In this column we’ve answered your questions about inflammation and offer tips for combating inflammation so you feel (and look) younger.
Q: I hear a lot about inflammation. What exactly is inflammation?
A: There are two types of inflammation in the body: acute and chronic. Let’s start with acute inflammation, which is the body’s normal protective response to an injury or infection, and it’s the process that actually helps you heal. As soon as you suffer some kind of trauma, such as a cut, the immune system springs into action. Blood flow to the area increases, making the skin red and hot; the vessels leak fluid into the surrounding tissue to help isolate the injury from the rest of the body, causing swelling; and an army of white blood cells swoops in to fight off bacteria. As they battle, the dead bacteria, tissue and immune cells may form pus, and you may experience your share of localized pain. But within a few days, the body replaces the injured cells with healthy ones and you’re all better.
Think of chronic inflammation as the evil twin: It occurs when something in this normal process goes awry, and instead of healing the body, it attacks it instead. Viral infections, persistent bacterial infections, autoimmune disorders and possibly even obesity can trigger it. In some cases, such as asthma, the lungs have oversensitivity to certain irritants, which can set off an outsized inflammatory response that causes airways to swell. In fact, chronic inflammation plays a role in a host of illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis and celiac disease, and it can often last for months or even years.
Q: Won’t my body eventually take care of inflammation on its own?
A: It will, but only when the process works normally. That’s the problem with chronic inflammation—the response never really turns off. The longer it continues unchecked, the more damage your body can suffer. With the help of certain medications and lifestyle changes, however, many people can slow the process.
Q: I have arthritis but can’t take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen because they cause bleeding in my digestive tract. What can I do to relieve the pain and swelling in my hands and feet?
A: Talk to your doctor about whether other types of medications might be right for you. Often acetaminophen (Tylenol) can help as well as over-the-counter topical creams. There’s even some research that certain antibiotics may ease symptoms.
Beyond medication, though, it’s also important to make healthy lifestyle changes. Your diet can play a huge role, and getting at least 600 milligrams daily of omega-3 fatty acids—the good-for-you fats found in walnuts, flaxseeds and salmon—may help dampen the painful effects of inflammation in your joints. (See the next-to-last question for more information on an anti-inflammatory diet.)
Also significant: regular exercise. Your body cranks up its production of inflammation-fighting antioxidants by your walking 10,000 steps a day, lifting weights 30 minutes each week or sweating through 20 minutes of cardio three times a week. You might want to consider swimming, too. You can improve joint mobility without the added pain and stress of higher impact activities.
And finally, if you smoke, do everything you can to quit. Smoking triggers inflammation all over the body, not only in the lungs, and it can make the pain and swelling in your hands and feet worse.
Q: A friend told me that taking turmeric in pill form has made her bursitis much better. She says it’s a natural anti-inflammatory. Is that true?
A: Yes. For centuries, country doctors in India relied on this spice to treat arthritis, liver disorders, inflammation, body aches and more. That’s because turmeric contains the powerful antioxidant curcumin, which appears to have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal and possibly even anticancer properties. One of the ways it seems to work is by activating the genes responsible for clearing cellular waste (aka toxins) before it has a chance to cause damage to nearby tissue.
Our recommendation? Go for it! If you don’t want to take pills, yellow mustard is a great source of turmeric, or you might try some yummy recipes such as curried chicken or couscous. Turmeric is also tasty in soups, rice dishes, salads, sauces, eggs, lentils and with fish. You need about 17 milligrams a day to reap turmeric’s extraordinary benefits—about one rounded tablespoon.
One note: Try to pair your turmeric with some black pepper, which will help increase absorption, and if you opt for a supplement, look for one with piperine or black pepper extract.
Q: I’ve heard that there are anti-inflammation diets. If I make the switch, what should I be eating?
A: The rules are pretty simple: Eat less saturated fat (meat, butter, full-fat dairy) and no trans fats (the partially hydrogenated man-made oils found in commercially produced baked goods and fried foods). Each of these fats triggers the production of pro-inflammatory hormones that can damage your arteries and other vulnerable organs. Also on the limit list: processed carbs, such as white bread and rice, and anything with refined or added sugars, including high-fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners. These foods all trigger the production of certain chemicals that set off that dreaded inflammatory cascade.
But before you get too discouraged, know this: There’s so much more you can eat! You can load up inflammation-fighting foods packed with healthy fats, antioxidants and lots of complex carbs. You’ll also want to add a good dose of probiotics to your diet (the good-for-you bacteria found in yogurt); these decrease inflammation in your gut while aiding digestion and improving absorption.
Here’s just a sample of what you can add to your shopping list:
• Great for healthy fats such as omega-3s: avocados, yams, walnuts, olive oil, salmon, trout, macadamia nuts, flaxseed, nut butters, omega-3-fortified eggs. You can also consider taking a fish oil supplement for extra insurance.
• Excellent for antioxidants: Basically any fruit or vegetable with a deeply colored hue will be packed with flame-fighting power. The plant chemicals that create those dark greens, vibrant reds, glowing oranges, deep blues and purples are the same ones that mop up free radicals, rogue molecules that bind with your cells and wreak havoc on your tissue. And don’t forget the coffee and tea! They’re in the same anti-inflammatory club.
• Best bets for complex carbs: whole grains, whole fruits, beans. Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice and whole wheat not only keep your blood sugar even because they take longer to digest, but they’re also full of vitamins and fiber. And don’t forget the beans! They’re digested slowly, too, and they’re an excellent source of protein to boot!
Q: I was recently diagnosed with gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining. My doctor prescribed acid reducers and an antibiotic. But I’m wondering: What causes gastritis?
A: Your doc is on the right track in treating your symptoms. Acid reducers will calm any imbalance in pH, and the antibiotic will fight possible infection. In the meantime, avoid spicy and acidic foods, and keep a diary of your symptoms to monitor your progress.
As for the cause, there are many potential triggers. Gastritis may result from prolonged use of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as aspirin or ibuprofen, which can erode the stomach lining. Other common causes include excessive alcohol consumption, steroids, stress, major surgery, traumatic injury or infection. One last possibility: You and your spouse may be exchanging a key bacterium that causes your gastritis, so both of you may need simultaneous treatment to get rid of the offending bug—even if your partner is symptom-free.