By Lisa Ostrander
All across the world people use herbs and spices in their cooking, however, we don’t commonly practice this in the United States. It’s been shown that when you cook with herbs and spices, you are improving your meals with antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Interestingly many cultures use food to heal, while Americans look for a “magic pill” from their doctors. In this article, I am going to discuss inflammation and how to treat it naturally by eating well.
So let’s talk about inflammation! It’s our body’s natural response to repair itself and is crucial to the healing process. When inflammation occurs, white blood cells protect us by releasing chemicals into the blood stream or affected tissue. Increased blood flow from inflammation may cause redness, warmth, and swelling (all part of the healing process). This can stimulate nerves and cause pain. New cells will then be called up to replace injured tissue.
There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is quick and severe. It can last from a few days, all the way up to a few weeks, and is caused by trauma or infection. Some examples would be a sore throat, an exercise injury, or a traumatic fall. Chronic or low-grade inflammation is long term and can last several months to several years. Viruses, autoimmune diseases, or persistent activation of an area that has been injured previously, causes chronic inflammation. Inflammation can also be inappropriately triggered by allergies or autoimmune diseases (rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and more). This can be very dangerous because when chronic inflammation is not resolved it causes damage to the body over long periods of time. The brain stimulates the body’s immune system during pain or irritants, and then your body is flooded with immune cells. They eventually attack the organs and other systems causing more inflammation.
Some studies have suggested that unnecessary inflammation has occurred due to our poor diets. This leads me into a discussion about the hormones insulin and cortisol. Insulin is the storage hormone that brings nutrients into cells; think of it as feeding your cells. Unfortunately, many Americans suffer from high insulin levels, which is a result of a poor diet. The typical American diet is unnecessarily high in carbohydrates like sugar, flour, and processed foods. High insulin levels can increase inflammation, cholesterol and the chance of developing blood clots. It can stimulate the growth of cancer cells, create hormone problems, and cause brain aging (also known as Alzheimer’s). Additionally, too much insulin makes you fat and keeps you fat.
While under a constant inflammatory state your body reacts by up regulating cortisol, which acts as an anti-inflammatory hormone. However, since the inflammation is constant so is the production of cortisol. This leads to insulin resistance, death of nerve cells, and depresses the immune system. Consequences are weight gain, increased blood pressure (cardiovascular disease), dementia, insomnia, depression, fatigue, fertility issues, digestions/absorption problems (ulcers, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome), and the list goes on.
On the bright side, many studies show that essential fatty acids like those found in oily fish play an important role in our body’s inflammatory process. Likewise, certain vitamins, minerals, and photochemicals (like those found in beets) may have tremendous benefit by reducing the prevalence and severity of inflammation.
Therefore, food is medicine and the choices you make impact your health. If we can learn how to eat better, we can learn how to treat what ails us.
What should you be eating you ask? The following is a list of some of the best-known anti-inflammatory foods and spices. While this list is not all-inclusive, it will give you a great starting point.
Omega-3, (both EPA and DHA and vitamin B12) found in fatty fish like wild Alaskan salmon, tuna, and sardines (Sardines are a concentrated source). Omega-3’s help with brain health, joint pain and stiffness caused by rheumatoid arthritis, and protects against dementia/Alzheimer’s. Consuming fish with omega-3’s helps to regulate blood pressure and lower the risk of developing clots in the blood vessels. Omega-3’s also decrease triglyceride levels, which can put you at risk of heart disease. Omega 3 has been identified as having significant anti-inflammatory health benefits.
Turmeric, has a compound called curcumin (that makes it yellow). Curcumin is a potent antioxidant, a powerful anti-inflammatory, and has anti-cancer properties. Research has shown it reduces transformation and spread of tumors. Other studies show that it blocks inflammatory enzymes that cause pain, swelling, and stiffness associated with arthritis (like Rheumatoid and osteoarthritis). Curcumin has been found by the National Institute of Health to lower triglycerides (fat in your blood).
Ginger, is in the same family as Turmeric with similar properties and a powerful anti-inflammatory. Used to ease joint pain, promote detoxification, help stomach ailments, aid digestion, fight nausea, and act as an anti-microbial, Ginger also contains minerals like potassium, manganese, copper, and magnesium. The lipids prostaglandins are a hormone like substance that carries out numerous functions in our body. One function important for this particular conversation is that they are created on the site of an injury or among an illness and will control inflammation. However, if they are continuously produced they will create unwanted inflammation. Interestingly, ginger can inhibit the formation of prostaglandins thereby reducing inflammation and pain associated with it.
Blueberries are an antioxidant dynamo since they are high in phytonutrients that reduce inflammation. Blueberries actually help stimulate your body to heal itself and have antibacterial properties. In addition, blueberries help fight against cancer, dementia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and low cholesterol. Also low on the glycemic index, blueberries have a smaller impact on your blood sugar levels compared to other fruits. In fact, studies have shown that blueberries actually help regulate your blood sugar levels overtime. Other studies show that organic blueberries have higher levels of antioxidants and lack pesticides; unfortunately, non-organic blueberries are heavily sprayed with pesticides.
Kale/Bok Choy/Spinach, Swiss chard, other leafy greens (also non leafy greens, kelp and seaweed all have high anti-inflammatory properties due to their content of beta carotene, vitamin A, and other nutrients. They also are involved in a myriad of other health benefits such as, bone strength, eye health, fat loss, reducing the risk of cancer, and heart disease. Bok Choy also contains Omega-3’s.
Sweet Potatoes are healthy carbohydrates high in vitamins and minerals. Sweet potatoes contain beta carotene, vitamin B5 and B6, thiamin, vitamin C, vitamin A, and vitamin E. Vitamin A, another potent antioxidant, is linked to anti-aging, cancer prevention, blood clot prevention, and promotes good eye health. Vitamin B6 helps breakdown homocysteine, which contributes to the hardening of blood vessels and arteries. Furthermore, sweet potatoes can assist in lowering blood pressure, aid in blood sugar regulation, and have antibacterial and antifungal properties.
Lastly, the pigment anthocyanin in sweet potatoes is an antioxidant that helps reduce inflammation in the brain and nerve tissues.
Garlic was used medicinally for centuries and this super food was used as penicillin in WWI and WWII. It was part of the food ration for Russian soldiers in WWII (nicknamed “Russian penicillin”). It is a powerful antibiotic; I personally use Allicin garlic pills when I am sick. Allicin is the organic compound in garlic that gives it odor. The high sulfur content in garlic aids in preventing the triggering of inflammatory enzymes in your body. Garlic has been proven to kill 23 types of bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella. Garlic can prevent blood clots in the arteries by lowering cholesterol and blood pressure. It’s a super immune booster, regulates blood sugar levels (especially for diabetics), helps regulate the formation of fat cells (helps you lose weight), and the allyl sulphides in garlic help fight against cancer cells.
Shiitake mushrooms like garlic, can inhibit activation of inflammatory enzymes thus making them a great source for anti-inflammatory benefits. Eritadenine, a substance found in Shiitake mushrooms encourages our body’s tissue to absorb cholesterol, therefore lowering the levels in our blood. There is compelling research that shows these antioxidant powerhouse mushrooms protect us against cardiovascular disease, fight cancer, and also have antiviral effects. New studies have shown that they help protect against disease like rheumatoid arthritis.
A few other notable mentions are green tea, cinnamon, cayenne, chili peppers, rosemary, and cloves. Most of the foods detailed in this blog are antioxidants, which are very important in our diet. They stabilize free radicals that are produced as a by-product of digestion. Free radicals damage our cellular systems and membranes. Antioxidants fight cancer, aging, and many other diseases.
What foods should you avoid? You should be avoiding trans fatty acids that are found in commercial baked goods, fast foods, margarine, hydrogenated oils, and processed vegetable oils (corn, peanut, soy, safflower, sunflower). Avoid fried foods, as high temperatures will oxidize most oils, creating free radicals. Foods that trigger inflammation contain refined sugar, processed fructose, and high fructose corn syrup. However, coconut oil can be heated to high temperatures without oxidation.
Avoid high inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids that are found in the saturated fat of non-grass fed animals. These animals are fed genetically modified corn, grains, antibiotics and hormones.
Dairy products, like commercially produced meats, are full of the same harmful ingredients listed above. Recent studies have also shown that more than half the world’s population cannot digest milk. However, if you do choose to eat dairy products, buy organic grass-fed, antibiotic free, hormone free, and pesticide free.
Sugar, the white devil, is highly inflammatory and found in almost everything. Typical foods and drink high in sugar are soft drinks, packaged foods, and sweetened juices. Keep in mind that sugar goes by many names: corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, maltose, sorghum syrup, and sucrose. Furthermore, you should avoid the synthetic sweeteners NutraSweet, Splenda, saccharin, aspartame, etc. My next blog will be about the dangers of sugar, so I won’t go into specific details now.
Wheat and other gluten-containing grains are highly acid-forming and inflammatory to the body. Unfortunately, modern day wheat isn’t processed the way it was originally. Wheat is genetically modified and toxically sprayed because of this it has been linked to many diseases. I recommend the book “Wheat Belly” by William Davis, MD for a more in-depth explanation of wheat and its effects.
Table salt isn’t necessarily bad but it is missing trace minerals and the amounts found in packaged foods are too high. High levels of sodium negatively effect inflammation and oxidative stress in our bodies. Look for foods low in sodium and when cooking at home choose sea salts instead.
Don’t shoot the messenger, but alcohol is on this list. The most obvious reason is the high sugar content. It compromises your immune system, hinders muscle growth, and destroys your liver. Alcohol also may cause heart disease, cancer, and is related to countless other health issues.
In conclusion, this is meant to be a guideline on how to start eating healthier. You should always opt for homemade, local and/or organic when possible. I understand that busy lives and budgets make it difficult to make the right choices but aren’t you worth it? At the very least, put some thought into it before you open your mouth and swallow. Happy eating!
Check out this recipe idea to increase the anti-inflammatory foods you are eating:
Indian spice rub
6 Tablespoons curry powder
3 Tablespoons coarse sea salt
4 teaspoons crushed red pepper
1 Tablespoon ground cumin
1 Tablespoon ground coriander
1 Tablespoon dried mint
2 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoon ground ginger
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl (use fork to mix) save in a glass jar.
How to use:
Spread olive oil on meats and fish; dust well or to taste with Indian spice rub and grill.
I use on pork chops, chicken, salmon, and swordfish but feel free to use on your choice of meats and fish. Keeps juices in with nice exterior and lots of flavor, full of anti-inflammatory properties.