Inflammation: what it is, why it’s bad and how to reduce it.
In part 1 we looked at the key cause behind pain and health problems: inflammation. We covered how we can look out for signs of inflammation and how to test for it.
Let’s carry on and see how we can keep it under control.
How to reduce inflammation in the body
Dr Will Cole (a functional medicine practitioner) says, in his brilliant book The Inflammation Spectrum, ‘Studies estimate that 77% of inflammation reactions are determined by factors over which we have at least some control - our diets, our stress levels, and our exposures to pollutants, with the remainder determined by genetics.’ This is BIG! It means that there is so much we can do ourselves that directly affects the way we look, feel and ultimately live the rest of lives.
Here are a few tips on how we can control the inflammation fire that can build up inside our bodies:
- Diet – ‘Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food’ - Hippocrates
- Sugar – Reducing your sugar intake is an obvious yet a tricky tip… but only initially! As soon as you start keeping tabs of your sugar intake, you will see an immediate drop in weight, I promise! This means cutting back on sugar-sweetened beverages as well as foods and snacks that contain sugar like cookies, cakes, pastries and ready-to-eat cereals.
Sugar is made up of 50% sucrose and 50% fructose. This combo can be harmful and causes inflammation in the body. Particularly troublesome is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), which is thought to be linked to obesity, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, cancer, fatty liver disease and chronic kidney disease Sugar is also known to raise blood pressure levels which increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases
- Trans fats and saturated fats – While a moderate intake of naturally occurring trans fats (like meat and dairy) may not be harmful, these items are known to sometimes trigger inflammation. Artificial trans fats are worse and are found in certain margarines (that contain partially hydrogenated oils), frozen pizza, fast food, microwave popcorn and coffee creamers. These fats undergo a lot of chemical processes which ultimately provide no nutritional value and trigger inflammation, leaky gut, and many other health risks, like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18) (19) (20) (38)
- Processed oil and meat – Processed cooking oils including vegetable oil are highly refined using harmful chemicals that are then neutralised or deodorised, resulting in products that lack flavour and nutritional value. They also contain high amounts of omega-6s fats which produce pro-inflammatory chemicals in our body and are associated with serious issues including depression, suicide, violence and major health issues due to increased inflammation. Instead, use coconut oil, rapeseed oil, avocado oil, pure Ghee, butter and extra virgin olive oil for cooking and dressing. The same principle applies to processing meats such as to extend their shelf life by smoking, drying, canning, salting etc. Eating processed meat is associated with an increased risk of many chronic diseases such as bowel and stomach cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, high blood pressure and heart disease
- Follow an anti- inflammatory diet - The focus of this diet is primarily to eat fresh, green, nuts, omega-3 rich foods, whole grain, lean protein, healthy fats and spices, to obtain their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties to inflammation. The Mediterranean diet too is known to be very anti-inflammatory which explains why the people in the Mediterranean, have a longer and better quality of life than people eating a standard British or American diet.
2. Sleep – ‘Sleep is the Swiss Army knife of health, when sleep is deficient there is sickness and diseases, and when sleep is abundant, there is vitality and health’ – Matthew Walker
When we don’t get enough sleep, our circadian rhythm (CR), which is our internal clock that regulates our sleep and wake cycle every 24 hours, gets disrupted. When our CR goes out of sync, our immune system reacts and triggers inflammation.
In fact, just one night of poor sleep can trigger inflammation in our body Imagine the impact on our bodies after a few nights of insufficient sleep… Another interesting fact is that women might need more sleep than men as a higher inflammatory response was seen in woman, when tested with poor sleep.
Matthew Walker is a neuroscientist and author of the book, Why We Sleep. He says that 8 hours of sleep is what we should aim for and should be non-negotiable. He suggests the following tips for improving sleep:
- Reinforce consistency – Going to bed at the same time every day as well as waking up at the same time is key for maintaining a healthy CR and for optimal sleep, including during most weekends!
- Dim the lights an hour before bed – This is to enable our bodies to release a hormone called melatonin that helps our body know it’s time to sleep.
- Keep your room cool – ensure your room temperature is cool at 68 degrees Fahrenheit or 18.5 degrees Celsius to enable your brain and body to drop their core temperatures to initiate sleep.
- Avoid nightcaps and caffeine – Alcohol is a sedative and sedation is not the same as natural sleep. In addition, your body doesn’t feel restored and fresh in the morning as it disrupts your sleep several times at night, which goes unnoticed. Alcohol also blocks REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or dream sleep which is crucial for emotional and mental health. Caffeine, on the other hand, is a stimulant and should be avoided after 1 pm.
- Don’t stay awake in bed – If you can’t fall asleep or have woken up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep after 20 minutes, your brain learns this pattern and associates you staying in bed with being unable to fall asleep. Instead, get up and read in dim light and in a different room until you are ready to sleep again. Avoid checking your phone, emails and/or snacking during this time. If that doesn’t work for you then meditation in bed is also a good option.
Other useful tips also include leaving all electronic devices outside your bedroom before bedtime. Instead of your phone, use an old school alarm clock to wake up in the morning. Stress is known to be another common cause for lack of sleep. Taking 5 to 10 minutes before bedtime to plan out the following day and writing it down does help to avoid restless nights!
3. Stress – “Just when you feel you have no time to relax, know that this is the moment you most need to make time to relax.” – Matt Haig
It is estimated that 80% of visits to a doctor are due to illnesses related to stress. According to Dr Alka Gupta, MD, co-director of integrative health at the Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center, when the body undergoes any emotional or physiological stress, we go into a ‘fight-or-flight response’. When that happens, our body releases a stress hormone called cortisol, which shuts down any non-emergency functions including digestion and our immune system in an effort to focus on dealing with the threat. Additionally, stress also decreases the number of lymphocytes, white blood cells that are part of your immune system, putting you at a risk of picking up viruses.
By nature, our ‘fight-or-flight response’ is meant to be short and adaptive but being in this state all the time can cause chronic inflammation So, how can we manage stress better?
- Break down objectives/problems into smaller tasks – Instead of getting daunted by the difficulty of achieving your personal or professional objectives, tackle them by breaking them down into smaller tasks by focusing on accomplishing three tasks every day. Dedication and consistency are key.
- Stop for regular breaks – Whether you’re at work or work from home, taking a break every 40 minutes has been proven to boost productivity, job performance and health It gives you clarity, encourages better decision-making, often sparks creative ideas and will most definitely stop you from burning out.
- Set boundaries – This is something I struggle with. I say this because, yes, it feels great helping and pleasing people and is most definitely a positive thing to do, but if you do something that is causing stress and anxiety to you then that’s a sign you are stretching yourself and need to create healthy boundaries. Take time to do the things that are important to you! In both your personal and professional life, set certain non-negotiable boundaries, such as scheduling your health and fitness regimen, taking no work calls after leaving the office, and spending quality time with your family. (29)
- Encourage a positive attitude – I love Marie Forleo’s (renown life coach) mantra that she highlights in her book, Everything is figureoutable, and having that kind of positive mindset can help you have a optimistic perspective when looking at problems/issues. In addition, surrounding yourself with positive people, doing good, doing a bit of self-care, listening to inspirational speakers or podcasts, meditation and self-belief are some examples of how to inculcate a positive attitude when dealing with problems or challenges.
- Look forward, not back! – My husband is a genius when it comes to not doing this. He’s a very critical person and constantly reminds himself of all the mistakes he’s made in the past. It’s unhealthy and stressful! Instead, approach it as every mistake made in the past has taught you something which will remind you to do things differently next time. Bottom line? Learn from your past but focus your energy and be excited for what’s to come.
- Eat healthy foods – When we’re stressed, we often indulge in unhealthy foods, but it’s during these times when we need to ensure our body gets good nutritional food as our immune system is running low and lack of proper food can weaken it further. Having a planned menu for the week or precooking and freezing meals for the week can take off the pressure of cooking each work night.
4. Exercise – ‘Movement is a medicine for creating change in a person's physical, emotional, and mental states.’ – Carol Welch
Whether you like running, walking, rowing, going to the gym or just turning up the music and dancing, movement really helps your body fight inflammation.
- There is evidence to suggest that people who engage in regular physical exercise have a lower risk of developing a metabolic syndrome like increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess fat around the waist, abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels, as well as cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases. (31)
- Research also suggests that a moderate workout of just 20 minutes stimulates the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response which is useful when trying to fight any viruses / bacteria. (32) (33)
- Regular exercise reduces fat mass and adipose tissue (tissues that store energy in the form of fat) inflammation which is known to contribute towards systemic inflammation. (34)
- It helps improve sleep which plays a huge role when it comes to inflammation. Not only does it help improve the duration of your sleep but improves the quality of sleep as it increases the amount of time spent in deep sleep. This boosts your immune system, supports cardiac health and controls stress and anxiety. (30)
- Exercise gets you out and encourages social connection, whether it’s through attending gym classes or being part of a cycling or running group, it has a positive effect on overall health and survival. (41)
- And lastly, physical movement or exercise is a great way to pump out your brain’s feel good neurotransmitters, called endorphins, improving mood and crucial for mental health.
NOTE - Although exercise is good for you, overdoing it can also have a negative effect, causing harm to your body. Look out for my blog on ‘Worry about recovery’ to learn more!
5. Supplement – ‘Even with a perfect diet, the combination of many things –including our depleted soils, the storage and transportation of our food, genetic alterations of traditional heirloom species, and the increased stress and nutritional demands resulting from a toxic environment – make it impossible for us to get the vitamins and minerals we need solely from the foods we eat.’ – Dr. Mark Hyman
Diet should always be the first source for obtaining your daily requirements of vitamins and minerals, no doubt. But as a result of our food and lifestyle choices that have a huge impact on inflammation, it is essential to boost our bodies with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant rich ingredients that really help lower our inflammation levels.
- Curcumin – Considered as the most active compound of the Indian spice turmeric, this ingredient has been widely accepted in the medical community as hundreds of clinical trials have been conducted on it, primarily, for its potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It is an excellent option if you are looking for a plant-based alternative for dealing with pain and inflammation particularly if you suffer from chronic pain such as arthritisSupplementing with curcumin is effective as it only represents 3% - 5% of turmeric. You can have a dosage of 500mg up to twice a day.
- Omega 3 – Naturally abundant in fatty fish such as tuna, mackerel, sardines, Omega 3 is not only excellent for brain and eye health but is also considered as one of nature’s most anti-inflammatory ingredients. In addition to eating fish, you can top up your weekly omega 3 requirement by having fish oil or obtaining your omega 3 from algae (suited for vegetarians/vegans). For adults, daily dosages can range anywhere between 200 – 1000mg.
- Magnificent magnesium – This is another mineral known to help lower inflammation levels in our bodies as it lowers the inflammatory marker – CRP. In fact, low levels of magnesium have been linked to chronic inflammation. Responsible for over 300 + functions in our body, other noteworthy roles of magnesium include, being responsible for muscle contraction and relaxation, stabilizing od, reducing stress, facilitating production and transportation of energy as well as enhancing deeper sleep. Typical daily dosages include 100 - 350mg.
- Probiotics – Our gut is responsible for 80% of our immune system and when inflammation occurs in the gut it can lead to a whole host of health issues. Taking probiotics can promote healthy gut bacteria and keep inflammation at bay as it is believed to have a positive effect on a wide range of health issues such as depression, candida allergies, IBS, Crohn’s disease. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are a good all rounded probiotics to use. Having large amounts of probiotics after a course of antibiotics is very useful as antibiotics allows bad bacteria to multiply uncontrollably. Look for a high count of 50 billion or more bacteria in each dose. (36)
Stay tuned -> every month I will be featuring an ingredient highlighting their benefits in more detail, backed up by scientific evidence.
(Editor’s note: The content on Rhythm Nutrition is based on research and suggestions from health professionals, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision you’re your medical professional regarding diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Always seek medical advice if you have any concerns).