Inflammation, simply put, involves your immune system’s attempt to heal or hurt you. It can vanish quickly after completing its job or continue to flare—sometimes so much that diseases result. By learning about inflammation’s causes and effects, we can develop insights into powerful strategies for optimal health and healing.
Everyone experiences temporary inflammation, which is your body’s natural response to injury, infection, irritation, stress, certain foods, toxins, chemicals and other offenders. Depending upon the source, acute inflammation could include swelling, redness, heat and/or pain inside the body. For instance, when you stub your toe, it swells. This is the immune system working hard to battle the bad stuff and repair you. Usually, this type of minor inflammation goes away fairly rapidly and people feel better.
But other times, the body continues to operate on high alert and is triggered into chronic inflammation—when immune cells overreact with unusual growth to mistakenly attack one’s own tissue. That process can lead to diabetes, obesity, arthritis, other bone and joint disorders, heart disease, dementia, stroke, skin conditions, respiratory disorders, digestive disorders, hormonal disorders, emotional and cognitive disorders, autoimmune diseases and even cancer. “Numerous lines of evidence suggest that uncontrolled chronic inflammation leads to chronic diseases,” says Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD, professor of medicine at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.
In order to avoid chronic inflammation, identifying inflammation triggers is helpful. High levels of inflammation can be impacted by extreme stress; regular intake of unhealthy foods such as glutens, bad fats, refined and processed carbohydrates, refined sugars, processed meats, dairy, corn and soy; food allergies or sensitivities; a leaky gut; high blood sugar; alcohol; obesity; persistent sleep deficits; consistent emotional toxicity; smoking; indoor and/or outdoor pollutions; environmental toxins exposed and loaded in the body; heavy metals; virus or bacteria; problems with hormones; and autoimmune conditions and other disorders.
Fortunately, foods, herbs, spices and supplements provide strategies to potentially reduce, help eliminate and prevent inflammation. “Chronic inflammation is regulated by a master switch called nuclear factor kappa beta [NF-kB],” explains Aggarwal, who notes that NF-kB impacts more than 500 inflammatory proteins in the body. “Work from our laboratory has indicated dietary agents and spices in particular can control the NF-kB pathway.” He adds that extensive turmeric spice research shows strong anti-inflammatory benefits. In his book Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease, Aggarwal shares more information about turmeric and other spices to prolong life.
In addition to turmeric, Aggarwal’s scientific research shows that almonds, anise, basil, black pepper, caraway, cardamom, cashews, chili pepper, cinnamon, clove, coriander, cumin, fennel, fenugreek, figs, flaxseed, garlic, ginger, gooseberry, holy basil, lemongrass, licorice, mango, mint, mustard seed, nutmeg, onion, oregano, parsley, pecans, pomegranate, prunes, rosemary, saffron, sesame seeds, star anise, tamarind and walnuts also help reduce inflammation. “All of these foods, herbs and spices are very important, and certainly easy in a diet,” he says.
Green tea is another excellent option. “The active component [in green tea]—called EGCG—has been shown to reduce tumor necrosis factor-alpha, another cause of inflammation in the body,” says Susan S. Blum, MD, MPH, founder and director of Blum Center for Health and author of The Immune System Recovery Plan. In order to reap the benefits from healthy foods, herbs and spices, your digestive system needs to be in good shape, adds Blum, who recommends probiotics and digestive supplements (she created a product called Enzyme Support for her Blum Center for Health). “Probiotics further help digestion and improve the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut to reduce inflammation and aid other bodily functions,” she explains. Try to stick with organic foods as well, which minimize toxic exposure to chemicals (like pesticides) and maximize nutrient levels. The Environmental Working Group lists foods with the highest and lowest levels of pesticides.
Your general lifestyle matters, too—both physical and mental. “Studies show that lifestyle changes can modify gene expression in over 500 genes in only three months, upgrading or ‘turning on’ genes that are protective, and down-regulating or ‘turning off’ genes that promote inflammation, oxidative stress and other underlining mechanisms that are often seen in a variety of conditions,” says Dean Ornish, MD, clinical professional of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who has been conducting research for 38 years as founder and president of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute. Lifestyle changes discovered through Ornish’s work feature a whole-foods, plant-based diet; stress management; modern exercise; yoga and meditation; and love and support with a sense of connection and social community.
“Eat more, stress less, move more and love more,” Ornish recommends. “The body can personalize what it needs in order to begin to heal.” As genes become healthier due to lifestyle changes, the gain helps people feel better and live longer. Ornish’s program has been shown to reverse coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and even aging at the cellular level. It may also slow, stop or even reverse the progression of early-stage prostate cancer.
At your annual physical, your doctor can order a simple blood test to determine your levels of inflammation. By measuring the amount of pro-inflammatory marker c-reactive protein in your blood, your doctor can determine if your body is in a state of inflammation. The best result is below 1 mg/dL. If your results are above 1 mg/dL, you’ve gained vital personal information that your inflammation levels are too high.
Through learning about inflammation and other important health and disease dynamics, roles and strategies, you can engage in actions for optimal health, healing and happiness. Give yourself these gifts and make them a priority.
- Anticancer by David Servan-Schreiber MD, PhD
- Nutritional Solutions
- Bharat B. Aggarwal, PhD
- Curcumin Research
- The Environmental Working Group
- The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce
- All 48 Fruits and Vegetables With Pesticide Residue Data
- The EWG’s Clean 15
- Dean Ornish, MD
- Preventive Medicine Research Institute
- Ornish Lifestyle Medicine
- Susan Blum, MD, MPH
- Blum Center for Health
- The Immune System Recovery Plan: A Doctor's 4-Step Program to Treat Autoimmune Disease
- The Autoimmune Solution: Prevent and Reverse the Full Spectrum of Inflammatory Symptoms and Diseases by Amy Myers, MD
- Academy of Integrative Health and Medicine