Inflammation in brief
Inflammation is a defence mechanism by the body to help protect us from illness and damage. It's often split up into two types: acute and chronic.
Acute inflammation is when our body senses harm, such as an infection, and works to fight it off in a short period of time. This is a normal response by the body to promote healing. Some symptoms include pain, redness, swelling, and heat.
Chronic inflammation is a lower-grade response over longer periods of time that's often connected to our environment, dietary choices, stress, and overall health. It can be harmful and may increase the risk of several diseases such as diabetes, cancer, arthritis, Alzheimer's disease, kidney disease and heart disease.
Before we can explore the relationship between nutrition and inflammation, we can consider a few more definitions:
- Phytochemicals: also known as phytonutrients or plant chemicals, are naturally occurring compounds found in plant foods that have anti-inflammatory benefits. Flavanoids are one type of phytochemical particularly well-known for their anti-inflammatory potential.
- Antioxidants: components naturally found in plant foods that work to protect our body from damage. Examples include vitamins A, C, E, the mineral selenium, and plant compounds called phytochemicals.
- Free radicals: unstable chemicals that can build up and cause damage over time. Some sources of free radicals include exposure to radiation, highly-processed foods, and smoke. Antioxidants can help to stabilize free radicals.
Nutrition and inflammation
Our dietary patterns are one factor that can help keep our bodies and immune system strong. Here are six nutrition principles that may support optimal health, with some specific examples of foods with anti-inflammatory properties.
No. 01 - Eating the rainbow
Higher intakes of fruits and vegetables may be a delicious way to reduce inflammation and support immune health. Fruits and vegetables of a variety of colours offer an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fibre, and antioxidants. Various fruits and vegetables also contain flavonoids that exert anti-inflammatory effects. For example, the bright and deep colour of berries is in part thanks to the flavonoid compound called anthocyanins. Dark red and purple berries are especially known for their anti-inflammatory and health-promoting potential, such as cranberries, blackberries, and blueberries.
Some fruits and vegetables richer in flavonoid compounds include the aforementioned berries, apples, avocados, cruciferous vegetables - such as broccoli and cabbage - and leafy green vegetables. Three other notable sources include garlic, onions, and ginger. Let's explore these further.
Onions contain a flavonoid called quercetin, which has shown anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral potential. Quercetin may also offer heart health benefits through impacts on blood cholesterol levels.
Ginger contains gingerols, which have been found to help reduce inflammation and may slow the progression of various chronic diseases. Also packed with antioxidants, it’s been reported that ginger can help to prevent free radical production, which may help to prevent inflammatory-related diseases.
No. 02 - Spicing it up
Herbs and spices can infuse tasty flavours and aromas into food without excess salt or fat. They're also packed with antioxidants and phytonutrients known to have anti-inflammatory properties. Many have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years. More recently though, some have become better known for their potential benefits such as cloves, oregano, rosemary, turmeric, and thyme:
- Cloves: the anti-inflammatory properties in cloves may be in part due to a component called eugenol.
- Oregano: a flavonoid called luteolin in oregano has shown a promising anti-inflammation power.
- Rosemary: contains a variety of phytochemicals with potential roles in anti-inflammation and relieving pain.
- Thyme: made up of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant components, such as thymol, it's thought to have the potential to positively impact bacterial growth.
- Turmeric: a component of turmeric, called curcumin, has shown anti-inflammatory effects, such as relieving arthritis or joint inflammation.
No. 03 - Prioritizing plant-based protein
Research has found that higher consumption of animal-based foods, such as red meat or dairy products, has been associated with higher inflammation levels. Plant-based protein sources on the other hand, such as legumes and nuts, have been associated with lower levels of inflammation.
Beans are one legume that makes for a nourishing choice. They contain fibre, and dark coloured beans in particular also contain anthocyanin. Beans may help to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce inflammation.
Another wonderful source of plant-based proteins is soy products, such as edamame, tofu, and tempeh. To learn more about soy, read our PUL article.
No. 04 - Fueling up on fibre
Our gut is an ecosystem that trillions of microorganisms call home. Some of these microorganisms promote inflammation, whereas others are thought to reduce it. Fibre is one source that can promote a more favourable profile of these microorganisms to support optimal health. Some sources of fibre include fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and whole grains. Whole grains tend to be richer in fibre and phytochemicals than their refined counterparts. A few examples of whole grains to support overall health and anti-inflammation include:
- Steel cut-oats or oatmeal
- Quinoa, millet, or brown rice
- Whole wheat bread, pasta, or cereal products
No. 05 - Embracing omega-3 fats
Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with anti-inflammatory benefits. Some sources of omega-3 fats include walnuts, hemp seeds, ground chia seeds, and ground flax seeds. In contrast, omega-6 fats - a type called arachidonic acid in particular, have been associated with increased inflammation. A few omega-6 rich sources include fried foods, baked goods, sunflower, safflower, corn, or grapeseed oil.
We can consider baking or steaming foods at home, and enjoying omega-3 sources more often where possible. To learn more about omega-3 fats and finding a balance between omega-3 and omega-6, see our omega-3 article.
No. 06 - Aiming for whole foods first
Highly processed convenience foods generally have added sugar, salt, fat, and other additives. They may be processed in a way that reduces their natural nutrient density or breaks down their structure which may contribute to stress in the body. Excessive consumption can promote inflammation, especially when highly processed choices consistently displace the consumption of less processed options.
One example of a more processed choice includes sugar-sweetened beverages, such as carbonated soda or sweetened juice, which may promote inflammation. Aiming to enjoy whole foods that have gone through less industrial processing, such as fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes is a nourishing approach to consider.
Other factors to consider
Now that we’re familiar with key foods or dietary patterns that might help to reduce inflammation, here are some other strategies that may support optimal health and inflammation levels.
Although it's true that red wine may play a role in decreasing inflammation, it's generally recommended to limit excessive alcohol intake. Excess alcohol has been found to impair liver function, which is a part of our body responsible for getting rid of toxins. Alcohol can also disrupt our general body functions which may promote inflammation and organ damage. Some alternative beverages to alcohol may include:
- Flavouring water with fresh fruit, vegetables, or herbs
- Blending up a smoothie
- Cozying up with a glass of tea - green tea, in particular, may have added anti-inflammation benefits
- Refreshing with one of our favourites, kombucha!
Research has shown that an inactive lifestyle may increase the risk of inflammatory-related diseases. Other studies have found that just 20 minutes of exercise a day can be enough to produce an anti-inflammation response. Some ways to enjoy exercise might be:
- Going for walks, runs, hikes, or bike rides.
- Signing up for a workout class.
- Stretching first thing in the morning or evening.
- Swimming at the pool.
- Sports activities such as dance, badminton, or football.
Stress isn't necessarily a negative thing, although it's important to deal with stress over time. Excessive stress can take a mental and physical toll on us all, and may also contribute to inflammation. We're all unique when it comes to which stress management techniques work best, and working with a healthcare professional for ongoing support is advised if needed.
Getting enough sleep
Good quality and quantity of sleep can help us feel fueled and energized. A disturbed sleep pattern or overly long rest has been associated with signs of increased inflammation.
Research has found low levels of vitamin D in the body connected to inflammation. There remains uncertainty on whether inflammation lowers our body's vitamin D levels, or if vitamin D lowers inflammation. It's challenging to meet our vitamin D needs from food alone though, so supplementation is often recommended. To learn more about vitamin D, see our PUL article.
- Focus on colourful foods first. This includes a variety of fruits and vegetables, plant-based proteins, and whole grains. These foods also offer beneficial fibre. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as some seeds and nuts, have also been reported to help reduce inflammation.
- Aim to season dishes with spices and herbs for added flavour and aroma, in addition to possible health benefits.
- Try to reduce omega-6 rich foods, highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and alcohol. These may increase the risk of inflammation and other negative health outcomes.
- There are other factors beyond food. We can try to fight inflammation with food and lifestyle strategies, such as enjoying movement or stress management, but it's always best to listen to personalized advice from a health professional.