We’ve all experienced inflammation at some point. If you’ve ever burned your hand or stubbed your toe, you’ve experienced the physical signs of inflammation: heat, swelling and redness. From a holistic perspective, inflammation is the underlying cause of illness and disease.
But inflammation can also take on a silent and deadly role, with fewer physical symptoms as it wreaks havoc on internal health. Unfortunately, this is the type of inflammation most of us are prone to and experience on a daily basis.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s protective shield against fungi, bacteria, viruses, infection and other harmful pathogens that threaten to damage your health.
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As suggested above, there are two different types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is your body’s quick response to harmful stimuli, such as getting a splinter, too much sun exposure or a mosquito bite. It’s characterized by pain, swelling, heat and redness. Acute inflammation is considered a good thing because it’s usually a short-term effect, and a sign that your body is trying to heal and repair (1).
Then, there’s chronic inflammation. As mentioned above, you may have heard holistic health practitioners say “inflammation is at the root of illness and disease.” And in this case, they’re not referring to acute inflammation, but chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to the development of serious health conditions such as arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, skin conditions such as acne and psoriasis, cardiovascular disease, allergies, depression, irritable bowel disease (IBD) and even cancer (2). Also known as prolonged inflammation, the onset of chronic inflammation is slow and often shows less obvious physical symptoms—which is why it’s referred to as “the silent killer.”
Chronic inflammation often begins as acute inflammation. It becomes chronic when your body is no longer able to turn off the inflammatory response. Chronic inflammation is dangerous because it can eventually result in your white blood cells attacking your healthy tissue, such as your gut lining, arteries, connective tissue or neural tissue (3).
For example, let’s say you took a round of antibiotics to clear up a bacterial infection, which also killed off some of your good gut bacteria at the same time. Now, without a sufficient amount of good gut bacteria, your digestive tract is more prone to experiencing an overgrowth of bad bacteria, a condition also known as gut dysbiosis (4).
Now let’s say you’ve also been eating a lot of sugar (a pro-inflammatory food that we’ll discuss in a moment), which feeds the bad bacteria and allows them to flourish. The bad bacteria begin to overpopulate your gut and as a defense mechanism, your body elicits an inflammatory response in your GI tract.
But as you may be able to guess, if your gut health doesn’t improve and the bad bacteria continue to flourish, the inflammation can change from acute to chronic and promote further health problems in your digestive system.
And while the onset of chronic inflammation may not be as obvious as acute inflammation, it can still produce physical symptoms such as prolonged fatigue, joint pain, acne, rashes, muscle aches, digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation or acid reflux, high LDL cholesterol and high blood pressure (5)(6).
Bottom Line: Acute inflammation is “localized,” which means it’s an instant response to an injury or infection. Chronic inflammation is slow to develop, and often begins as acute inflammation. It becomes chronic when your body is unable to turn off the inflammatory response, which can damage your internal organs and ultimately result in illness and disease.
So, what causes chronic inflammation in the first place? Sadly, the most common causes of chronic inflammation are factors that are prevalent in the typical Western lifestyle.
Common Causes of Chronic Inflammation
While it’s obvious that prolonged stress does a body bad, do we really understand why? Studies have shown that chronic stress damages health because it prevents the body from being able to regulate the inflammatory response. This suggests that a link exists between chronic stress and chronic inflammation (7).
2. Excess Alcohol Consumption
Alcohol is toxic to the body, and your liver is in charge of breaking it down and detoxifying it. But research shows that during the detoxification process, the liver generates by-products that are more harmful than alcohol itself. These by-products have been shown to cause damage to liver cells and promote inflammation (8).
Excessive alcohol consumption is also linked to liver cirrhosis, an inflammatory condition of the liver (9).
3. Lack of Sleep
Lack of sleep is a form of stress, which, as you now know, directly causes inflammation.
Furthermore, a study done on healthy individuals who received a 25-50% reduction in a regular 8-hour sleeping period were shown to have elevated inflammatory markers (10). On-going sleep deprivation is also linked to the onset of metabolic conditions such as diabetes, which further suggests that a lack of sleep promotes inflammation.
4. Diet High in Refined Carbohydrates and Other Pro-Inflammatory Foods
Your diet is one of the biggest factors that influence your body’s inflammatory response, since each food contains nutrients that can either promote or reduce inflammation.
Refined sugar and grains are both pro-inflammatory foods. Processed sugar and grains line the shelves of every grocery store and bakery, and are used abundantly in fast food joints and restaurants. Since today’s busy lifestyle relies on convenience, many people eat refined grains and sugar at every meal.
Refined carbohydrates are also a primary cause for the development of the inflammatory metabolic condition, type 2 diabetes (11).
As mentioned above, processed sugar and alcohol are pro-inflammatory foods, so it’s not shocking that a diet low in essential nutrients from processed foods promotes inflammation, too (12).
Certain nutrients act as natural anti-inflammatories in the body, such as antioxidants, phytonutrients and omega-3 essential fatty acids (13). As you can guess, these nutrients are found abundantly in whole, unprocessed foods, such as grass-fed meat, egg yolks, wild fish, fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds—i.e., all of the foods recommended on a Paleo diet.
And while refined carbohydrates are one of the major causes of inflammation, several other foods can promote inflammation such as:
- High oleic vegetable oils (sunflower oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, canola oil, peanut oil)
- Dairy products such as milk and cheese
- Corn (including popcorn, cornbread, cornstarch)
- Deep-fried food
- White potatoes
- Excessive amounts of factory-farmed meat
- Sweets made with refined (white) sugar: ice cream, soda, candy, etc.
As you can see, these aren’t foods you’ll find on a Paleo diet, which is why a diet based on whole, grain-free foods can be helpful for reducing and preventing both the short-term and long-term health consequences of chronic inflammation.
How to Reduce Inflammation Naturally
As mentioned in the points above, stress management plays a crucial role in preventing inflammation, as well as adjusting certain lifestyle factors such as a lack of sleep. You can also reduce inflammation by including anti-inflammatory foods in your diet.
Practicing yoga and incorporating other forms of gentle exercise (such as jogging outdoors) is a great way to begin reducing your stress levels through your lifestyle.
Studies indicate that the controlled breathing in yoga has been shown to reduce the release of cortisol, which promotes stress relief on a cellular level—which is extremely important when it comes to reducing chronic inflammation (14).
Meditation has also been shown to reduce stress levels, even when practiced for a few minutes each day. This is because meditation is a tool that helps us focus on the present moment, which can eliminate unnecessary stress and worry about the future. When practiced regularly, this helps reduce our mental stress and body’s stress response (15).
Writing in a journal can be therapeutic when it comes to releasing stressful thoughts and bringing your attention to the present moment. In this sense, journaling can also be a form of meditation.
Sleep 7-8 hours a Night
If you get fewer than 8 hours of sleep each night, improving your sleep quality by meditating before bed or exercising during the afternoon may also help reduce inflammation.
Eat Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Of course, proper nutrition not only supports your stress levels on a cellular level, but also provides your body with anti-inflammatory nutrients such as omega-3 essential fatty acids, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
Here are the best anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet:
- Leafy greens: collard greens, spinach, kale
- Wild fatty fish
- Olive oil
- All fruit: bananas, berries, apples, pears, papaya, coconut
- All vegetables
- Nuts and seeds: flaxseed, hemp seeds, almonds, walnuts, chia seeds
- Grass-fed meat
- Grass-fed butter (if you include butter in your diet)
- Herbs and spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, parsley
- Apple cider vinegar
The best anti-inflammatory foods are whole, nutrient rich foods found in nature.
The Paleo Diet and Inflammation
The Paleo diet can be considered an anti-inflammatory diet because it removes all pro-inflammatory foods and emphasizes eating an abundance of the whole foods found in nature that contain anti-inflammatory nutrients—such as monounsaturated fats, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals (16).
An anti-inflammatory diet will incorporate plenty of leafy greens, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and vegetables, wild fatty fish, algae, and grass-fed meat, in addition to healthy fats such as coconut oil, olive oil, flax and avocado.
While some studies suggest that whole, unprocessed grains may help reduce C-reactive protein, which is an inflammation marker, they’re not recommended on a Paleo diet as they can be difficult to digest. And whether or not you follow a Paleo diet, eating foods that fight chronic inflammation are one of your body’s best defenses against the development of illness and disease.
By avoiding refined sugar, limiting alcohol, lowering your stress levels and eating plenty of the fresh, nutrient-rich foods found in nature, you’ll put yourself ahead of the game when it comes to improving your health and promoting a greater sense of well-being.
(Read This Next: The 10 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods)