As part of my professional continuing education, I took a seminar yesterday that detailed ways in which foods can be used to help address various medical and psychological conditions. A huge section of the seminar revolved around reducing low-grade chronic inflammation in the body, and the instructor was quick to point out that he would be hard pressed to find a situation of chronic pain or a case of chronic illness in which inflammation was not an underlying issue/factor.
I have dabbled in keeping an anti-inflammatory diet, but I am ready to try and get more serious about it. For several reasons I believe chronic inflammation is a huge factor in what I am experiencing. The way my SIJD pain has responded and not responded to certain medications seems to indicate that inflammation is a big factor. In addition, I believe there is some underlying, undiagnosed illness lurking below the surface of all this, and the likeliest category of that illness based on blood tests would be an autoimmune condition. For any autoimmune disease, inflammation is a sure factor. While addressing the inflammation will likely not take care of any underlying causes, I am hoping that it will give me some pain relief, which may help me increase my exercise program, which will hopefully lead to stronger muscles and a more stabilized pelvis. One can hope!
When it comes to addressing widespread, chronic inflammation in the body, the key is adding certain foods that halt the mechanisms that perpetuate the inflammatory response. For this reason, an anti-inflammatory diet is much different than many other diets that seem to focus mostly on what foods are necessary to take out. While this is an important component of this diet, almost more important is committing to eating specific foods on a daily basis that literally halt the body’s inflammatory response processes.
Commit to Adding These Foods to your Diet
- Fish oil and/or fish: These contain Omega-3 fatty acids, important compounds that stop the body’s inflammatory response. It is important to have a healthy 1:1 ratio of Omega 3 fatty acids (good for you) to Omega 6 fatty acids (not good for you), but the average American is closer to a 1:16 ratio. The more ideal 1:1 ratio can be achieved by adding fish and other sources of Omega-3s to your diet, and taking out vegetable oils and other harmful fats (to be discussed later).
When choosing a fish oil, it is important to look at the actual ingredients, specifically the ratio of EPA:DHA. EPA is the more important ingredient in fish oil, and you should look for a bottle that has a ratio of 4:1 or higher of EPA to DHA.
The list below is helpful because it tells you what types of fish to seek out and what types to avoid based on levels of Omega-6 to Omega-3 ratios.
If you are a vegetarian, you can also find omega-3s in seaweed. I have not researched this enough to know what kinds are best.
- Tumeric – This is a well-known anti-inflammatory spice. I have tried to add tumeric to my daily diet in the past in the form of a turmeric/honey/ginger syrup I created on the stove. However, I soon realized that it was causing me gastrointestinal distress, so I stopped that experiment. I plan to try again and add it to my diet in different ways and at a smaller dose. The recommended dose is 2-8g/day. One important note: tumeric is better absorbed into the body when consumed with black pepper and/or a healthy fat.
- Cocoa – Although I have always known that cocoa is good for you, I did not realize the extent of its benefits and anti-inflammatory properties. Cocoa when not combined with exorbitant amounts of sugar and dairy is incredibly good for you. The instructor recommended 70% cocoa or higher and used a form of powdered cocoa in a daily shake. The recommended dose is 10g/day.
- Green tea – No surprise here. The recommended dose is 3-4 cups per day. I think trying to get that amount is going to be a hard one for me.
- Other Polyphenols – What Tumeric, Cocoa, and Green tea all have in common is that they are considered polyphenols. Understood in a simplistic way, polyphenols are simply compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and certain other foods that address inflammation in the body. This website has a great list of foods that are high in polyphenols.
Fruits – Apples, Kiwi, Mango, Oranges, Berries, Strawberries, Grapes,
Vegetables – Garlic, Onions, Leeks, Corn Broccoli, Cherry Tomatoes, Red Cabbage, Sweet Potato, Raw Spinach
Nuts – Almonds, Cashews, Peanuts, Walnuts
Commit to Eating These Foods in Moderation
- Lean Meats – Based on this seminar, the recommendation for meat is to eat only lean meats in moderation. From what I have seen, nutritional information regarding meat is extremely confusing and conflicting. I know people who have seen dramatic health changes after switching over to a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle, and I have read several books that go into great detail about how the American tendency to eat large quantities of meat is a huge reason behind an epidemic of various illnesses. For now, I lean towards a plant-based diet as much as possible. I rarely eat meat – maybe once a month. But, I am still on the fence about this one, and may need to do more research.
- Grains & Legumes – Currently, I eat considerable quantities of grains and legumes in the form of brown rice, quinoa, gluten free bread, and various Mexican-based bean dishes. The rationale for avoiding these to some extent is in the difficulty in digesting and the affect they have on your gut health. I may cut back a bit, but I am not going to go overboard in this area.
- Dairy – The seminar did not go into detail on the reasons to avoid eating too much dairy, but this is consistent with what I have read in the past. I rarely to never eat dairy.
- Red Wine – Red wine does contain beneficial polyphenols as discussed above, but should still be used only in moderation.
Commit to Omitting These Foods
- Sugar – a huge part of this diet is omitting as much sugar as you possibly can from your diet. This can be difficult, as sugar is hiding in most of the prepackaged food that you would buy at the store including salad dressings, tomato sauces, canned soups, etc… and so on. When you commit to an anti-inflammatory diet, you are committing to making most of your food from scratch. Sugar is infamous for having an inflammatory effect on the body. Personally, I eat extremely small quantities of natural sugars such as honey and maple syrup.
- Refined carbs – This means no cakes, cookies, donuts, white bread, or any other bread-like product that is not 100% whole grain. Refined carbs are almost immediately converted to simple sugars once digested, and therefore have the same adverse effects as eating regular sugar.
- Gluten (optional) – I think this one is optional because based on the presentation it has more of an indirect effect on inflammation through its effect on the gut. I cut out gluten because it has always given me a stomach ache, so it seemed like an obvious move. Both my mom and grandma have celiac disease, so there is a strong possibility that if I do not currently have celiac, it will show up later. I have been tested in the past, and I came back negative for celiac, but that was a while ago, and there is always the possibility it has shown up since then.
- Vegetable Oils – Remember how you want a 1:1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3? This list below shows the ridiculously high ratios found in many vegetable oils. For example, grapeseed oil has a ratio of 947:1, which highly pro-inflammatory. Yikes! Right now I am committed to only eating olive oil and coconut oil, which have much better ratios.
Outside of following an anti-inflammatory diet, here are several other considerations from the seminar that are helpful for general health.
- Choose foods high on the glycemic index over foods low on the glycemic index. This, along with avoiding sugar and refined carbs, can make a huge difference in maintaining stable blood sugar levels. I have a bad habit of occasionally waking up, not eating breakfast, and drinking several cups of coffee, which has led to several episodes of dizziness and feeling like I might pass out. I know this is bad! Well, actually I have always known this is bad in those moments when I feel dizzy, but what I did not realize is the huge amount of stress that puts on your body in general over time. The instructor pointed out the grave importance of maintaining blood sugar levels when you have a chronic condition, as the stress of a hypo-glycemic episode makes it nearly impossible to make improvements from any form of illness.
- Take Probiotics for gut health.
- Drink water (of course!) – right now I am committing to drinking 5 glasses of water a day. Eventually I think I can do a lot better, but so far I have been able to stick with this plan, and I think I would fail if I tried to reach higher at the moment.
- Get exercise – Exercises is crucial for reducing inflammation in the body. I have been trying to keep up an exercise program for the past two years. For the most part, I am extremely consistent within my limitations. The problem is, I am limited to 10 minute walks, and can barely tolerate mild PT exercises. I have tried recumbent bike and using a pool, and both have sent me into huge setbacks. So, I am still trying to build this up and looking for exercise options I can tolerate.
Over the next few weeks, I will be coming up with a plan for how to practically make these dietary changes. I will keep you updated!
Has anyone else tried an anti-inflammatory diet with any success? What other dietary changes have you tried that made a difference?
*The links listed are unrelated to the seminar I took, but seem like similar information.