There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is a normal immune system response to injury in a localized area, and it’s an essential part of the healing process. When a stubbed toe becomes red or swollen, or skin feels hot and painful at the site of a burn or infection, inflammation is at work. Nutrient-rich blood rushing to the area causes redness and immune-system cells designed to heal the injury lead to swelling. It may not feel good, but it’s good for you. Once the immune system has done its job, inflammation subsides.
Then there’s chronic inflammation, which isn’t limited to a specific area or amount of time. There are no obvious symptoms, yet it can harm—instead of heal—the body in a major way over time. Oxidative damage to cells caused by pesky free radicals in the body (without sufficient quantities of antioxidants to neutralize them), pro-inflammatory foods, and overactive immunity (in the case of autoimmune diseases) commonly initiate chronic inflammation.
Inflammation can lead to heart disease, cancer and other health woes.
In The Great Cholesterol Myth (Fair Winds), co-authors Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., C.N.S., and Stephen Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., assert that chronic inflammation—not high cholesterol—is the true cause of heart disease. “Without inflammation, artery walls are clear; there’s nothing to adhere to,” Bowden explains. When inflammation comes into play, a type of oxidized LDL cholesterol contributes to plaque buildup by sticking to artery walls, where it leads to more inflammation and injury. Over time, the resulting plaque buildup can limit blood flow, increasing heart attack risk.
But that’s not the only health problem associated with chronic inflammation. “Inflammation is also found at the scene of the crime in every degenerative disease,” Bowden says. Cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis—the list goes on and on. The research implicating inflammation continues to mount, and forward-thinking cardiologists and other health-care providers are revising their approach to disease prevention and treatment as a result.
An anti-inflammatory diet may protect you.
Now, for the good news. Our bodies naturally make both inflammatory and anti-inflammatory compounds. A balance of the two is essential for maintaining good health, and the fats we eat affect that balance. But Americans tend to consume much higher quantities of pro-inflammatory fats—including omega-6 fatty acids found in the meat of grain-fed animals, vegetable oils like corn and canola, and most processed foods—than anti-inflammatory fats, including omega-3 fatty acids. Good omega-3 sources include oily cold-water fish (ie, wild Alaskan salmon), walnuts, flax, and meat from grass-fed animals, among others. Cutting back on omega-6s and boosting omega-3s in the diet can help shift the balance to limit inflammation.
Bowden and Sinatra also recommend limiting your intake of sugar, processed meats and processed carbohydrates (cereal, pasta, bread, processed snack foods), and eating more antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, cherries, vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, dark chocolate, and turmeric. For more diet recommendations, refer to The Great Cholesterol Myth or check out Andrew Weil, M.D.‘s website articles on the topic. Then head to your local farmers’ market and stock up on some tasty and powerful medicine.