By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
When it comes to the real nuts and bolts of staying healthy, one of the best things you can do for yourself is to keep your inflammation level down.
Now I’ll be honest. Chronic inflammation is one of those topics that’s not particularly glamorous, but it is important. Here are a few of the reasons why: Inflammation is the primary cause of heart disease—plus it’s been linked to a number of autoimmune conditions and long-term degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis.
How do you protect yourself from these problems? You begin by taming inflammation. Fortunately, that’s easy to do if you make healthy lifestyle choices and commit to eating an anti-inflammatory diet.
I’ll tell you specifically how to do that in a few minutes. But first, I want to address what chronic inflammation is, and how to know if you have it.
What Is Chronic Inflammation, Anyway?
Inflammation is a great example of medical irony. It can literally destroy your health if it’s left unchecked, yet it’s a completely normal response from our immune system—one that’s actually designed to help us heal!
When we get a cut or burn, for example, the injured area will get red, swollen, and sometimes warm. This is your inflammatory response, and the puffy redness is an outward sign that your body is working hard to repair the damage. As the injury heals and the inflammatory response slows, the swelling and redness go away, and before you know it, you’re back to normal.
That’s what a normal, acute inflammatory response looks like. Where we get into trouble, though, is when this response never fully shuts itself off, and inflammation becomes chronic.
Unlike acute inflammation, which we can usually see and feel, chronic inflammation burns deep inside the body, at the cellular level, and is fueled by free radical damage. It’s different from acute inflammation because cuts and scrapes are usually one-time things—you hurt yourself, and then you heal. Free-radical damage, though, tends to be more of an ongoing issue.
What ends up happening with free radical damage is that the inflammatory response never really progresses normally from start to finish, because it’s constantly being re-triggered. As a result, the entire process to become so disordered that it eventually settles into an “always on” state. That’s when inflammation stops being a friend and turns into our enemy.
How Do I Know if I have Chronic Inflammation?
Unfortunately, you may not know unless you’re proactive with your doctor about testing for it.
There are a handful of key blood markers that will tell you if you’re overly inflamed, but they’re usually not part of a standard lipid panel—so you have to ask for them. When I was actively seeing patients, I used these extra tests all the time because they gave me a lot more insight into exactly how to treat people.
One of the biggies is C-reactive protein (CRP); it’s a good overall measurement of how much inflammation you have inside. I also like testing for specific markers that are known to cause chronic inflammation, like homocysteine and lipoprotein (a) (also called Lp(a) ). If they’re high, you’ll need to take action to protect your long-term health. (Check out my full list of recommended blood tests.)
You’ll especially want to get tested if you fall into any of the following groups, since higher levels of inflammation are associated with them:
- Are overweight or obese
- Regularly consume fast food and/or processed foods
- Regularly participate in strenuous exercise or athletic activity
- Experience chronic emotional stress
- Have been significantly exposed to environmental toxins, including heavy metals, pesticides, and industrial cleaning chemicals
- Have high blood pressure or diabetes
How Can I Reduce Chronic Inflammation?
Since chronic inflammation is caused by free radical activity, the number one thing you need to do is to reduce, as much as possible, the number of free radicals in your bloodstream.
One way to do this is by avoiding exposure to things that cause oxidative stress in the body, since oxidation is what creates free radicals in the first place. Here are some of the biggest offenders:
- Pesticides, herbicides, and other environmental toxins
- Heavy metals
- Sugar and artificial sweeteners
- Processed and fast foods
- Bad fats
- Prolonged stress and emotional upset
- High-volume endurance exercise
- Excess alcohol
Each time you eat, touch, breathe, or otherwise come into contact with these things, you’re throwing another log on the fire, so to speak. My advice: steer clear as best you can, and stop fanning the flames! You won’t get your inflammation under control until you cut off its primary fuel sources.
Use an Anti-Inflammatory Diet to Reduce Inflammation
My favorite way to reduce inflammation is by adopting an anti-inflammatory diet and loading up on anti-inflammatory foods. It’s also the one you have the most control over, so it’s an area where I would focus a lot of energy.
I like the anti-inflammatory diet because it cuts out the bad stuff—sugars, processed and packaged foods, bad fats, and conventionally produced foods that are exposed to a lot of pesticides and herbicides—and substitutes a lot of organic, antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies, as well as healthy fats like olive oil. Not only does this greatly reduce the number of free radicals that form from food, but it increases the overall level of antioxidants in the bloodstream, which makes the body more efficient at neutralizing free radicals before they do too much damage.
It’s a win-win, if I ever saw one!
My favorite anti-inflammatory diet is my own Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean diet plan, or PAMM. PAMM combines foods traditionally eaten in the Mediterranean and Pacific Rim regions, which are two of the longest-lived areas in the world. It focuses primarily on low-glycemic carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats. Olive oil is especially prominent, and with good reason—more and more research, including the well-known PREDIMED study, is showing that this food alone has anti-inflammatory benefits that can even affect gene expression.
- Estruch R. Anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet: the experience of the PREDIMED study. Proc Nutr Soc. 2010 Aug;69(3):333–40.
- Hunter P. The inflammation theory of disease. EMBO Rep. 2012 Nov; 13(11): 968–970.
- Landro L. The new science behind America’s deadliest diseases. The Wall Street Journal. 16 Jul 2012.
- Martínez-González MA, et al. Benefits of the Mediterranean diet: Insights from the PREDIMED study. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2015 Jul-Aug;58(1):50–60.
- Ridker PM, et al. C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation in the prediction of cardiovascular disease in women. N Engl J Med. 2000;342(12):836–843.
- Ros E, et al. Mediterranean diet and cardiovascular health: Teachings of the PREDIMED study. Adv Nutr. 2014 May 14;5(3):330S–6S.
- Schwingshackl L, Christoph M, and Hoffmann G. Effects of olive oil on markers of inflammation and endothelial function—A systematic review and meta-analysis. Nutrients. 2015 Sep 11;7(9):7651–75.
- Singh R, Devi S, and Gollen R. Role of free radical in atherosclerosis, diabetes and dyslipidemia: larger-than-life. Diabetes Metab Res Rev. 2015 Feb;31(2):113–26.
© 2010, 2017, 2018 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.