Inflammation is an essential part of our immune response and overall health. Think about when you cut your finger or sprain your ankle. The area quickly becomes inflamed (and hurts!). This inflammation helps keep infection from spreading and triggers the healing response of the immune system. But nowadays we are in a chronic state of inflammation due to our SAD (Standard American Diet), lack of activity, and constant stress, and our health is suffering. Chronic inflammation damages the arteries, weakens the heart, and affects our hormones. In fact, chronic low-grade systemic inflammation is at the root of all major chronic conditions plaguing our society.
So, what’s the answer? Well, the medical world would prescribe anti-inflammatory medications such as NSAIDS or steroids, or prescribe medication to control the byproduct of increased inflammation (blood pressure medication, statins for cholesterol, medication to control blood sugar, etc.). The problem here is no one is asking WHY the inflammation is present. If you are being poisoned, do you want something to control the side effects, or would you want to remove the poison from your body entirely? This may seem like a drastic analogy, but the typical American lifestyle is nothing short of poison. The foods we eat are comprised more of man-made ingredients and toxins than actual food. Medications are relied on for every minor ache, pain, and discomfort. We barely move throughout the day. And we get little to no sunlight and massive exposure to artificial light throughout the day.
Incredible technological advancements and medical interventions that can bring us back from the brink of death have saved and improved so many lives. However, we have become so reliant on modern medicine and convenience-based living that we have completely ignored the cost: Our health. Highly processed, man-made ingredients are toxins in our body. Pesticides, hormones, and other additives run rampant in our non-organic produce and meat. Sugar and sugar substitutes are added to just about everything. Mass production and preservation has stripped away the quality of even the healthiest foods. Medications are taken on a regular basis with no understanding of the long-term consequences to our bodies. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, chronic pain, and autoimmune disorders run rampant – to which the solution is to prescribe more medication.
Controlling chronic inflammation is key to optimizing health. Any type of stressor is going to acutely increase inflammation, and the typical American lifestyle is packed with daily stressors (chemical, physical, and mental/emotional) that are destroying our chances for true health. The key is to live an anti-inflammatory lifestyle that will promote health and healing. This means limiting exposure to the toxins and other stressors we just discussed. So, how do we do this?
Eat Whole, Fresh, Organic Food
An anti-inflammatory diet is going to consist of eating the things our ancestors ate, because that is what our body knows and recognizes as food. The Paleo diet is an excellent example of a natural diet that will promote health and reduce inflammation.
Sugar and refined carbohydrates are probably the number one culprit of chronic inflammation. The standard low-fat, high-carb American diet has destroyed our insulin sensitivity, natural hormone functioning, and has created a state of chronic inflammation.
The foods we eat provide more than just calories. Processed foods are packed with man-made ingredients that trigger an inflammatory response in the body. Our liver works to clear toxins from the body, but when we eat these foods all day every day, our bodies simply cannot keep up. When you read a food label and see a long list of ingredients you cannot pronounce, your body likely doesn’t recognize these ingredients either and will treat them as a toxin. Even healthy ingredients, like fats and oils, get altered by frying and processing and become like toxic foreign substances in our body (this is the danger of trans fats).
Unfortunately, it’s not just enough to reach for the veggies and meat anymore. Fruits and vegetables are loaded with pesticides and preservatives to keep them looking pretty on the grocery store shelf. Farm-raised animals are pumped full of grains, antibiotics, and hormones. All of these things your food is exposed to will also be absorbed and processed by YOU. Whenever possible, you should be choosing organic, and ideally eating locally grown ingredients. Fruit should be consumed in moderation, and it should only be fruit that is seasonally available in your area. Even organic fruits that have been transported across the country have been exposed to toxins.
By eating an anti-inflammatory diet high in vegetables, you’re not only avoiding the added toxins of processed food, but you are getting the added benefit of the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of vegetables. There’s a reason “green juice” has become so popular. Greens are so powerful at eliminating free radicals (potentially harmful particles floating around our bodies that can lead to cancer and inflammation). Remember, food is more than just calories. Think about the additional benefits of eating a clean and healthy diet.
Fasting, whether it be intermittent fasting or longer periods of fasting, gives your body a chance to catch up and clear out those unwanted toxins as well as restore insulin function and promote cell repair. When we fast, our body essentially cleanses itself. Fasting is a phenomenal tool to help rid the body of those inflammatory foods that otherwise cannot be avoided. Learn to listen to your body. It knows when it needs a period without food. Think about how you feel when you have a stomach bug. You naturally avoid food while your body clears out the foreign bug making you ill. You may find yourself having this same desire to avoid food after prolonged periods of eating (holidays and special occasions) or after eating too much of inflammatory foods. Respect your body’s desire to fast, cleanse, and repair.
Modern advancements in technology have made it completely unnecessary to be active. We drive instead of walk, order delivery instead of cook, and watch TV in our free time instead of going out. If you’re really motivated, you may get to the gym a few times per week. Exercise certainly has its benefits for inflammation, but it’s not enough to overcome sitting all day long. Our sedentary lifestyles have become another huge risk factor for heart disease, right up there with smoking!
It’s so important to move throughout the day to keep your body functioning optimally. Take walk/stretch breaks, try standing desks, and find active hobbies to keep you busy and active in the evening. Exercise is so important, but increasing physical activity throughout the day will help combat the chronic inflammation so many are battling.
Manage Your Stress
In addition to the physical benefits of exercise and activity, it is also a great stress reliever! It is so important to find a healthy stress coping mechanism in our modern world that never stops. Deep breathing and meditation are excellent ways to calm your mind and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” system). Yoga, walking, knitting, reading, or listening to music can all help reduce stress as well. Find whatever is going allow your mind to be calm and something you will be able to do daily! We live in a world of daily stress, which means daily stress-relief is essential!
Right along with chronic stress comes chronic sleep deprivation. Our over-exposure to the wrong kind of light, foods, and hormones affects our cortisol levels, which are necessary for a restful and restorative night of sleep. Controlling stress will certainly help, but it’s also important to watch what you are consuming in the evening (caffeine, alcohol, sugar) that might be impacting your sleep. An overall healthy lifestyle is essential to optimize sleep, and proper sleep is essential for health! Our bodies regenerate and heal damaged tissue when we sleep. Without deep, restorative sleep, we will not recover as quickly from injury and illness and the cycle of chronic inflammation will be perpetuated.
It’s a Lifestyle, Not a Diet
It can be overwhelming to think about all the changes that need to happen to optimize health and reduce inflammation. It’s important to remember the key to success is making lasting lifestyle changes. Start small (buying organic or local) and work up to bigger changes like preparing meals at home instead of eating out. It’s about adopting a lifestyle that will leave you feeling healthy and energized on a daily basis. Don’t settle for feeling “okay.” Our bodies were designed to thrive, so give yours the opportunity to be stronger and healthier than ever before!