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Wonder Foods

And how they can stop chronic inflammation

December 11, 2011
By GLYNIS VALENTI - Staff Writer ( , Times Leader

There is bad news, good news and good news. The bad news is you have just sprained your ankle, you are having an asthma attack, joint pain is signaling the impending weather change or your clothes are becoming increasingly difficult to button or zip, especially around the waistline. All of these scenarios are linked to inflammation, as are burns, infections and life-threatening conditions such as heart disease and cancer.

Inflammation is not a cause or an infection. It is a reaction. The first good news is that the body is doing exactly what it should be doing: initiating protective measures to remove the disruptive (read hostile) cells or other stimuli, and, once removed or destroyed, beginning to heal the damage. Though different scenarios create different paths for the body's ways to address inflammation, much acute inflammation-shorter-term like cuts, muscle aches after exercise, broken bones-manifests pain, swelling, redness, heat and sometimes loss of function or use of the affected area.

An oversimplified description of the process is that as soon as the cells around the affliction realize there is an anomaly, they send for other specialized cells to destroy it. The body expedites the arrival of these "rescue cells" by pushing them along on more plasma. An increase of blood to the area causes heat, redness and, to a certain extent, swelling. Another series of chemicals signals the nerve endings that there is a problem, and they give the body the "pain" information. Once the affected area has been cleared of the intrusion, cells begin the clean-up and healing process, again, in any number of ways depending on the type of damage.

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Green tea is one of the purest teas available, processed the least. Its leaves contain powerful antioxidants and other properties that promote good health. Substituting a cup five to seven days per week for a soda or sprinkling green tea leaves on salads, vegetable dishes or soups are easy ways to boost the immune system.

In chronic inflammation-long-term issues such as arthritis, asthma, cancer and atherosclerosis-the rescuing cells and offending cells keep battling even as tissue is trying to heal until the offending cells begin taking over. They can become immune to the rescuing cells, or they find that conditions in the body are conducive to their growth, and their growth rate exceeds that of the rescue cells. Meanwhile, the body continues attacking and responding with the inflammation response as long as it can.

Regarding that expanding waistline's connection to inflammation, the body sometimes reads fat cells as intruders, much like cancer or infections. Its response is the same: send out the rescue cells and begin the inflammation process. Under this attack the fat cells break open, and the rescuing cells continue releasing inflammatory chemicals in an effort to clean-up and contain what they see as an anomaly. The greater number of fat cells, the longer-term this process, which leads to a systemic, chronic inflammation situation.

What creates prime conditions for some of these intruders? Long-term stress can alter the body's chemistry. Not enough sleep or rest can deplete the body's energy needed to perform intricate processes and reactions like inflammation or cognitive functions. Many, many researchers, scientists and doctors are linking chronic conditions to food-not about one or two foods in particular, but most of which has become the Western diet: processed foods, chemical additives, grain-fed (or worse) versus grass-fed animals. This is not a bashing session, and this writer is not above enjoying soda, potato chips or occasional fast food fare. Over the past few years, however, research, practice and experience have all led to the personal observation that what made cooking more convenient in the 20th century is wreaking havoc on the health-and wallets-of at least four generations of eaters now.

Throughout history nature has provided exactly what humans need in the way of nutrition. A Canadian dentist named Weston Price ( began studying worldwide diets and health in the early 1900's after noticing more cavities and health issues in his American patients. He published his extensive findings in 1939 in a controversial document, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. Again, an oversimplified summary is that 1. Americans (and other industrial cultures) had few chronic health issues before foods and animals were "processed," e.g. homogenized, pasteurized, preserved with chemicals; 2. cultures around the world have lived and thrived for thousands of years on what nature provides locally, meaning fresh, whole foods fed on local grasses, caught in nearby waters or grown in the surrounding areas without added sugars, salts, hormones or chemicals.

Good news again: decreasing or avoiding chronic inflammation is doable through eating. A guideline to keep in mind is that, if one's great-grandmother wouldn't recognize the food, it probably isn't real food (for instance, cheese curls, juice packets, fruit roll-ups.)

Another guideline is fresh is best, and frozen is second best. Canned products are heavily processed and have probably lost most of their nutritional value by the time they reach the check-out line, most certainly by the time they reach a dinner plate. In addition, studies by Harvard and other groups have uncovered exceedingly high levels of BPA, or Bisphenol-A, in participants eating canned foods. BPA is a chemical coating the linings of hard plastic and metal containers. It has been linked to cancer, birth defects, miscarriages, cardiovascular disease and insulin resistance.

There are many foods that are considered anti-inflammatory, and there are several online resources for more information and specific diets. But eating healthy, fresh, traditional foods isn't really a "diet." Think of it as getting back to basics and away from heart disease. A few foods pop up on many lists, however.

First, salmon or fish rich in oils, like cod and sardines. The beneficial compound in all is the omega-3 fatty oils. Well-publicized studies and research have found that eating fish at least twice a week is not only good for the brain, but for the heart, blood pressure, arthritis, cholesterol and depression. Salmon in particular is the subject of current studies. One of its proteins may be connected to joint and digestive tract health and insulin production.

Another favorite is extra virgin olive oil. Within the last decade scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center discovered that it contains an enzyme, oleocanthal, which has the same properties as some non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen. Long-term doses of olive oil, avocado oil (or other cold-pressed or expeller-pressed oil) at about two ounces per day can not only help relieve some of the pain associated with chronic inflammation, but decrease the risk of stroke, heart disease, some cancers and some dementias.

Green tea appears on nearly every "good" list because it is the least processed of teas, and therefore retains the highest amount of antioxidant polyphenols, especially EGCg (Epigallocatechin gallate.) In this case, the EGCg compound, concentrated in green tea leaves, inhibits growth of interleukin-8, a protein that creates inflammation.

Buy blueberries and cherries for snacking. Anthocyanins in cherries and phytonutrients in blueberries pack a real punch in fighting inflammation. Both are best eaten raw, though fresh cherry juice has been cited as easing inflammation. Blueberries are better for the body when eaten without other foods, also. Research shows that protein (like that in milk and cereal) greatly diminishes the chemical properties, as does baking.

A bright yellow spice called turmeric (TUR-mer-ik) was recognized by ancient Indian and Chinese medicine for its healing properties-as in 5000 years ago. One website, World's Healthiest Foods (,) lists a wide range of benefits from treating bruises to Alzheimer's and various types of cancer. Turmeric's primary active compound is curcumin, which also gives it the bright yellow or orange color. It treats inflammation in a comparable manner to some steroids as well as NSAIDs without the toxic side effects.

As mentioned, the internet offers a wealth of information with a search of "anti-inflammatory foods." A library system search of "inflammation" brought up an initial listing of sub-categories including specific illnesses and anti-inflammation diet books. A word of caution: patients taking blood thinners or other medications should check with a doctor before incorporating some of the suggested foods into a daily regimen. Active compounds may interact with drugs by either decreasing or altering their effects.



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