The inflammatory response:
When you cut your finger or are exposed to an infectious agent, your immune system mounts an inflammatory response. Your finger turns red and swollen as your immune system goes to work. During this response, your body releases pro-inflammatory chemicals and hormones which attack invaders such as bacteria, while fixing your damaged tissue. Blood flow increases to places that require healing, and pain intensifies as a signal that something is wrong with your body.
The main hormones that control the inflammatory response are called eicosanoids. Our bodies use fatty acids to produce them. Omega-6 fatty acids produce eicosanoids that promote inflammation and blood clotting, supress our immune systems, and reduce healthy high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels. Omega-3 fatty acids produce eicosanoids that have an opposite or anti-inflammatory response.
It`s important to know that the inflammatory response is completely normal and is the cornerstone of our bodies’ healing response. It’s a way for our bodies to supply nourishment and enhanced immune activity to areas experiencing injury or infection. Under normal circumstances, once the threat is under control, anti-inflammatory substances are released to turn off the immune response.
The overactive immune system:
Although inflammation is a natural response to injury, infection and irritation, too much of a good thing can be extremely harmful. When inflammation is chronic, there’s a continual secretion of pro-inflammatory chemicals released in your body. Chronic release and circulation of these chemicals results in an attack on healthy cells, blood vessels and tissues. For example: damage to blood cells can promote atherosclerosis, a process that results in a narrowing of your arteries. Damage to pancreatic tissue can result in diabetes and injury to joint tissue, can contribute to autoimmune disorders such as arthritis. Recent research has pointed to the role of inflammation in heart disease, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, and it’s estimated that chronic inflammation and infection cause about one-third of all cancers.
Unfortunately, a lot of the time, people can have what is called silent inflammation, and not realize there is a problem until they suffer from one or many of its debilitating symptoms. And as we age, silent inflammation becomes more prevalent, and its effects more pronounced. As our immune systems age, they become less efficient at disarming inflammation. So even though you may feel well on a day-to-day basis, inflammation can be shortening your life or contributing to a disease. Over time, chronic inflammation works as a slow but deadly poison causing inflammatory chemicals to damage your body.
Dietary influence on imbalance:
Much of the problem with inflammatory disorders stems from an imbalance in dietary intake of the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, and the consequential cascade in pro-inflammatory activity. Artemis Simopolous, M.D., director of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition and Health in Washington, D.C., has shown that historically we consumed roughly equal amounts of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. However, over the past 30 years, Simopolous estimates that we are now eating 20 times more omega-6s than omega-3s. From a biochemical standpoint, this sets the stage for powerful chronic pro-inflammatory reactions.
Eating to decrease inflammation:
Commitment to anti-inflammatory eating patterns and lifestyle practices is the first defense to fighting off inflammation and disabling chronic diseases. Cooling inflammation includes consumption of healthy fats, fruits and veggies rich in phytochemicals (plant chemicals) and antioxidants, lean protein, whole grains and probiotics. Adequate sleep and fluids, weight management, exercise and stress reduction all round out an inflammatory diet.
In general, an anti-inflammatory diet suggests you:
- Eat plenty of fruits and veggies.
- Minimize saturated and trans fats.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Eat salmon (preferably fresh or frozen wild or canned sockeye), sardines packed in water or olive oil, herring, and black cod (sablefish, butterfish); omega-3 fortified eggs; hemp seeds and flaxseeds (preferably freshly ground); or take a fish oil supplement (look for products that provide both EPA and DHA, in a convenient daily dosage of two to three grams).
- Reduce your consumption of foods made with wheat flour and sugar, especially bread and most packaged snack foods (including chips and pretzels).
- Eat more whole grains such as brown rice and bulgur wheat, in which the grain is intact or in a few large pieces. These are preferable to whole wheat flour products, which have roughly the same glycemic index as white flour products.
- Eat more beans, winter squashes, and sweet potatoes.
- Cook pasta al dente and eat it in moderation.
- Avoid products made with high fructose corn syrup.
- Eat lean protein sources such as chicken; cut back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods.
- Avoid refined foods and processed foods.
- Spice it up. Ginger, curry, and other spices can have an anti-inflammatory effect.
Another thing to remember are that these are only general guidelines, and that we are all biochemically unique. You should always consult a health professional before embarking on a new eating regime.