When it comes to health, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to healing and managing symptoms. However, if we can understand the root cause of the conditions inflicting our bodies, we’re one step closer. For those suffering with an autoimmune disease, managing inflammation is essential. An anti-inflammatory diet can help patients manage their symptoms as a part of a comprehensive treatment plan. Diet is such an important part of healthy living for all of us, but especially crucial for autoimmune patients. The simplest of triggers, like eating inflammatory food, can cause flare ups and serious issues. Let’s dive deeper.
What is inflammation and its role in our bodies?
Inflammation is the immune system’s way of combating injury, infection and other factors that might harm us. When you hurt your foot or have an allergic reaction, your body sends blood to the area to cause swelling and serve as a barrier to protect you. Despite the negative connotation around inflammation, it is actually a positive and natural reaction in our bodies when it functions as it should.
Inflammation becomes detrimental when the body is not functioning correctly. When inflammation becomes chronic, it can lead to serious health issues. This is where autoimmune disease comes into play. Autoimmune disease is caused by the immune system attacking itself, causing damage to organs, joints and healthy tissues in our bodies. There is no explanation for what causes chronic inflammation, however, risk factors like smoking, poor diet, obesity, environmental toxins, and alcohol consumption are thought to play a role. Over time, chronic inflammation and autoimmune diseases can have a devastating and life-threatening impact. Therefore, working with a doctor to take the right medication and implement lifestyle changes is critical. A healthy, anti-inflammatory diet is another important factor.
Inflammatory foods to avoid
Inflammatory foods, such as processed and red meats, refined excess sugars, refined carbohydrates, excess gluten, excess salt, fried foods, alcohol, foods high in saturated fat and/or trans fats, and other triggers, can cause flare up. So, it is critical for autoimmune patients to steer clear of these. The typical western diet lacks adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, and contains excessive amounts of refined grains, meats and desserts. This diet can create a pro-inflammatory state and predispose the body to chronic diseases.
Anti-inflammatory foods to eat
When adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, sticking to whole, natural foods is key. When in doubt, plant-based foods are the best option for reducing inflammation. If you want to stick to a specific diet, the Mediterranean Diet is a common anti-inflammatory option. It has a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, and olive oil. It also has low intake of inflammatory foods, such as refined carbs and sugar. Since red meat and overly processed meat products are inflammatory, the diet includes high intake of fish.
Foods to reduce inflammation
- Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and key vitamins and nutrients so consuming them is always a great idea. In particular, green leafy vegetables are the best bet for reducing inflammation. Loading your plate with kale, spinach, broccoli, cabbage and Swiss chard is highly recommended. Fruits like tomatoes and berries are high in antioxidants and are also key players.
- Whole grains: Whole grains, including brown rice, quinoa, oats and buckwheat, are packed with fiber and phytochemicals. When shopping, be aware of deceiving copy on packaging, especially when purchasing bread and cracker products. If an item is labeled as whole wheat, it is likely a good option. However, super enriched foods sometimes throw in wheat as an additive to make the item seem healthy, even though it is heavily processed. Read labels and aim to select products that have a simple list of ingredients you know.
- Legumes: Lentils, beans, and peas are all a part of the legume family. They contain protein, nutrients and vitamins that are staples in a well-balanced diet.
- Oily fish: Fish, such as salmon, sardines, and mackerel, contain omega-3 fatty acids that are anti-inflammatory and good for vital organs, such as the heart.
- Nuts and seeds: Walnuts, flax seeds and chia seeds contain protein and other nutrients that make them a welcome addition to an anti-inflammatory diet.
- Healthy oils: Well-balanced oils that are low in saturated fats and packed with “good fats”, such as olive oil, avocado oil and flaxseed oil, all have anti-inflammatory properties.
- Tea and coffee: Green tea contains polyphenolic compounds, which can reduce inflammation by interfering with inflammatory pathways. In moderation, coffee is shown to reduce ten inflammation markers among regular drinkers. Heavy caffeine intake, however, has been shown to increase inflammation. Consume it sparingly.
- Spices: Turmeric is packed with antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties. Trying to reduce inflammation, you can get creative with how to use it. Turmeric can be added to salad dressings, as an added touch to a side dish, or really a nice addition to any recipe. Ginger also decreases inflammation and lowers blood glucose. Other good choices are tea or an Asian food dish.
- Red wine (in moderation): Ethanol in alcohol is inflammatory. Red wine contains anti-inflammatory antioxidants, so an occasional glass can be acceptable.
Enjoy foods you love!
The bottom line is there are a lot of ways to enjoy delicious food, while also caring for your health and wellbeing. Controlling inflammation can make a huge difference for you if you have an autoimmune disease. While it is challenging to navigate, especially in the beginning, an autoimmune diagnosis does not mean you have to give up the life you knew. It means you need to adapt. Along with exercise, proper sleep, medication, stress management, proper water intake, and quitting harmful habits, such as smoking and drinking, a healthy diet can make a significant difference and help autoimmune patients take back their lives.
Chronic inflammation is ranked by The World Health Organization (WHO) as the greatest threat to human health. If you or a loved one are struggling to control your autoimmune symptoms or are experiencing chronic inflammation in other ways, you are not alone. Talk to your doctor and seek the help you need to manage your health.