Over many years we have found that preventing or reversing inflammation is all about listening to your body. From that listening you can begin to learn first-hand what increases or reduces your body’s inflammatory response. You can cool your body’s inflammatory response and keep it healthier over time by taking one step at a time, at a pace that feels right for you. This is the approach we have found to be most effective and sustainable over the long term.
You have many options for reducing inflammation. Many of the suggestions we recommend can be implemented on your own. But if you have chronic inflammation, or moderate to severe symptoms of inflammation, we encourage you to work with an integrative healthcare or functional medicine provider to devise a plan that suits your unique needs.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet
You may want to check out my comprehensive anti-inflammation diet outlined in my book, The Core Balance Diet for a more detailed look at an anti-inflammatory diet, but here are three quick ways to deliberately counter inflammation in your diet today:
- Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and wild seafood.
- Add generous portions of deeply-pigmented vegetables to every meal and snack for their fiber and natural anti-inflammatory compounds.
- Many herbs and foods such as turmeric, oregano, garlic, green tea, blueberries, and ginger contain bioflavonoids and polyphenols that limit free-radical production in the body.
As for fish, while its health benefits were once beyond compare, many species today contain astronomically high levels of mercury, PCB’s, and other toxins. With that unfortunate reality, we suggest you significantly limit or avoid Atlantic varieties, and eat only wild Pacific or Alaskan salmon (unless organically farm-raised). Because toxins magnify as you go up the food chain, smaller species such as sardines, anchovies, and shellfish are still good choices. For more information, check out EWG’s Consumer Guide to Seafood.
Add essential fatty acids (EFA’s) to your diet, such as the one formulated by Marcelle Pick. Because omega–3 fatty acids are in shortest supply in our modern diet, we recommend you take an omega–3 supplement daily to rebalance your diet. This is one of the simplest, safest, yet most effective steps you can take to quell chronic inflammation in your body. In our practice we have found fish oil EFA supplements to be most helpful, but if you are a vegetarian, algal sources can be used with good result. Just be sure your EFA supplement has been tested and proven free of mercury and other heavy metals — otherwise it might do you more harm than good. Click here to find out more about Marcelle Pick’s EPA/DHA Fish Oil Support Formula.
We also encourage you to include a small handful of nuts and seeds in your diet daily, especially walnuts and freshly ground flaxseed, which are good sources of omega–3s. Some practitioners also recommend adding an omega–6 supplement called gamma linolenic acid (GLA) if you have rheumatoid arthritis. For cooking purposes our oil of choice is grapeseed oil, and for dressings it’s olive oil, which is high in oleic acid, an omega–9 with anti-inflammatory polyphenols. You can even have the ratio of EFA’s in your blood measured with an EFA profile that evaluates omega–3 levels versus omega–6s versus omega–9s. Remember, when it comes to essential fats, it’s all about balance — you can read our articles about about fat and cholesterol, the benefits of omega-3’s, and the differences between omega-3’s, 6’s and 9’s for detailed info.
Eliminate certain foods and additives from your diet. I know how hard it can be to say no to the many foods that turn the body’s inflammatory dial up high. Number-one on the list of offenders would be trans fats — hydrogenated oils. Next would be the sugars, refined carbohydrates, and gluten-containing foods that women often crave when their systems are off-balance. These and many other additives and preservatives are well hidden in processed convenience foods, making them very difficult to avoid.
You will also need to steer clear of known allergens, and be aware of increasing food sensitivities as well. Gluten, eggs, dairy, soy and nuts are some of the most common dietary irritants. To help you identify sensitivities that could be causing you problems, follow an elimination diet, avoiding a substance for two weeks, then reintroducing it for a day or two. Yes, it can be tough at first to make changes like this, but the payoff is huge — it can make a tremendous difference in how you feel in a surprisingly short period of time. Tipping the balance — away from pro-inflammatory, toward anti-inflammatory — can take place almost overnight for some women.
Natural anti-inflammatory supplements
Here are some of the recommended supplements to help you naturally ward off inflammation.
A high-quality daily multivitamin/mineral complex
Though many studies have examined the impact vitamins such as folic acid and the other B’s have on our tissue function and levels of inflammation, the role these vitamins play remains unclear. There is, however, a clear connection between higher blood levels of certain nutrients and lower risk of health conditions caused by inflammation like arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistance. Along with the benefits of folic acid, other B vitamins, and EFA’s as described above, vitamin D also has known anti-inflammatory effects, and vitamins C, A, and E are widely celebrated as powerful antioxidants, countering the effects of free radical damage.
One day we’ll better understand how vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients work on our behalf as natural anti-inflammatories. What’s important for us to understand now is that the damaging effects of inflammation can be prevented and reversed by making healthy dietary changes today. Taking a good multivitamin is one of the easiest ways to ensure that your body has adequate levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory nutrients when it needs them most.
Choose from a rainbow of anti-inflammatory botanicals
The natural world has so much to offer us in the way of compounds that quiet inflammation in our bodies. Many of these are traditional medicinal foods, herbs, and spices used for centuries in the past, yet whose specific mechanisms of action biochemists are still exploring today. The study of phytotherapy is helping to bring about a whole new range of anti-inflammatory agents that more effectively target the inflammatory cascade, well upstream of where conventional NSAID’s and COX-2 inhibitors cause their damaging and unwanted side effects.
Also called flavones or flavonoids, this is a class of over 5000 plant chemicals that our bodies metabolize in a way that offers strong anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, anti-allergenic, and anti-inflammatory effects. Bioflavonoids include compounds such as quercetin, epicatechin, and oligomeric proanthocyanidins (OPC’s). But don’t let their long names put you off — many occur abundantly in our daily food and drink, such as in citrus fruits, vegetables, tea, cocoa and wine, to name just a few! Others are less well known, or found less widely in nature, or still waiting to be discovered. Most bioflavonoids can also be taken in supplemental form as part of a natural anti-inflammation regimen. Among the best for soothing the inflammatory cascade are quercetin, rutin, and procyanidins (OPC’s) such as those found in pine bark extract (Pycnogenol) and grape seed extract.
Aside from the large group of bioflavonoids I’ve only touched on above, many herbs have powerful anti-inflammatory actions. Here’s just a sampling:
- Boswellia (Boswellia serrata). Also known as Indian frankincense, Boswellia serrata has long been recognized in Ayurvedic medicine for its anti-inflammatory benefits. Today scientists studying extracts of boswellia report that it can switch off key cell signalers and pro-inflammatory mediators known as cytokines in the inflammatory cascade.
- Ginger (Zingiber officinalis). Valued for centuries the world over for its medicinal qualities, ginger today is being studied by biochemists and pharmacologists interested in its analgesic, anti-inflammatory, anti-nausea, and sugar-moderating effects in the body. In the past 30 years or so their work has confirmed how ginger shares properties with conventional over-the-counter and prescription NSAID’s, in that it suppresses the synthesis in the body of the pro-inflammatory molecules known as prostaglandins — but with few if any side effects. Recently, however, an even more exciting body of work is emerging that shows how ginger extract can actually inhibit or deactivate genes in our body that encode the molecules involved in chronic inflammation.
- Turmeric (Curcuma longa), an ancient culinary spice native to South East Asia, has been used as an anti-inflammatory agent for centuries in Indian Ayurvedic medicine. Also known as cucurmin, it is a mild COX-2 inhibitor, but works differently from the prescription-strength drugs that can increase your risk of myocardial infarction or stroke. Like Boswellia and ginger, it seems to inhibit joint inflammation by preventing the production of prostaglandins and activation of inflammation-regulating genes through its effects on cell-signaling.
- Glucosamine–Chondroitin. Glucosamine sulfate (1500–2000 mg/day, in divided doses) and chondroitin sulfate (~1000 mg/day) are important building blocks in healthy cartilage. As we age, our bodies can’t create these compounds as readily as they do in youth. Glucosamine–Chondroitin supplements may help repair damaged tissues, but they are thought to act more principally by delaying progression of joint inflammation and alleviating its symptoms. In other words, they may not have as strong an impact on the underlying causes of chronic inflammation as our other recommendations, but you can certainly ask your healthcare provider about including them in your plan. If you have shellfish allergies, be sure to check with your healthcare provider before taking these supplements.
Evoking Your Body’s Natural Anti-Inflammatories
Adopt healthy habits and get some physical activity every day. Fuel your body with natural anti-inflammatory agents and keep your joints flexible and well-nourished by exercising every day. Start slowly with a five-minute walk and build your stamina. We recommend 20–30 minutes of activity, five times a week. Exercise is a great way to counteract stress, especially when combined with deep breathing — as with yoga or Pilates. These exercises are appropriate at all levels of stamina.
Go out and play! Or, stay in for a change and get away from it all. Whatever it is that most relaxes you, simply do it – find some time to relax. If you live with chronic stress, investigate meditation or biofeedback therapies to learn the relaxation response. Talk therapy can also help people navigate through their emotional minefields. See our articles on alternative therapies in our Emotions, Anxiety and Mood section of our Health Library for more info. Often your local religious institution or Y will advertise support groups or community-building events. This is one way you can share emotional burdens (and we all have them!) with willing listeners. All of these activities can calm inflammation by lowering cortisol, your stress hormone.
Get plenty of rest — it’s the perfect inflammation antidote. You need to sleep between seven and nine hours a night to give your body time to heal from the previous day’s demands. A good night’s sleep can undo the effects of the inflammatory response, so don’t undervalue the simple act of going to bed on time. Invest in the bed and bedding you find most comfortable — some individuals swear by a lambskin mattress covers, others by feather beds, and some will have nothing but a 100% cotton futon. Remember, you are worth it.
Further Steps to Reduce the Causes of Inflammation
Break your bad habits. Substances like alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and marijuana place a heavy burden on your system, so eliminate them or at least moderate your intake. One of the fastest ways to reduce inflammation is to stop smoking and using stimulants. Try quitting for a week or two and see how good you feel. That will encourage you to quit forever. If that doesn’t work, find a support group or professional help and keep trying until you quit.
Examine your surroundings and color them as “green” as possible. Use natural cleaning products and detergents. Limit your reliance on dry cleaning and air fresheners. Test your air and water and, if necessary, get high-quality filters. Bring in lots of houseplants to help filter the air you breathe. If you work in a “sick” building, you have the right to object. OSHA has a toll-free number for inquiries: 1-800-321-6742 or go to their website, www.osha.gov.
Practice a gentle detox or cleansing program a couple of times a year. It’s impossible to completely eliminate your exposure to environmental toxins, so it’s a good idea to periodically detoxify. For more information on how to do this, read our articles on detoxification and women’s health. This is a great way to gently and rapidly down-regulate systemic inflammation.
Investigate alternative therapies to deal with pain management. Because of the confusion about the long-term effects of pain medication and steroids, we only recommend using anti-inflammatory drugs for short periods during acute crises. If you’ve tried everything we describe above but still notice symptoms of inflammation, you may want to try some form of adjunctive therapy. Many people have found significant pain relief through acupuncture, massage, water therapy, and other mind–body treatments that reduce pain and inflammation naturally without having to call upon drugs. For more on this, read our article, “Women’s Alternative Healthcare – Make It Work For You.”
Pay yourself first
Calming inflammation in the body is a process we are constantly undergoing, much akin to maintaining our natural hormonal balance. But it can be done if we remind ourselves how quickly inflammation can speed out of control and how important reducing inflammation is for our health. Just as we need to make healthy choices to support our hormones, we need to do the same to sustain the natural checks and balances of our immune response. After all, your body is the only permanent home you have — it only makes sense to heed your inner smoke alarms.
As we learn more, we continue to see that taking care of ourselves naturally is the best way to prevent and correct worrisome health conditions. Our bodies are wonderfully complex and resilient, but they need our nurturing. If we start paying ourselves first by keeping watch over our internal fire, we’ll reap untold rewards.