8 Things You Need To Know About Inflammation And Anti-Inflammatory Diets
2016 Mar 24 4:22 PM
By Rachel Jacoby Zoldan
Read the original published feature at: http://www.self.com/wellness/2016/03/8-things-you-need-to-know-about-inflammation-and-anti-inflammatory-diets/
We break down one of the biggest, vaguest buzzwords in health and wellness—so you can actually understand what everyone’s always talking about.
Your body can do all kinds of amazing things, including protect itself. And that’s exactly what inflammation is: one part of the complex, biological response of bodily tissues to a variety of what the body deems “harmful” stimuli, including pathogens, damaged cells or irritants.
However, in recent years inflammation’s gotten a bad rap. It’s been implicated in myriad ailments, from heart attacks to cancer, Alzheimer’s to mood disorders. A proliferation of anti-inflammatory diets have made their way onto the health scene, and various clinical studies have cited concern when an inflammatory response gets out of control.
So which is it—friend or foe? Here’s everything you need to know before you start freaking out over inflammation.
- Sometimes inflammation can be a really good thing for your body—in fact, it’s a fundamental function of your immune system.
“Think about what happens when you get a splinter. Some bacteria can get in there, it may start to feel a little bit hot, get red, and could swell up,” Andrea Loewendorf, Ph.D., an immunology research scientist at Huntington Medical Research Institutes in Pasadena, California, tells SELF. That’s an example of a great inflammatory response—your body is literally defending itself by sending immune cells to kill the bacteria or pathogenic invader. Specifically, this is what’s known as an acute inflammatory response, signs of which include redness, heat, pain, swelling, and loss of function. However, because the response is acute, it should only last for a few hours max while your body is working to repair itself.
An extreme version of acute inflammation? Swelling around the brain after injury. Of course, not a great thought, but again, it’s a clear example of how inflammation is a bodily response designed to protect—not harm—our own bodies.
- Our bodies are always in some kind of inflammatory state.
“Inflammation is a part of our immune system,” says Loewendorf. “It’s the immune system at work.” Things like open wounds healing, swelling around broken bones and even a fever when you’ve caught a virus are all examples of the inflammatory response at its finest, making sure to repair what needs fixing, she tells SELF.
Nutritionist and holistic health coach Amanda Goldfarb, R.D., of Pawley’s Island, SC, concurs. “Despite the buzz around the ‘anti-inflammatory diets,’ you can’t kill the bodily function entirely—your body is always going through some sort of inflammation,” Goldfarb tells SELF.
- But if our immune systems start to overreact, that’s when problems could kick in.
“The first sign of your immune system going above and beyond is allergies,” says Loewendorf. Let’s say you’re allergic to peanuts: If you eat one, your immune system overreacts causing an allergic reaction, which, depending on the sensitivity of your allergy, could even kill you, she notes.
“Diseases like lupus or multiple sclerosis, both autoimmune conditions, are when the immune system is unable to differentiate between what’s dangerous and what’s not,” Loewendorf tells SELF. “When you have one of these diseases, your immune system doesn’t understand that ‘This is myself, this is me.’”
While the mechanism may be clear, there are no cures for the majority of autoimmune diseases, just palliative medications to keep a condition in check. “With type I diabetes, which is an autoimmune disease, the body turns on and destroys insulin-producing cells,” says Loewendorf. “You can’t make insulin anymore. You have to inject yourself daily.” Rheumatoid arthritis is another example of an autoimmune disease, which causes painful swelling in the lining of the joints. The chronic inflammation can also affect other parts of the body, such as the lungs, nerves, and blood vessels.
- When you hear people talking about the dangers of inflammation, what they’re really talking about is chronic inflammation.
As opposed to acute inflammation—a response to injury or infection—chronic inflammation doesn’t have a positive role to play. It can exist, as with the conditions described above, in a constant low-level state, doing nothing helpful and possibly putting many body systems at risk. For example, if there are inflammatory cells just hanging out in your blood stream all the time, they can damage your arteries. This leads to a buildup of plaque in the artery wall, which increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The extent of the effects of chronic inflammation is not very well understood, but it’s a hot topic in medical science as well as in the mainstream media and wellness circles.
- Interestingly, obesity is also considered to be a state of chronic inflammation.
There is a theory that obesity is a kind of physical manifestation of inflammation. Caroline Apovian, M.D., director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center and professor of medicine and pediatrics at the Boston University School of Medicine, is one of the proponents of this theory. “We realized a while back that obesity is a state of chronic inflammation,” Apovian tells SELF. She describes a cascade of bodily responses, starting with the accumulation of fat, which leads to the release of pro-inflammatory molecules and an influx of immune cells, especially macrophages, which clean up dead cells and debris. “Then, the inflammation leaks into the blood because immune cells secrete what we call cytokines into the blood, which can lead to dangerous inflammation in other tissues, like the heart and pancreas,” she says. Inflammation, in this case, is almost like a domino effect: The more fat tissues you develop, the more inflammatory responses you’ll have and more organs could be affected, Apovian adds.
- There are multiple ways to control inflammation (to a point).
Got a swollen ankle or a fever? These are both acute examples of inflammation that can be treated with OTC anti-inflammatories like Advil and Aleve, Loewendorf tells SELF. Ice works well to constrict blood vessels and reduce painful swelling. Acute inflammation has a purpose—and a job to do—so it’s not inherently a bad thing you want to stop, except that it can be painful, and that’s what the pain meds and ice are for.
Autoimmune disorders, unfortunately, don’t serve any greater purpose, and worse, doctors are for the most part stumped about how to stop them. But each has its own treatment regimen to control symptoms.
- What you eat can have an effect on systemic inflammation in the body—but there isn’t a scientific consensus on “anti-inflammatory” diets.
Goldfarb says that processed carbs, anything with trans fats, red meats, and anything with lots of sugar is inflammation-inducing and could lead to more chronic issues. Therefore she urges the importance of cutting these out of your diet. (And it looks like about half of us need to heed that warning, big time: A new study published in BMJ found that over half of Americans subsist on a diet of ultra-processed foods. Yikes!)
Ask Apovian about the anti-inflammatory diet and she’ll tell you “it’s just jargon.” Similarly, Goldfarb says it’s not about a specific diet plan when trying to reduce inflammation using your eating habits—it’s more about cleaning things up.
“I would never tell a client, ‘I’m putting you on an anti-inflammatory diet,’” Goldfarb tells SELF, “I’d say, ‘Let’s see what we can change,’ instead.”
However, if you look to Drs. Nicholas Perricone and Frank Lipman, who have both made waves in the health world recently, you’ll see they both have their own versions of anti-inflammatory diets. The idea is basically to cut out those same foods Goldfarb recommends against, while focusing on inflammation-reducing ones, such as foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids (hello, salmon), fruits and veggies, which are packed with antioxidants (let the battle over nightshade vegetables commence; some experts suggest avoiding their potentially inflammatory effects, while others tout their anti-inflammatory prowess), and a liberal use of spices. Not only do these diets purport to make weight loss easier, but they also claim to slow the aging process and prevent disease.
Goldfarb can’t argue with that advice, even if she wouldn’t use the term “anti-inflammatory.” She would similarly recommend a diet rich in whole, clean foods—incorporating the use of as much fresh food as possible. “You’re going to feel better, and you’re going to lose weight. It’s a win-win,” she tells SELF.
- If you worry about inflammation, eating a good diet and adopting good lifestyle habits is a good start.
Whatever you call it, eating antioxidant-rich foods, plenty of omega-3s, and staying away from sugar and trans fats is a pretty inarguable strategy for good health and can help limit unnecessary inflammation that could be caused by your diet. Maintaining a healthy body weight will also keep you from experiencing undue systemic inflammation, as will not smoking and not overindulging in alcohol.