The majority of Americans have inflammation. While some of us are able to function without even realizing that we have it, it’s a real problem for others with debilitating pain and stiffness.
Inflammation is the body’s attempt at self-protection; the aim being to remove harmful stimuli, including damaged cells, irritants or pathogens — and begin the healing process. Stress, environment, menopause and diet each contribute to chronic or acute inflammation, which generally lasts no more than a few days to a couple of weeks, and it is in response to things like intense exercising, sprained ankle, ingrown toenail, sore throats or sinusitis, just to name a few.
Chronic inflammation is the more severe and it can last from a few months to several years, if not corrected. Correcting it is important. Research shows that it can weaken cholesterol deposits in the coronary arteries, leading to heart disease; trigger bronchial tubes in the lungs to swell, causing asthma; or set the stage for abnormal cells to proliferate and become invasive cancers. Many people aren’t even aware that they have a hidden inflammation until it is well progressed.
If you have a history of heart disease in your family, your healthcare provider is able to detect hidden inflammation with a blood test that measures blood levels of C-reactive protein (CRP), a substance found in the blood when systemic inflammation is present. If elevated levels are found, a doctor can treat it appropriately with medication, so discuss it with your provider.
Reoccurring ailments like sinus or bladder infections, gingivitis or stomach ulcers can trigger chronic inflammation, as can food allergens, exposure to pesticides or even unremoved surgical sutures. In addition to therapy, there is much you can do on your own to support the reduction of inflammation. There are three basic principles that research has found to be effective and they are diet, exercise and stress reduction.
Medical professionals urge exercise and a better diet. On the whole, Americans have a terrible diet regimen. We eat too much processed food and drink too many sugar-laden beverages — or beverages with sugar substitutes. Research has found that our lifestyles contribute to chronic ailments like inflammation. A low glycemic diet, filled with an assortment of fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit, and whole grains, can help to quell the inflammation.
Keep refined carbohydrates and high glycemic foods at a minimum — potatoes, white rice, baked goods and most breads, including things like crackers, flatbreads, pitas, etc. Look for a glycemic index online or at the library. The list will contain most foods that we eat and it will list its index number. The lower the number, the better it is for you.
Conversely, the higher the number, you should abstain from it. The sandwich, in its many forms, is a staple of the American diet. I suspect you are thinking that without bread, how is one to eat. For one thing, I am not suggesting that you eliminate breads forever, but to get a jump on inflammation, for a time, try eating a sandwich made with large lettuce leaves and wrap free-range chicken or turkey and some vegetables in it. It is actually quite good. But if bread is what you crave, pumpernickel generally has the lowest glycemic count, and that isn’t a bad option once in a while.
Protein is important but choose wild-caught salmon, sardines, herring, free-range foul and eggs as much as you can because they are highly anti-inflammatory. You can eat lean beef or pork but limit your weekly intake and keep the portion at around a 4-ounce serving. Walnuts, flax seed and extra virgin olive oil are also highly anti-inflammatory. Try to abstain from other oils and margarines altogether.
Cherries have long been a remedy for gout but blackberries and blueberries also provide a strong response to inflammation. Take advantage of the season and pick or buy extra to freeze for use throughout the winter. Abstain from most juices because their sugar content is extremely high and most have too many preservatives. Eat the fruit instead or juice it yourself.
Fiber plays an important role in fighting inflammation. We simply do not get enough in our diets. Add beans of all kinds to your dishes — soups, salads and casseroles. Nuts, especially walnuts, almonds and hazelnuts, are also anti-inflammatory, but be mindful of how many you eat at one sitting because they also contain fat and you shouldn’t overdo. Limit yourself to about 15 at a time. They make great additions to salads or a midday snack. I highly recommend chia seeds, too. They have a great deal of fiber but, like nuts, be mindful of the serving.
Certain spices are also anti-inflammatory, namely ginger, garlic, onion, rosemary and especially turmeric. Experiment with these spices in different foods. You may find that you like them but if you really aren’t adept at adding spices to your cooking, turmeric and garlic can be found in capsule form.
Get your daily diet regimen under control and now measure your waist — your body mass index (BMI). There are a few BMI calculators online that are easy to manipulate so please find one and put your numbers in as directed. A normal BMI range is 18.5-24.9. You are overweight if your BMI is 25-29.9 — and anything over 30 is considered obese. This alone will tell you that you must begin to exercise. You don’t have to enlist in a torturous Ironman plan but, rather, just begin to walk. You don’t even have to walk fast at first — just get out and get moving.
With a different diet plan and some added activity, you will begin to see that waist shrink and inflammation subside. Gradually build up to 20 to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise at least four days each week. It is important to not overdo, though, because tired and aching muscles may actually increase inflammation.
Perhaps the hardest factor to rein in to fight inflammation is your emotions. Yoga and tai chi are always recommended for calming one’s nerves or suppressing anxiety and anger, but as good as they are, they aren’t for everyone. So for those who aren’t apt to engage in these age-old practices, here are a few suggestions from learned physicians:
• Breathe deeply each morning when you awake — and any time you feel stressed during the day.
• Breathe in through your nose and feel your breath fill your belly, then your rib cage and finally your chest. Pause, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this five times in succession. It will help to clear your head, too.
• Keep a daily journal, writing your feelings and any thoughts of anxiety that you may have experienced throughout the day. Research has shown that this process can help to reduce inflammation over a period of time because the release of tensions that you felt during the day, by writing them down, is very therapeutic.
It has been proven that meditation is also very helpful and there are many references from which you can derive a great deal of knowledge. A quick search on the internet or local library can assist you. Supplements can certainly aid in reducing inflammation. I have already referenced turmeric but there are others, like grapeseed extract. Fish oil is a possibility but check with your healthcare provider before purchasing a good fish oil derived from cold-water fish, because not everyone should take this supplement. I would rather recommend eating cold-water, wild-caught fish such as salmon, twice a week, as a better alternative.
Whatever you do, begin to make some changes if you have inflammation. Start with small diet changes, a two-block walk and breathing exercises, working up to a more energetic plan in the months to come. You won’t harness inflammation overnight, but then, inflammation didn’t happen in one day, either.
(Dr. Matthew Cox is board-certified cardiologist, practicing at Olean Medical Group since 2013.)