We hear a lot about inflammation these days, most often casting it as a villain. But inflammation is a critical part of health. The problem is when it gets out of balance and goes into overdrive. Let's look at why this is happening, and how we can put it back into balance.
Inflammation is defined as "a local response to cellular injury that is marked by redness, heat, and pain and that serves as a mechanism initiating the elimination of noxious agents and of damaged tissue." Basically, this means inflammation serves a critical role-predominantly in fighting infections and assisting in repairs. Blood vessels leaving the inflamed area close down, and those entering the area expand, to help concentrate your body's work crews and defense troops (leukocytes) in the injured area (like at the scene of a car accident).
When it's excessive, inflammation can cause both acute pain (e.g., muscle soreness after working out), and chronic illness (e.g., rheumatoid arthritis). When it's balanced, it helps the healing process.
A Simple Test For Excess Inflammation
If you have the joint pain of arthritis, are easily prone to injury, or have an autoimmune illness, then you already know that your inflammation level is in overdrive. You can also tell with the simple "paper cut test."
When you get a paper cut, it should normally hurt for a few seconds. Then you forget about it and it goes away. If it becomes red and keeps hurting even hours later, your inflammation system is in overdrive.
Medically, we approach inflammation by using powerful and often toxic medications. For example, arthritis medications called NSAIDs (such as ibuprofen) contribute to an estimated 30,000-50,000 increased deaths in the U.S. each year. The good news? There are some fairly simple steps you can take to rebalance your inflammatory system and feel great-without medications!
Did You Know?
Dark chocolate is a health food! Eating a small square daily can decrease your chances of developing heart disease
7 Ways To Decrease Inflammation Naturally
These days, we're experiencing a "perfect storm" for increased inflammation caused by poor diet and lack of exercise and sunshine. But there are natural ways to rebalance your inflammatory system and make it work for you. Here are seven of my favorites.
- Get your sunshine. Our bodies make vitamin D when exposed to sunshine. Unfortunately, the current advice to avoid sunshine is estimated to contribute to over 10,000 American deaths each year. Not only is vitamin D a natural anti inflammatory and associated with less inflammation and lower levels of pain, it also is associated with lower risk of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and numerous cancers. The proper advice? Avoid sunburn, not sunshine!
- Go for walks-preferably in the sunshine. Regular exercise has been shown to decrease inflammation in repeated studies.
- Increase your omega-3 intake. Fish oil is a natural anti inflammatory and powerfully effective at balancing our inflammatory systems. Your best bet is to eat 3-4 servings of oily fish (tuna, salmon, herring, or sardines) per week. But that's not always possible, which makes omega-3 supplements a good idea. Follow label instructions for dosage, as products vary. But aim to get about 1,000 mg total of DHA and EPA (combined) per day.
- Cut back on sugar and white flour. The average American diet adds about 140 pounds of sugar per person per year in food processing. This translates to almost 18 percent of our caloric intake. White flour accounts for another 18 percent. So over ⅓ of our calories come from inflammation-boosting sugar and white flour. It's no surprise that we're seeing an epidemic of excess inflammation, when you add this to the decrease in omega-3 intake. The solution? Use whole grains instead of white flour when convenient, and save the sugars for dessert instead of the main dish. Cut out sodas and fruit juices, which have a whopping ¾ teaspoon of sugar per ounce. This translates to a disgusting 48 spoons of sugar you're pouring down your throat if you drink 64 ounces of soda. Switch to vegetable juices instead.
- Enjoy chocolate in moderation. Chocolate is a health food, and those eating a small square of dark chocolate each day can be 25 percent less likely to develop heart disease. Go for quality, not quantity. If you're a sugar addict, my book The Complete Guide to Beating Sugar Addiction can help.
- Increase antioxidants, which turn off inflammation. Get back to basics by eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables (e.g., berries, carrots, green leafy vegetables), and make sure you're getting the basic key antioxidants (e.g., vitamin C, vitamin E, glutathione precursors such as NAC, glutamine, and glycine, etc.). All of these antioxidants-and virtually all the vitamins, minerals, and nutrients you need in optimal levels-are present in antioxidant superfood-type powders.
- Employ the power of herbs. Turmeric, the spice that makes curry yellow, is one of the most powerful antioxidants known. It also has the side benefits of decreasing cancer risk and arthritis pain, plus it appears to be associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer's and other neurologic disorders. Curcumin, an extract found in turmeric, is thought to be the spice's active ingredient. For this reason, you can find single supplements featuring just curcumin.If you have arthritis, my favorite mix of natural anti-inflammatory herbs, which was shown to be more effective than Celebrex in a head-on study for arthritis, is curcumin, boswellia (frankincense), DLPA, and nattokinase. Willow bark is another key herbal inflammation tamer. It contains salicin, the original source of aspirin, without the stomach irritation. With thousands of Americans dying each year from arthritis medications, herbal blends with ingredients such as willow bark, boswellia, and cherry make sense. If anything, they are worth trying over drugs. They work naturally to help ease all types of pain, including back pain and arthritis.
Pain is like the oil light on your body's dashboard saying that something needs attention. Wish you had an owner's manual so you knew what your body was wanting? The smart phone app Cures A-Zwill teach you how to give your body what it needs based on the type of pain you're having, so you can be pain-free.