In times of stress and threat of illness, your immune system kicks in with inflammation to protect you. But inflammation as a permanent defense is not healthy. While we’re all going extraordinarily stressful times, it’s important to keep your immune system healthy and inflammation under control.
When you think about why our bodies produce inflammation, it may seem counterintuitive to want to seek out foods that fight it. After all, inflammation is part of the body’s built-in defense against injuries and invading bacteria and viruses. When you sprain your ankle, for example, an inflammatory process kicks in that sends protective molecules to the area to help you heal, disappearing once you’re better. That’s a pretty important job. But there is such a thing as too much inflammation, and diet can play a big role in preventing it.
Unlike acute inflammation, which may announce its presence with short-lived discomfort or swelling, chronic inflammation can linger quietly for long periods anywhere in the body — from blood vessels to joints to organs to cells. Though it may not raise an obvious red flag, even low-grade chronic inflammation can put you at risk for heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and certain types of cancer. Genetics, your environment, stress and other causes can be at the root of the problem, but so can diet. Eating inflammation-fighting foods can keep things in check, especially since some of the other risk factors for chronic inflammation are beyond your control.
An anti-inflammatory diet follows the same recommendations you may have heard for addressing other health goals, like weight loss: Reduce sugar, processed foods, refined flour and so on. So, if you’ve already taken those steps, you’re on your way. Next, consider taking these additional measures:
Choose Quality Fatty Acids
Every cell membrane in the body contains fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids may lower inflammation and promote heart health. Most of us don’t get enough omega-3s, and we take in far more omega-6s than we need.
Omega-3s are found in leafy green vegetables, walnuts, whole soy foods, fish, flaxseeds, flaxseed oil, canola oil and grass-fed animal meats. Omega-6s are found in nuts, seeds and vegetable oils like corn, sunflower, safflower and soybean oils.
To help make the shift toward an inflammation-fighting profile of fatty acids:
- Choose oils and fats wisely. Use unprocessed fats: That means no hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated fats and heat-treated oils. Replace corn, safflower or sunflower oils with cold-pressed, preferably organic, canola or extra-virgin olive oil, which contain fewer omega-6s. And use lower temperature cooking methods to minimize free-radical formation and unhealthy changes in the fats.
- Eat more fish. Salmon (including canned), mackerel, anchovies, herring, lake trout and sardines are rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Try to get two to three servings a week. Canned light tuna is another source of omega-3s, but because of some concerns regarding the mercury level found in samples of canned tuna, it’s best to limit your consumption to one serving per week. (You may want to cut out tuna if you’re pregnant or trying to conceive.) Most of us can bolster our intake by taking fish oil supplements, too. Note that fish is also a good source of vitamin D, which also appears to have an anti-inflammatory effect.
- Include whole-food sources of fat. Shoot for one to two servings a day of nuts, seeds, avocado, ground flax or chia seeds. Walnuts and pumpkin seeds are particularly anti-inflammatory; eat them raw or lightly toasted at home—just until you can smell the aroma.
- Minimize arachidonic acid (AA) from food. This omega-6 fatty acid may increase inflammation. The biggest sources are the visible fat on cuts of meat, but all animal foods—including lean meat, poultry, shellfish—contain AA. Meats that are also high in saturated fat can promote the build-up of plaque in the vessel and lead to heart disease. Trim all meat fat that you can see, and eat these foods less often and in smaller portions. It’s also wise to eat grass-fed, not grain-fed, red meat. And when you eat eggs, choose the omega-3 enriched variety.
Healthy bacteria called probiotics play an anti-inflammatory role in our bodies. You can find them in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, fresh sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and kombucha drinks. Probiotic supplements may be an option for some people, too. Visit our article The Health Benefits of Probiotics to learn more about incorporating them into your diet.
Make Antioxidant-Rich Choices
Chances are, you’ve already heard about the many benefits of eating a diet rich in antioxidants. By eliminating the unhealthy molecules known as free radicals from the body, antioxidants can help to prevent diseases like Alzheimer’s and certain cancers. What you may not know is that these powerhouses can also reduce inflammation in the body by blocking the enzymes that set the inflammatory process in motion.
These foods contain anti-inflammatory compounds including vitamin E (especially gamma-tocopherol), the phytonutrient quercetin and the flavonoid anthocyanin (which gives red, blue or purple produce its color) :
- Bell peppers
- Dark-colored berries
- Dark-colored cherries, especially tart
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Red grapes and grape juice
- Red wine
Look to Your Pantry
Many anti-inflammatory foods contain salicylate, the same active ingredient found in aspirin. You probably have many of the highest salicylate-containing foods in your pantry or spice rack already:
- Curry powder
- Dill powder
- Fenugreek powder
- Garam masala
- Mustard powder
- Worcestershire sauce
Other salicylate-rich foods include raisins, prunes, raspberries, licorice, mint (fresh), black pepper, and pickles. Those who are sensitive to aspirin should take care not to overindulge in salicylate-rich foods, as they may cause adverse reactions including breathing difficulty and hives.