We may think of inflammation as the localized swelling that happens to a twisted ankle or to skeletal muscles after an intense workout. However, there’s another type of inflammation that can have a big impact on you and your clients: the kind of chronic, systemic inflammation associated with a slew of health conditions and diseases.
You may have heard that this type of inflammation—a byproduct of chronic physical or psychological stress—can be quelled with exercise. Recent research shows that moderate treadmill exercise boosts immune cells’ production of compounds that regulate both local and systemic inflammation. In fact, in as little as 20 minutes, scientists saw changes in inflammation biomarkers (Dimitrov, Hulteng & Hong 2017).
Generally, complementary dietary changes can enhance the benefits of exercise and, in the case of inflammation, provide an additional means to prevent or reverse it.
While there is not necessarily one “anti-inflammatory diet” to be followed, there are many best practices that are fairly easy to employ. Here’s a little introduction to the world of anti-inflammatory food and nutrition.
First, What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is an essential natural response within the human immune system. The immune system’s role is to limit physical damage from illness or injury by recognizing and responding to dangers like viruses, bacteria, toxins and even foreign bodies like a splinter. For example, when the immune system senses an immediate threat—like a cold virus or cell damage from a cut—it triggers something called an inflammatory response. The purpose of this response is to stimulate the affected cells to release chemical warriors, such as histamines and prostaglandins, to protect against the intruders while attracting white blood cells and their infection-fighting antibodies.
These processes play a crucial role in wound healing and are useful mechanisms for destroying invading microorganisms (Anft 2016; NIAID 2013). Calling all of these helpers to the scene causes fluid to leak from the bloodstream into the surrounding tissues. The resultant swelling—aka inflammation—helps contain the damage, like wrapping a breakable object in bubble wrap.
In the case of athletes, this inflammatory response can also accompany exercise-induced damage to skeletal muscle tissue caused by an intense workout (Stoecklein, Osuka & Lederer 2012; Nunes-Silva 2014). This does not mean that exercise is bad, but it does mean that inflammation can actually be both good and bad for you.
When Is Inflammation Problematic?
Sometimes the immune system triggers an inflammatory response to something that is not an actual threat. For example, people with allergies have a violent storm going on within their bodies, with their immune system attacking substances like pet dander, dust and pollen. In people with autoimmune diseases, which include some types of arthritis, the immune response is directed at healthy body cells, causing inflammation (Arthritis Foundation n.d.). Inflammation can also be a reaction to chronic stress, which inhibits the hormones that normally suppress immune responses. This is a little like opening the floodgates of a dam.
While the inflammatory response is vital when the body needs to address an immediate concern (injury or infection), health problems can arise when inflammation doesn’t abate. Chronic inflammation has been linked to the onset and progression of many types of disease, including diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and obesity (Liu, Wang & Jiang 2017; Arulselvan et al. 2016).
Why Is Chronic Inflammation Bad?
During times of chronic stress, there is increased energy demand on the body, resulting in a higher uptake of respiratory oxygen or a “respiratory burst.” To deal with it, the body generates “free radicals” called reactive oxygen species (ROS).
As a refresher: A free radical is a molecule that is unstable because of an electron deficit in its outer orbital layer. In search of stability, the free radical will link up to another molecule nearby to “borrow” an electron. This can start a cascade of damage as the “attacked” molecule (having lost an electron) now becomes a free radical itself and seeks to glom onto yet another molecule. The resultant chain reaction can lead to damage in all parts of the affected cell and, eventually, cell death. This series of events also causes inflammation as the body attempts to deal with the onslaught (Arulselvan et al. 2016; Biswas, Das & Banerjee 2017).
But it doesn’t end there: While free radicals trigger inflammation, inflammation can likewise trigger the body’s production of free radicals, specifically ROS. This vicious cycle of chronic inflammation sets the scene for chronic disease (Biswas, Das & Banerjee 2017). By reducing inflammation, however, we can reduce oxidation—and vice versa.
Where Diet Comes In
The words “oxygen” and “oxidation” bring us to the topic of antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that can prevent tissue damage (including inflammation) by linking up with, destroying or preventing the generation of free radicals (Biswas, Das & Banerjee 2017). The exact mechanisms behind this are not completely understood. Antioxidants may blunt the effects of an immune response, short-circuit the inflammation pathways or processes in play during the response, or prevent inflammation from occurring in the first place (Zhu, Du & Xu 2017).
Good news: The same type of diet that is helpful for enhancing exercise performance, weight maintenance, and long-term health should also naturally lower inflammation.
Anti-Inflammatory Foods: The “Short List”
There is no magic bullet or one magic superfood; however, these are some of the whole foods that have strong anti-inflammatory properties:
green leafy vegetables
The best way to obtain the necessary vitamins and minerals to combat inflammation is to implement a whole-foods diet that contains foods rich in phytochemicals—antioxidant nutrient compounds that have been found to have an anti-inflammatory effect. Because different foods contain different types of anti-inflammatory agents, eating a range of foods with anti-inflammatory properties is the best strategy.
In many cases, the nutrients in anti-inflammatory foods may work by short-circuiting the inflammatory response, binding with free radicals and blunting production of the body’s chemicals that trigger and contribute to inflammation.
Biswas, S., Das, R., & Banerjee, E.R. 2017. Role of free radicals in human inflammatory diseases. AIMS Biophysics, 4 (4), 596–614.
Chen, L., et al. 2018. Inflammatory responses and inflammation-associated diseases in organs. Oncotarget, 9 (6), 7204–18.
Dimitrov, S., Hulteng, E., & Hong, S. 2017. Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via ß2-adrenergic activation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 61 60–68.
Kopf, J.C., et al. 2018. Role of whole grains versus fruits and vegetables in reducing subclinical inflammation and promoting gastrointestinal health in individuals affected by overweight and obesity: A randomized controlled trial. Nutrition Journal, 17 (72).
Liu, Y.Z., Wang, Y.X., & Jiang, C.L. 2017. Inflammation: The common pathway of stress-related diseases. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 11, (316).
Zeng, Y., et al. 2017. Therapeutic role of functional components in alliums for preventive chronic disease in human being. Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, epub 9402849.
Zhu, F., Du, B., & Xu, B. 2017. Anti-inflammatory effects of phytochemicals from fruits, vegetables, and food legumes: A review. Critical Reviews in Food Sciences and Nutrition, 58 (8), 1260–70.