Follow an anti-inflammatory diet
There are many ways a healthy diet can help reduce the risk of developing life-threatening diseases. One of the most beneficial is by controlling chronic inflammation—where the immune system is in a constant heightened state of alert. Although that may sound like a good thing, when your immune system is in overdrive, it releases compounds that, if continually present even at low levels, can eventually damage healthy tissues in the body.
Researchers increasingly recognize that chronic inflammation is an underlying cause of many health problems, including diabetes, cancer, dementia, and heart disease, leading to more than half of deaths worldwide. An exacerbated immune system response is one consequence of growing older. As we age, inflammation is compounded by “inflammaging.”
But aging is just part of the picture. Though you can’t erase the years, lifestyle factors play a significant role in helping to control inflammaging—and that means there is much that you can do to counteract and slow it down. Eating plenty of foods that suppress low-grade inflammation—and cutting back on the foods that promote it—is one of the most effective steps you can take.
Acute inflammation is the way that the body initiates healing. It’s a robust defence mechanism triggered when the immune system activates to fight off a bacterial or viral infection. Not all inflammation is harmful. The damaged or infected area of the body releases proteins called cytokines and other compounds that make blood vessels more permeable, drawing white blood cells called leukocytes to the site and allowing them to enter the tissues to destroy the threat. Without this response, infections would linger, and wounds would fester.
Though acute inflammation subsides quickly, chronic inflammation sticks around long past the point of helpfulness.
How can it harm you
Diseases that may seem to have little in common—such as type 2 diabetes, arthritis, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and even COVID-19—are all caused or worsened by high levels of chronic inflammation. Consistently elevated inflammation contributes to cellular damage, causing injury to various tissues and organs.
This process plays a role in cancer cells developing and multiplying out of control, in the creation of the beta-amyloid plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s, and in the buildup of plaque in the arteries that causes heart disease. “And any disease that ends in ‘itis’—such as arthritis, colitis, diverticulitis—is a disease of inflammation,” D’Adamo says.
The cytokine storm [where inflammatory compounds destroy healthy tissues] resulting in more severe COVID symptoms and increases the risk of death is one result of out-of-control inflammation. Inflammation also contributes to the development—and severity—of respiratory diseases like asthma, bronchitis, and COVID-19. A recent study in Nature Medicine measured levels of four inflammatory cytokines in more than 1,400 patients hospitalized with COVID-19. People with the highest levels were most likely to suffer severe symptoms or die from the disease.
The food effect
Several lifestyle factors—including sleep, stress, and physical activity—strongly influence inflammation levels. But emerging research indicates that diet can have the most profound effect—positive or negative.
Many of the foods that are prevalent in a typical American diet are the very ones that fuel unhealthy levels of inflammation. Red meat, processed meat, saturated and trans fats, added sugars, fried foods, and refined carbohydrates directly trigger pro-inflammatory responses. People who eat a diet containing the most pro-inflammatory foods have a 46 percent risk of heart disease.
Certain foods, including green leafy vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, fatty fish, extra-virgin olive oil, whole fruits [especially berries, pears, and apples], whole grains, coffee, and tea, help reduce inflammation. Regularly eating 1 to 2 ounces of walnuts reduces inflammation markers in the blood. That may be because walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most people have way too much omega-6 in their diets relative to omega-3. We need both, but too much omega-6 contributes to chronic inflammation. You’ll end up with unhealthy levels of omega-6 if you consume too much grain-fed meat and fried or processed foods and not enough omega-3-rich ones, like fish, walnuts, and flaxseed.
Creating an anti-inflammatory diet
Though adding proven anti-inflammatory foods to reduce inflammation to your diet is a great start, experts caution against focusing on just a few specific ones. If you aim for an overall healthy dietary pattern, primarily plant-based, you will get the anti-inflammatory benefit. Numerous studies have shown that following a Mediterranean-style diet—plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, and olive oil, along with some fish—can lower inflammatory markers and reduce the risk of inflammation-related conditions, such as heart disease and cancer.
Anti-inflammatory foods work their magic because they contain compounds that inhibit the release of cytokines. Colourful fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, like beta carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E, and unique plant compounds called flavonoids (also found in tea and coffee). Whole grains are rich in folate and minerals such as selenium. And extra-virgin olive oil—as well as some spices, like ginger and turmeric—boasts compounds that inhibit the inflammatory COX-2 enzyme, which is blocked when you pop some ibuprofen.
Eat a wide variety of healthy foods, especially fruits and vegetables, and you’ll get all the components with anti-inflammatory properties. When you have high levels of these anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, you can significantly reduce levels of inflammation in the blood and tissues throughout your body.
Just as important, cut back on pro-inflammatory foods. There’s often a synergistic effect between a poor diet and other lifestyle factors that affect inflammation, creating a vicious cycle. For example, a poor diet can lead to being overweight, which might make you less active. Those things can lead to more stress and poor sleep. So controlling those factors, too, will help you tilt the balance and help you tamp down inflammation.