By Liz Butler
Just to be clear, inflammation is not inherently negative, far from it. Inflammation forms part of the body’s immune response and defends us against foreign invasions and repairs our tissues from injury (due to toxins, infection, trauma, unhealthy foods). In the right situation inflammation will save our lives. The problems occur however when inflammation becomes chronic, due to on-going injury or insufficient counter-regulation by the immune system (a sign of weakened immune function). Judging by the huge increase in inflammation-associated diseases in recent decades our modern environment is presenting us with a whole host of agents that trigger inflammation and many factors are also weakening our immune systems. If we want to prevent the diseases that worry us most we need to understand more about the nature of inflammation and wake up to what it is about our lifestyle that’s constantly triggering this process.
Working out what’s triggering inflammation in our bodies is easy in some respects because it appears that anything that induces some kind of stress – physical and emotional, has the potential to cause inflammation. Dealing with those triggers is more difficult however as many things have the potential to cause us stress and eliminating every single ounce of stress isn’t possible or even desirable. After all, it’s the challenges in life that cause us to grow and mature and this applies to our immune systems too. What we can do though is greatly reduce the burden on our immune systems by cleaning up our lives and minimising exposure to unhealthy foods, alcohol, cigarette smoke, pesticides and importantly, negative thoughts. At the same time we can embrace those foods and lifestyle practices that restore and nurture our immune systems. Of primary importance here is sleep and relaxation, there’s nothing more anti-inflammatory for our bodies than deep rest and daily meditation is a valuable tool for achieving a deeply relaxed state.
When it comes to diet there are certain foods that are particularly stressful for our bodies and rank high on the list of pro-inflammatory agents. These are the foods containing refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread and white rice), sugars and heavily processed oils. Foods such as margarine, cheap vegetables oils, processed ready meals, pastries, cakes, biscuits and sweets. Also inflammatory are foods that cause allergy or intolerance reactions, commonly these are wheat and dairy products.
Foods that do the opposite and work to calm inflammation are those that are unrefined, nutrient-dense and easy for the body to tolerate. Top of the list by far are the vegetables, fruits, herbs and spices. Herbs and spices in particular have gained a reputation for their powerful anti-inflammatory activity, those such as ginger, garlic, turmeric and rosemary.
Let’s not forget exercise in this big picture of how to reduce inflammation. Exercise is great for reducing stress but in addition will help regulate the immune system and calm inflammation in other ways. Beware though, over-exercising can have the opposite effect and so listening to the body and pacing oneself is very important.
While the principles of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle can be condensed down to reducing stress and refined foods at the same time as maximising whole foods, physical activity and relaxation, these are not small changes. Many of us are so caught up in the rat race of modern life that cutting back on stressful activities and replacing them with relaxation, or ditching the quick and easy ready meals for a home-cooked affair, require commitment and dedication. Let’s be totally honest, changing your lifestyle in this way will take more than a little bit of effort. But think of the pay-offs; a chance to reduce the risk of all the major diseases and many of the minor ones, a chance to have more time to relax and enjoy life and to nourish the body so that it bursts with vitality. These changes may take some work but an anti-inflammatory lifestyle has the potential