It may seem odd, but it's true: A biological function that helps you heal can also harm you. Many experts now blame the body's complex response to injury or irritation—the inflammation process—for a host of problems, including cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, heart attack and low-level depression, as well as everyday muscle aches and joint pain. Inflammation is potentially healthy, in that it allows the body to fight injury and infection, says Barry Sears, PhD, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and author of The Anti-Inflammation Zone. However, if the inflammation is not turned off and persists after the original injury, it can harm every organ in the body, leading to chronic diseases, particularly of the heart, brain and immune system, he says.
What you eat—or don’t eat—can have a profound effect on this process. The typical Western menu, full of packaged foods, sugary snacks and corn-fed meat, promotes harmful inflammation, while other foods help curb it.
When chronic-pain patients such as those with arthritis and fibromyalgia are put on an anti-inflammatory diet, “the results are near miraculous—it is the strongest therapy I have,” says William Welches, DO, PhD, an associate in the department of pain management at the Cleveland Clinic. The rest of us can benefit from this kind of diet, too, says Sears. By tinkering with your meals, you can halt the process of inflammation and begin to think, look and feel better every day.
Suppose you cut yourself while slicing a tomato. The injury triggers a cascade of events. Compounds (called eicosanoids) that instruct other cells how to behave send signals that bring more blood cells to the hurt area and help it heal. The increased blood cells and fluid make the tissue become red, warm, swollen and painful—what we normally think of as inflamed.
But experts are now concentrating on another type of inflammation that is within cells. It’s generated in the most primitive part of the immune system, called the innate (or nonspecific) immune system, which provides generalized defenses against intruders (as compared with, say, antibodies that are adapted to specific bacteria). Once this inflammation response is activated, a wide number of inflammatory proteins are produced in the cell. These proteins and other inflammatory mediators can create a disruption in hormonal signaling, which causes the pro-inflammatory eicosanoids to continue at a low level. The result: chronic inflammation. “These compounds begin to attack your joints, blood vessels and the tissues,” says Christopher Cannon, MD, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Anti-Inflammation Diet.
For many, this chronic inflammation produces aches, pains, fatigue and don’t-feel-like-getting-out-of-bed blahs. And if the inflammation continues for too long, it can have more devastating consequences. “We now believe that most age-related disorders, including cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and even some forms of cancer, can be at least partially attributed to chronic levels of inflammation in the body,” says Andrew Weil, MD, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine and editorial director of DrWeil.com. “The process that normally heals the body can become the driving force behind chronic disease.”
Good nutrition is a crucial part of the signaling-eicosanoids puzzle, because the body synthesizes eicosanoids from the foods we eat. Depending on which foods predominate in the diet, eicosanoids can either increase chronic inflammation or reduce it. “Choosing the correct balance of foods is one of the most effective tools we have to keep chronic inflammation in check,” says Caroline Abruzese, MD, president of Personalized Healthcare in Atlanta. Here, three major diet dangers and what to eat instead.