Inflammation seems to be the word thrown around everywhere these days in the health and wellness space as anti-inflammatory diets and supplements continue to gain popularity. And for good reason, according to studies chronic inflammatory diseases are at the root of more than half the deaths worldwide (1).
But before we go ahead and villainize inflammation it's important to distinguish between the different types.
Types of inflammation
Inflammation is part of the body's defence mechanism. It is the process by which the immune system recognizes and removes harmful stimuli and begins the healing process. There are generally two types of inflammation: acute and chronic inflammation.
This is a temporary state of inflammation and the body's natural response to injury, illness or trauma in order to restore the body back to balance. Essentially known as the good type of inflammation, this could be caused in response to viral or bacterial infections or trauma to the physical body such as a sprain, cut, or broken bone. Symptoms may include sneezing, fever, pain, heat, redness, swelling, nausea, bruising, and headaches.
An ongoing state of low grade inflammation, this typically goes on for months or even years and results in damage to the body's own tissues. Chronic inflammation has been linked to the development of health conditions such as autoimmune disease, arthritis, depression, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and neurological diseases.
Of course the immune system does need to produce inflammatory chemicals to protect itself however inflammation becomes a problem when it is chronic.
This type of inflammation can actually fuel states of illness and disease in the body.
Signs of chronic inflammation
Symptoms of chronic inflammation can be vast and may include high blood sugar, fatigue, skin conditions, depression, anxiety, belly fat, digestive problems, brain fog, frequent infections, trouble losing or gaining weight, body pain, puffy face and under eyes, allergies and sensitivities, and insomnia.
High-Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein : High levels of hs-CRP indicate inflammation, but it is not a specific marker for chronic inflammation since it can also be elevated in acute inflammation stemming from a recent injury or sickness.
Serum Protein Electrophoresis SPE : Measures specific blood proteins to help identify and confirm certain diseases as well as inflammation occurring in the body.
Homocysteine : An amino acid that occurs in the body as a metabolite of protein breakdown. High levels are associated with autoimmune disease, heart disease risk, stroke, and Alzheimer’s.
Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate (ESR) : A blood marker that can reveal inflammatory activity in the body.
Causes of chronic inflammation
Chronic inflammation can be caused by many factors such as:
- repeated exposure to toxins, chemicals and irritants
- poor diet
- chronic stress
Foods to include to combat inflammation
Though diet will always need to be individualized as any food can be inflammatory for certain people, there are specific foods that are characterized as anti-inflammatory because they contain a variety of anti-inflammatory properties.
The Mediterranean diet is a prime example of an anti-inflammatory diet centered around whole fruits and vegetables, wild fish, quality animal protein, and healthy fats.
Foods that are particularly high in anti-inflammatory compounds include:
Extra virgin olive oil
A staple in the mediterranean diet, extra virgin olive oil is shown to be protective to the heart and blood vessels, promote gut health, improve brain function as well as reduce the risk of cognitive decline (1)(2)(3). It is not only anti-inflammatory but also antimicrobial and a source of antioxidants.
The predominant fatty acid found in olive oil, oleic acid, has been shown specifically to reduce inflammatory markers (4)(5). However olive oil's potent anti-inflammatory effects seem to stem primarily from its antioxidants which are powerful mediators of inflammation and may help to reduce the risk of chronic disease (6)(7).
When shopping for olive oil, it's important to be aware that the quality does make a difference. Always look for extra virgin olive oil stored in a dark glass bottle and away from heat to avoid oxidation and potentially damaging the fats.
If you are looking for more potent antioxidant effects, matcha tea will possess a greater amount of antioxidants, more precisely known as catechins.
As you are ingesting the whole powder keep in mind that the caffeine content will also be higher than your typical steeped green tea.
The anti-inflammatory effects of papaya are largely due to its antioxidants but also its unique proteolytic enzyme papain (11). Papain can help us to better digest protein, increasing absorbability and also improving digestive symptoms such as IBS (12).
Papaya has been shown to reduce inflammatory markers due to its many beneficial phytonutrients and fiber content (13). It is also loaded with vitamin C, an important antioxidant that can combat oxidative stress and promote healing in the body (14).
Tomatoes are rich in a number of anti-inflammatory nutrients such as vitamin C, potassium, and lycopene. Spotlight on lycopene, this is a star nutrient as it has been shown to have anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory effects and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (15)(16)(17).
Pro tip: cook your tomatoes in olive oil to get a boost in lycopene content as heat increases absorption (18).
If you aren't a regular nut consumer, now may be the time to start!
Anti-inflammatory nuts include walnuts, pistachios, almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts and cashews.
Not only are nuts high in anti-inflammatory nutrients they are also a source of fiber, fat and protein to help keep blood sugar stable.
Opt for raw and unsalted instead of roasted nuts to make sure you are benefitting from the anti-inflammatory effects of nuts. Many snack packs with nuts contain high levels of sodium as well as inflammatory vegetable oils which should be avoided.
Wild fatty fish
This is because fish are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, and more particularly, EPA.
Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) is the anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid associated with down-regulating cytokines which contribute to chronic inflammation (23).
When consuming fish it's important to choose wild cold water fish that are lower in heavy metals and toxins such as sardines, salmon, trout, and anchovies. Farmed fish should be avoided. If you are vegan you can find omega 3 fatty acids in foods such as walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds as well as supplements from an algae source of omega 3 fats.
Similar to papaya, pineapple also contains a proteolytic enzyme, called bromelain. Bromelain is extracted from the stems of pineapples and used in many supplements to reduce pain and inflammation in the body. Known as the anti-inflammatory enzyme, bromelain can not only aid in digestion but also get rid of toxins from the body, improve allergy and asthma symptoms, support recovery, reduce swelling and pain, inhibit clot formation, improve immune function, and reduce inflammatory markers (24)(25).
Though bromelain is found most concentrated in the core it can also be obtained by eating the juicy parts of the pineapple.
A popular Ayurvedic spice that is making its comeback, turmeric contains highly potent anti-inflammatory effects notably due to one compound, curcumin. Curcumin is the extract found in most supplements as it is turmeric's active compound responsible for its many health benefits.
As an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compound, curcumin has been shown to improve markers of oxidative stress and systemic inflammation (26).
It is most commonly used to treat inflammatory conditions and reduce pain and swelling.
Research shows curcumin may be a therapeutic tool in the treatment of many conditions such as colon cancer, lung cancer, breast cancer, inflammatory bowel diseases, diabetes, and arthritis (27)(28).
You can include turmeric in your diet by adding it to juices, elixirs, smoothies, soups, stews, curries, and more. Be sure to add a healthy fat or black pepper alongside your turmeric powder in your food as this increases bioavailability and absorption into the bloodstream.
A favourite food for many, you're going to want to fill up on berries even more once you're done reading this!
Berries are one of the richest sources of antioxidants, which means they can help to combat free radical damage and may help to fight and prevent disease states (29)(30). Anthocyanins are key antioxidants found in berries shown to exert powerful anti-inflammatory effects but there are also many others including ellagic acid and resveratrol (29)(30).
Dark leafy green vegetables
Eat your greens! You probably don't need to be told that green vegetables are good for you, but leafy greens are up there as one of the healthiest foods available. What do these include? Spinach, chard, collard, kale, lettuce, and bok choy are some examples of leafy green vegetables.
Leafy greens contain high amounts of phytonutrients and vitamins and their dark bright colours are indicative of being rich in antioxidants, plant compounds that fight inflammation. Some of these nutrients include vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, polyphenols, magnesium, potassium, flavonoids, carotenoids, lutein, and sulforaphane. Not to mention fiber, which helps to stabilize blood sugar, feed the microbiome, and improve cardiovascular health.
About the Author
Laurence Annez is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner and Health Coach, specializing in PCOS and women's hormones. She also holds a degree in Creative Writing and has extensive experience writing on health and wellness topics. Laurence's mission is to inspire and motivate individuals to take control of their own health and reach their ultimate health goals.