The problem with chronic inflammation
We’ve all heard of it, but why all of a sudden does the word “inflammation” seem so negative? Yes, inflammation is a normal and necessary process in the body when it is acute or short-lived. Just as a security system alarms when an intruder invades our home and notifies the police to prevent theft, our immune system alarms when foreign objects enter our body and trigger inflammation to prevent damage and promote healing. Without inflammation, our body wouldn’t be able to identify where the damage is located or elicit help from other parts of the immune system to repair and rebuild, leaving the body vulnerable to continual damage from the invading bacteria, virus, or particle. In short, when this process is controlled and localized in one area, it is beneficial and essential.
The reason inflammation is getting a bad rap is when it becomes CHRONIC, or continuous and unnecessary. Essentially, some of our cells produce a signal that our body reads as foreign and attacks it. Think of it as a security scanner at the airport: our immune system (the x-ray machine) scans our body (the luggage), and when something looks unfamiliar or unsafe (such as large amounts of liquids), the “foreign” object is quickly isolated and disposed of. The cells could be completely healthy, but because our body does not recognize the signal, it produces inflammation to protect itself. If the cells are continuously present and producing the signal, the inflammation is continuously present as well, and the cycle continues.
This constant inflammation actually produces a significant amount of damage as well, and it is the basis of many chronic conditions, including but not limited to: alopecia, allergies, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Crohn’s disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoarthritis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, interstitial cystitis, systemic lupus. While the signs of acute inflammation include heat, redness, swelling, and pain, the signs of chronic inflammation may not be as obvious, and these can include frequent headaches, brain fog, seasonal allergies, bloating, digestive issues, joint pain, bladder pain, high blood pressure, eczema, fatigue, weight gain, and mood concerns. Now, having one of these symptoms does not necessarily indicate chronic inflammation, but having several symptoms could mean there is underlying damage not being addressed; therefore it is important to listen to your body and the signals it is sending you.
So what do you do if you have frequent headaches, fatigue, and joint pain (or any combination of the chronic inflammation symptoms listed)?
First, your doctor might recommend a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug or NSAID, but these have their risks, including stomach ulcers. If over the counter drugs don’t work, your doctor may prescribe corticosteroids; however, these suppress your immune system and leave your body susceptible to other invaders.
While medicine has its place, there are many alternative approaches we can take to decrease chronic inflammation in our body, including consuming anti-inflammatory foods, removing triggers, taking high-quality supplements, spices, and teas as well as participating in regular stress reduction.
Inflammation: what does food have to do with it?
Most of us focus on calories, carbs, protein or fat when we read a food label or decide on which foods to buy; however, there is so much more to consider, and unfortunately much of it cannot be found on the box, can, or bag it comes in. This includes both the pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory effects food can have on our body.
So how does food promote inflammation anyway?
There are a variety of pathways this can happen. The first, as seen with food intolerances, is when a part of the food triggers a cascade of signals along the inflammatory pathway, including cytokines and chemokines. Essentially this is like a nasty rumor that spreads like wildfire throughout your body. If it is not addressed immediately, it can cause problems everywhere, also known as systemic inflammation. Some foods promote additional fat storage, which in itself causes inflammation by causing macrophages in the fat cells to release cytokines. Finally, as seen with food allergies, a protein in the food may not be recognized by the body, leading to the release of IgE antibodies and histamine.
So which foods are more likely to promote inflammation?
Most of the pro-inflammatory foods are related to excessive consumption; however, some may be related to food intolerance or allergy, which is different depending on a person’s specific immune system. Below are a list of pro-inflammatory foods and their sources or examples:
- Sugar (refined): cookies, cake, pie, donuts, soda,
- Saturated fat: whole-fat dairy products, high-fat cuts of meat (i.e. Prime rib, ribeye), processed meats (i.e. Hot dogs, sausage), lard
- Trans fat: store-bought desserts with frosting, refrigerated/frozen doughs, microwave popcorn, fried food, frozen pizza, margarine
- Refined carbohydrate: white bread, white pasta, white rice
- Gluten: any foods with wheat, rye, or barley
- Dairy (conventional): milk, cheese, yogurt, cottage cheese, sour cream from cow’s milk
- Alcohol: beer, liquor, wine
- AGEs (Advanced glycation end): foods cooked by grilling, frying or BBQing
So which foods are more likely to prevent inflammation?
One of the best ways to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods is to focus on whole foods that are as close to their natural state and the least processed as possible. One eating pattern well known for focusing on anti-inflammatory foods is the Mediterranean diet, which incorporates:
- Fruits: especially blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes, bing cherries, mangos
- Vegetables: especially kale, spinach, brussels sprouts, broccoli, dandelions
- Nuts: especially walnuts, almonds, cashews, pecans
- Whole grains: amaranth, quinoa, bulgur, brown/wild rice (look for “whole” in the ingredient list)
- Fish: especially salmon, tuna, mackerel, trout, and sardines
- Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, peas, beans, edamame
- Healthy oils/fats: especially extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, coconut milk, and nuts previously listed
- Spices: especially turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, sage, rosemary
Many of these foods are high in anti-inflammatory vitamins, such as vitamins A, C and E, minerals, such as magnesium, and various phytonutrients, such as carotenoids and anthocyanins, which act as anti-oxidants. The general recommendation is for at least 2 cups of fruit and 2 cups of vegetables per day, but the more, the better!
The next step
At IC Wellness, we understand that each body is unique, and therefore, your diet must be individualized to meet your specific needs. This can be extremely difficult to figure out on your own, and often leads to feelings of frustration. For many, making a list of ‘safe foods’ can be a guessing game due to the delayed effects of consuming pro-inflammatory foods. Additionally, you may have specific food sensitivities that are contributing to inflammation and inhibiting healing. The foods we eat either cause inflammation and exacerbate IC symptoms or reduce inflammation and provide the body with the opportunity to heal. If you are ready to get your life back, we are here to help! I am nutritionist Brianne Thornton, and I have years of experience in developing customized diets to meet an individual’s specific needs. If you are ready to take the next step toward wellbeing, click here.
For a comprehensive guide to addressing interstitial cystitis head-on, the newly released book How I Got My Life Back provides everything you need to know to about reversing IC symptoms and getting back to the life you know you were meant to live. To learn more, click here.