What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a byproduct that occurs when the immune system responds to foreign invaders in your body that it sees as a threat to your health. As an example, when you get a scrape, the area starts to feel hot, the skin around the wound turns red, and it begins to swell. These are all inflammatory responses, and they are incredibly helpful and efficient in responding quickly to attack harmful bacteria.
So, what’s the problem?
Inflammation can become problematic when it stays in your body’s systems for long periods of time. Any guesses as to what provokes this? I’ll give you a hint – it is the well-known cause of many of our problems.
Stress! Or more specifically, chronic stress.
When relaxed, your body is in its “rest and digest” state. Real or imagined, if your body perceives a threat, it becomes stressed and enters the “fight-or-flight” nervous system response. This sends chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline coursing throughout the body.
The ‘fight-or-flight” response also causes the immune system to kick into gear. If you are in a state of stress for a long time, the immune system begins to work on overdrive and becomes easily triggered. You can’t shift back into the “rest and digest” stage, making your body unable to properly digest food. The gut walls become inflamed and turn permeable, allowing bacteria in the gut to seep out and into the circulatory system.
This condition is known as “leaky gut syndrome,” and it aggravates the immune system's response to fight against foreign invaders that were supposed to remain in the gut.
The immune system thinks there is something dangerous in your body when, in reality, you are just stressed out. Leaky gut syndrome allows inflammation to spread from the gut and into the circulatory systems, ultimately reaching the brain.
Chronic inflammation can make you feel tired and sick, and it can also aggravate mental and emotional issues. In the gut, it might make you feel bloated, sluggish, constipated, and sick. In the brain, inflammation can cause brain fog, fatigue, and memory recall issues. It has even been linked to causing (and worsening!) depression and anxiety.
What can we do?
Inflammation affects everyone differently, and just like other health issues, the best thing you can do is to listen to your body and educate yourself.
Remember, balance is key. Even just changing one or two things in your lifestyle can allow you to see positive results, but don’t let yourself miss out on the fun things in life by strictly adhering to guidelines.
It’s a gut feeling
Since inflammation often starts in the gut, a great way to prevent inflammation is to be mindful of the food you consume, and avoiding certain foods may be a good place to start.
Some of us are unknowingly intolerant of gluten and/or dairy, and when the body cannot process these it triggers an inflammatory response. If you find yourself experiencing any of the issues listed above after eating either of these (such as poor digestion and mental fog), consider reaching out to your doctor about a potential intolerance.
Likewise, artificial ingredients can be problematic since we are not designed to digest them, altering our gut microbiome and causing inflammation. Artificial ingredients such as nitrates and fillers are commonly found in meats such as deli meats, baked ham, and sausage. Artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin can be found in various soft drinks and packaged baked goods
Also, foods that are high in refined sugar and simple carbs, such as sugary drinks or baked goods, spike blood sugar levels and increase inflammation.
Be wary of:
Gluten and/or dairy (if intolerant)
Fillers and artificial ingredients (nitrates, aspartame, sucralose, saccharin)
Sugary drinks (sodas, sweetened coffees, sugary energy drinks)
There are also numerous foods and supplements that have anti-inflammatory properties that you can add to your diet. According to Harvard Health, Omega-3 fatty acid has been proven to greatly reduce inflammation both in the gut and in the brain. Foods that are high in this include salmon, avocados, and nuts like almonds and cashews. Fish oil is an excellent supplement high in Omega-3.
For easier inflammation prevention, when making your next meal consider adding spices with anti-inflammatory properties, such as garlic, ginger, and turmeric.
Probiotics have been proven to stabilize the gut microbiome to help you better digest food, reducing inflammatory responses. Examples of foods with probiotics are yogurt, kefir, and kombucha. Probiotic supplements can be found over-the-counter as well.
Other great options to incorporate are tomatoes, olive oil, dark green leafy vegetables, berries, and oranges. Not only do these foods have anti-inflammatory traits, but they are also high in antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
Source of Omega-3 (avocado, fish or fish oil, nuts)
Spices (garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne)
Probiotics (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi)
Dark leafy green vegetables
When it comes down to it, you know yourself, your habits, and your body best. If you catch yourself sneaking to the pantry late at night to grab some Oreos or you often resort to eating fast food in a pinch, consider making a conscious effort to change these habits to better your health. Or, if you find your diet to be lacking, bolster your meals by adding healthy fats and tasty spices that reduce inflammation.
Whether you are mindfully avoiding certain foods, consciously adding in others, or a combination of the two, your brain and gut will thank you.
For more in-depth information, check out UW-Madison’s journal on the anti-inflammatory lifestyle.