Food is medicine. As with all medicines too much, or the wrong type of medicine can be harmful. Many decisions are made daily concerning what we eat. These small decisions add up and ultimately affect our health. By choosing wisely a positive impact can be made on our health and wellness.
In part I of this article inflammation was defined and the causes were discussed. In Part II we will look at natural ways to decrease inflammation through diet, supplementation, and with mind body medicine.
The first step in reducing inflammation is simply to stop eating highly processed foods. These include fast foods, candy, potato chips, sodas, and fried foods. Many of these foods are high in saturated and trans fatty acids. As the fats are broken down they form the precursors to pro-inflammatory prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are chemical mediators produced in the body that perform many functions including the regulation of inflammation. It is this inflammation that can become chronic and cause many of the disorders afflicting Americans, some of which are the leading causes of death. These include arthritis, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, strokes, cancer, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s dementia.
Processed foods are also very high in simple sugars. Simple sugars are broken down very quickly into glucose which floods into the blood stream. To counteract the glucose, a surge of insulin is secreted by our pancreas. The insulin is needed to transport the glucose into the cells so that it can be converted into energy. Normally there is a steady state of glucose and insulin in the blood. Eating foods that are high in simple surgars is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Glucose and insulin surge all at once, then they stop very quickly. This is why one feels a rush of energy after eating a candy bar then they crash an hour later. The end result is increased inflammation.
Adopting a healthy diet is the key to reducing inflammation. The Mediterranean diet which was first publicized by Dr. Ancel Keys in 1945 did not gain acceptance until the 1990s when Dr. Willett of Harvard reintroduced it in his research. The diet is based on food patterns of the countries located in the Mediterranean basin.
The Mediterranean diet has been studied extensively with many articles published in medical journals. It has been shown to lower blood markers for inflammation and promotes cardiovascular health. The diet has been recognized by the American Heart Association for its impressive effects on the progression of cardiovascular disease.
It emphasizes olive oil as the primary source of fat. Olive oil has excellent antioxidant properties and is able to lower LDL (bad cholesterol) while increasing HDL (good cholesterol). It is best to consume extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin means the oil that comes from the first pressing. It is this oil that contains the highest levels of antioxidants, vitamin E, and phenols.
Important aspects of the Mediterranean diet include eating complex carbohydrates found in fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Complex carbohydrates do not cause the rapid surge of insulin and sugar. Animal fats, lard, cream and butter should be eliminated. Protein in the form of beans and lentils are preferred over fish and poultry. Red meat is discouraged because of the high ratio of saturated fats. Dairy is limited to low-fat yogurt or cheese, and eggs should be eaten in moderation. Alcohol should consist of a glass of wine per day if at all.
Eat plenty of foods rich in antioxidants. Free radicals cause oxidative stress, which in turn provokes inflammation. Antioxidants reduce inflammation by stopping the free radicals before they cause any damage. Foods rich in antioxidants include sources that contain carotenoids (vitamin A), vitamin E, vitamin C, polyphenols, zinc, copper, and selenium. Please see the table for specific foods.
Vitamins A, C, and E are organic compounds required in small amounts. Our bodies are unable to make them so they must come from our diet. Carotenoids are the precursors to vitamin A and are found in foods commonly colored orange, yellow, and dark green. Vitamin C, also known as, ascorbic acid is found in many fruits and vegetables. It is an important antioxidant and is vital to maintaining strong connective tissue. Vitamin E is important in protecting cell membranes from oxidative damage. Polyphenols are compounds with a unique chemical ring structure that are found in plants. Several of the polyphenols are in the form of tannins.
The table lists the common sources of antioxidants.
|Carotenoids||Vitamin E||Vitamin C|
|Sweet potatoes/ yams||Asparagus||Papaya|
|Dark green leafy vegs||Corn||Tomatoes|
|Selenium, Zinc, Copper||Polyphenols||Kiwi|
|Pumpkin seeds||Green tea and Black tea|
|Seafood||Coffee (limit to 1 cup/day)|
|Whole grains||Wine/Beer (limit to 1 drink/day)|
Isoflavones are estrogen like compounds found primarily in soy beans. They have been studied in over 1000 scientific publications. Isoflavones help lower the levels of inflammatory mediators such as C-reactive protein (CRP), Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF), and Interleukin 6 (IL-6). Sources include: Soybeans, tempeh, tofu, soymilk, miso, legumes, clover, kudzu root, licorice root, and alfalfa.
Plant sterols, aka phytosterols, have a similar structure to cholesterol. They reduce cholesterol uptake into the bloodstream by displacing cholesterol in the gut. They have also been found to lower the inflammatory maker IL-6. Soybeans are the main food source of plant sterols.
Omega-3 fatty acids aid greatly in the suppression of inflammation. As omega-3 fats are metabolized in the body they produce several postoglandins and leukotrienes that help cool inflammation. Omega-3 fats are found in flaxseed oil, cold water fish, algae, nut oils, and dark green leafy vegetables. They are also popular as supplements. If taken as supplements make sure there is a high content of EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are omega-3 fats that have the most anti-inflammatory properties.
Probiotics have become popular. Probiotics contain health promoting bacteria such as Lactobacillus species, Bifidobacterium bifidum/longum, Streptococcus thermophilus and Saccharomyces boulardii. These microorganisms occur naturally in our intestinal tract. Among the many benefits, they have been shown to alleviate allergic inflammation as well as gastric and intestinal inflammation. Sources include yogurt, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut, and supplementation. If supplemental probiotics are taken, the daily minimum dosage should be 1 billion live colony forming units. Fiber should be added since it has been shown to promote the growth of these healthy bacteria.
Stress can cause inflammation. There are several studies that demonstrate an increase in inflammatory markers after experiencing a stressful event. Exercise and proper breathing have been shown to be very effective in reducing inflammation along with many other healthy benefits. Being active and learning how to breathe properly helps to lower our stress levels and focus our minds. Methods include biofeedback, yoga, tai chi, meditation, and aerobic workouts.
Inflammation has many causes including poor diet, stress and anger. It is the underlying factor in many of today’s chronic diseases. There are many steps that can be taken to lessen inflammation and its effects. Eating a proper diet and relieving stress are two important and easy measures that can be done.
Food is a true pleasure that should be savored. Take time when you eat, chew the food slowly and be thankful for such a delicious meal. Enjoy a feast with family and friends sitting around a table. Not only are the benefits nutritional, but sharing the moment creates and strengthens relationships. The sense of love and belonging has also been shown to have healthy benefits, not to mention that life becomes more enjoyable when shared.
About the Author
David G. Lancaster, D.O. is a physician and a diplomat of the American Board of Holistic Medicine who specializes in holistic medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and osteopathic manipulation. He may be reached at 972-701-9696. For more information visit www.DrDavidLancaster.com