans-fats, processed food, food additives and omega-6 essential fatty acids. These foods can cause the body’s natural defense system to act in much the same manner it would to a wound or other injury. For instance, trans fats, a kind of unsaturated fat produced by using hydrogenated oils is most prevalent in margarine, chips, packaged foods, full-fat cheeses and frozen bakery products. Trans fats can increase the risk of degenerative chronic ailments by raising levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol and lowering levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.
Not as well known as omega-3 essential fatty acids, omega-6 is abundant in animal fat from meat and dairy, cereals, breads, most vegetable oils, salad dressings, spreads and baked goods. We need to cut back on omega-6 intake that can trigger inflammation, and increase our consumption of the more healthful omega-3 fatty acids that produce substances within the body to help reduce inflammation. Foods rich in omega-3s are “anti-inflammatory” or inflammation lowering foods and are a vital component of an anti-inflammatory diet. They have the power to reduce and prevent not only inflammation but also the disease associated with it. Omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6s are considered “essential” because our bodies are unable to manufacture them on their own. These fats must be supplied by diet. They are found in every living cell in the body and are vital for the body’s normal functioning. Unfortunately, the typical western diet may contain 10 to 30 times more omega-6 essential fatty acids than omega-3s. This creates an imbalance in our body, making it more susceptible to inflammation. Ideally, the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats should be roughly 2:1.
There are three important fatty acids that make up the omega-3 fat family. Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) is the plant-based omega-3. Dietary sources of alpha-linolenic acid include flax, canola oil, walnuts, hemp, pumpkin seeds, chia, perilla oil, soybeans and olive oil. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are the most potent and beneficial omega-3s. Cold-water fatty fish (sardines, herring, salmon, anchovies and tuna) contain generous amounts of EPA and DHA.
For persons who seldom eat fish, choose a good quality fish oil supplement that has been independently tested to be pure, wild, fresh and free of all toxins and PCBs.
Here are some other anti-inflammatory foods to help subdue inflammation in the body:
- Dark-green leafy vegetables
- Nuts and seeds
- Cruciferous vegetables
- Whole grains (not wheat)
- Green tea
- Spices (turmeric, ginger, garlic, cayenne)
- Dark Chocolate (70 percent or more cocoa content)
- Low-fat yogurt, goat’s milk yogurt, kefir
- Beans and lentils
- Organic frozen fruits and vegetables (with no sugar added)
- Free-range chicken and turkey
- 100% juice
Joe Smulevitz is a Chartered Herbalist, a Master Herbalist, a nutritional researcher, and author of numerous health articles.