We all know what inflammation looks and feels like. It’s that patch of swollen red skin after scratching a mosquito bite, or the pain of an abscessed tooth. Inflammation is the body’s way of telling us it’s fighting off the enemy of pathogens, poisons, and irritants, so it can heal. But what if inflammation—like a raging forest fire—was destroying everything in its path? How do we fight it? Usually, we seek the advice of a doctor, hoping they’ll provide a remedy. At best, they’ll run a series of tests and prescribe antibiotics and or pain medication. But all we’ve done is relieve the symptom, not the problem, because if chronic low-grade inflammation persists, the body switches to DEFCON-1 or autoimmune mode and prepares for nuclear armament and attacks healthy tissue, mistaking it for pathogens.
-How changes in diet, affect chronic inflammation
Between 1894-1904, the first USDA nutritional guidelines were published, advocating variety, proportionate moderation, measuring calories, focusing on nutrient-rich whole foods, while lessening the consumption of fats, meats, and dairy. During World War II, a modified version expanded the pie chart from five primary food groups to seven. And while variety and moderation were still advocated, that all changed in 1992 when the food pyramid was introduced and the Standard America Diet was born, which promoted a high acidic diet. In spite of the advice given by a nutritional expert, Louise Light, that if the American public followed the revised plan, “could lead to an epidemic of obesity and diabetes,” the USDA censored those reports in favor of the economic self-interest of industry lobbyists.
The western diet, with its overconsumption of meat, dairy, and processed foods, promotes high acidity that medical experts conclude is the underlying cause of inflammation that leaches valuable minerals from our body such as calcium, which has a direct impact on the development of osteoporosis.
But diet isn’t the only cause of chronic inflammation. Constant physical, psychological, and emotional stress weakens the body’s immune response to inflammation.
-Stress and depression, the not so silent killers
Traffic jams, getting the kids off to school, meeting deadlines at work are all part of the fast-paced, ever-demanding world we live in. It’s gotten so that we’ve come to accept it as a normal part of life. But that throbbing feeling in our head, hyperventilating sensation in our chest, and churning in our gut are biomarkers of stress. It seems unavoidable and out of our control. But what we do have control over is how we react and internalize stress. These external conditions and even our perception of them, along with other life stressors, affect inflammation and the cyclical pathway of stress that, according to recent medical studies, may link to depression—an additional trigger of inflammation.
Can damage caused by inflammation be reversed?
Once the underlying cause of inflammation is removed from its host, and the body begins to heal, swelling subsides, and the discomfort of pain lessens. And although there have been claims of reversing cellular damage due to chronic inflammation— through a change in diet—there isn’t medical evidence to support it. At the very least, we can prevent chronic inflammation from occurring or recurring by regulating stress through mindful awareness, switching from a high acidic diet, and following a more alkaline diet of fresh organically grown vegetables, fruits rich in antioxidants, whole grains, and healthy omega-3 fats.
-The anti-inflammatory diet
While there are those who recommend that all meat, grain, fat, and dairy be eliminated from our diet, most nutritional experts concur that unless someone has developed direct allergies or sensitivities related to these foods, they should not be excluded from a balanced healthy diet. The key is moderation. However, lessening the consumption of meat, dairy, and fat, and eliminating refined, processed food is a more optimal approach. Even America’s premier healthcare provider, Kaiser Permanente, is advocating a high plant-based diet and challenging their patients to adopt an anti-inflammatory diet to cure chronic illnesses such as type-2 diabetes.
Most of us can go into our refrigerator/freezer right now and find a stockpile of inflammatory foods. They lay hidden in packaged frozen meals, processed snacks, bottled soda, salad dressings, and condiments. Or in our pantries, where boxes of crackers, cookies, chips, enriched flours, pasta, refined sugars, and table salt reside.
How to be a savvy shopper and food sleuth?
Rather than eliminate everything at once, shift your focus. Next time you’re at the market, instead of shopping the aisles and freezer sections, shop the perimeter. Food manufacturers spend millions of dollars on research to better understand what the consumer buys and how they shop. Additionally, they pay top dollar to have their merchandise prominently displayed in supermarkets. In turn, supermarket chains have a vested interest to keep you, the consumer, in the food aisles and freezer sections with the lure of discount coupons. All the more reason to keep your GPS set to the store’s perimeter, where you have the opportunity to make wiser, more informed food choices in selecting fresh, organically grown produce, grass-fed meat, cage-free poultry, wild-caught seafood, and dairy. Better still, shop your local farmer’s markets and smaller independent stores; this way, you’re helping support local businesses and not the mega-chains. But if you happen to find yourself in the Bermuda Triangle of the freezer section and cookie aisle, read the labels. I maintain a 5-ingredient rule, anything over that, I toss back.