We are all familiar with acute inflammation: you cut yourself with a knife and it hurts, the area around the cut gets red, warm and swollen, and the process takes a few days to heal. Bacteria entered the wound, and your body’s immune system went into gear to send more blood with white blood cells to prevent infection, which caused the swelling, redness and tenderness. (Sometimes you need antibiotics and/or a tetanus booster as well.)
Chronic inflammation is another story – and many of us have it without awareness. It has been called ‘a slow burn’ that is detected by a rise in inflammatory markers – proteins produced by the immune system. High –sensitivity C reactive protein is such a protein, and your doctor or nurse-practitioner can order this test if needed. Obesity is a major cause of inflammation, along with gum disease, untreated infections with bacteria, parasites or viruses, smoking., and other factors.
Chronic inflammation is associated with coronary heart disease, by helping to build the plaque that narrows arteries and can lead to a heart attack. When the person is overweight and has high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and high triglycerides, the risk is greater.
Chronic inflammation has also been associated with a number of cancers, including stomach, colon, lung, esophagus, cervix and liver. The evidence that regular aspirin use reduces the risk of colon cancer is believed to be related to aspirin’s anti-inflammatory effects.
Inflammation has also been linked to Alzheimer’s disease – a Harvard study of people in their 70’s and 80’s showed that people with high levels of inflammatory markers were twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s than those with lower levels. Inflammation has also been linked to declining muscle strength with aging.
What helps prevent inflammation? Weight loss is the big factor here – along with regular, moderate exercise that will assist in weight loss. In a recent seminar at Commonweal (The New School at Commonweal, Bolinas, California) Dr. Jeanne Wallace and the chef, Rebecca Katz, discussed the foods that can reduce inflammation. I have my additions in italics.
*Increase your intake of fruits and vegetables to 8 servings a day. Have leafy green vegetables and cruciferous vegetables regularly (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and many more). Eat pumpkin, butternut squash, yams and carrots.
*Eat cold-water fish, grass-fed animal foods, omega-3 eggs, walnuts, hemp, chia and flaxseed meal. I advise adding fish-oil capsules as a supplement. Read the label to make sure it is molecularly distilled to avoid mercury.
*Avoid foods with sugar and refined flours. This is a hard one for many people. Learn to treat yourself with dried or fresh fruit, and satisfy your between meal hunger with nuts, raw vegetables or an apple..
*Use spices liberally, especially curry, ginger, garlic, parsley and hot peppers.
*Use olive oil for cooking and salads.
*Eat dark chocolate -in moderation because of the sugar. I advise using fair-trade unsweetened cocoa powder, in hot chocolate sweetened with xylitol or stevia. Mash a banana and add some nut butter and cocoa powder for a sugar-free treat.
*Eat berries – blueberries, cherries, raspberries. These can be found frozen when their season is over.
*Eat legumes – lentils, peas, beans, dried beans. A Spanish study showed that obese men and women told to cut calories and eat four servings a week of legumes lost weight and lowered their C Reactive Protein levels, even after adjustment for the weight loss.
Since many of us have chronic inflammation without knowing it, and since it is related to such devastating problems as heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and muscle loss, it is time to start paying attention to this condition. You can find all the slides of the talk by Wallace and Katz on line at The New School Commonweal, November 3rd, 2011, The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen. I plan to write more about their seminar in future columns.
Happy holidays to all. I suggest snacking on raw vegetables and nuts and avoiding that extremely hungry feeling followed by that overstuffed feeling. Remember what the Japanese say Hara hachi bu – eat until 80% full.
Sadja Greenwood MD – back issues on this blog