Food as Medicine for Inflammation

In holistic healthcare modalities such as naturopathy, nutrition, and herbalism, inflammation is often recognized as a root cause for many chronic and acute conditions. The four cardinal signs of inflammation include redness, heat, swelling, and pain, and these symptoms can depend on both the severity and location within the body. Inflammation can be easily detectable in acute injury such as a superficial wound or sudden sprain, where the area quickly swells and the pain is obvious. However, within certain systems, inflammation can be hard to detect. 

It is certain that inflammation is linked to chronic pain from arthritis, gout, carpal tunnel, and other physical injury to the joints or muscles. Additionally, it contributes to digestive conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and diverticulitis. Autoimmune conditions such as celiac disease, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), and psoriasis are also effected. Emerging research is suggesting that inflammation within the brain can contribute to mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and mood disorders. Symptoms of the above conditions (and more) can often be managed, if not put into remission, by controlling this marker of disease.

For management of both pain and other chronic symptoms associated with inflammation, using food as medicine can be very effective. The first step is to minimize foods in the diet that promote inflammation. This includes any form of sugar – cane sugar, molasses, honey, maple syrup, agave, date syrup, dried fruit, and high-sugar fruits such as tropical fruits and melons. Sugar in the absence of fibre promotes a drastic spike in blood sugar and insulin, resulting in an increase in inflammation. Avoid these sweeteners as well as artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, which have other negative health effects. Try satisfying your sweet tooth with local, seasonal fruit, such as fresh berries. 

Grains pose a similar issue, and also contain anti nutrients such as lectins, which further exasperate inflammation. Grains include wheat, rice, oats, corn, millet and barley. Although quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat aren’t considered true grains – they’re actually seeds, and are sometimes referred to as pseudo grains – they can have the same inflammatory effect as traditional grains. For a healthy alternative for a serving of carbohydrates, choose high fibre, low glycemic vegetables such as leafy greens, summer squash, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, or root vegetables such as carrots, beets, radishes, and sweet potatoes. 

Next on the “avoid” list is processed vegetable oils, including refined sunflower oil, canola oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, and rice bran oil. These oils are extremely high in omega 6 fatty acids. When the omega 3:6 ratio is imbalanced (an excess of omega 6), inflammation occurs. Additionally, these oils are highly processed and are extracted using chemical solvents. This oxidizes the fats, making them rancid and mildly toxic. Instead, choose high quality saturated fats such as grass fed tallow, pastured lard, grass fed butter, organic coconut oil, or cold pressed avocado oil and other cold pressed nut and seed oils such as walnut and macadamia.

Focusing the diet on high quality, nutrient dense foods is key. Consume ample amounts of local, seasonal vegetables, smaller amounts of fruits, nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, high quality animal protein (grass fed beef, pastured pork, free range chicken and eggs, wild seafood, organ meats), and healthy fats from avocados, coconut oil, olives, and high quality saturated fats, as mentioned above. 

Another “food as medicine” approach to treating inflammation is using natural anti inflammatories. These foods include omega 3 rich foods such as fish, cod liver oil, and shellfish. Flax seeds contain omega 3, but it is important to note that plant-based omega 3’s are not well converted to DHA and EPA in the body, which are the active ingredients that reduce inflammation and promote cognitive health. 

In addition to omega 3’s, you may consider incorporating bone broth into your daily diet. Bone broth contains minerals, fat soluble vitamins, and anti inflammatory amino acids such as glycine and proline. 

Numerous anti inflammatory herbs are available to use in cooking, elixirs, teas, and capsules. Turmeric is a powerful anti inflammatory that can be made into “golden milk”, a beautiful orange latte with cinnamon, ginger and a milk of choice. If using a dairy-free milk alternative, add a scoop of coconut oil, as fat aids in the absorption of the spice. Alternatively, a paste of turmeric, coconut oil and black pepper can be made, to take by the teaspoonful twice daily. Turmeric can also be added to bone broth with a tablespoon of grass fed butter, and a pinch of both sea salt and black pepper. Note that although turmeric is natural, herbs are powerful drugs and should be treated as medicine. Individuals on blood thinners or other medication should check with their healthcare provider first.

Many conditions can be managed or improved by addressing inflammation, the root cause of many chronic health problems. This can be done through proper nutrition and implementing anti inflammatory foods and herbs. 

Kayla MacDonald, R.H.N.


Originally published on August 16, 2018 in “50+ Living” in the Comox Valley Record
for Edible Island Whole Foods Market

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