The connection between inflammation, diet and disease
Experts share opinions on how to reduce inflammation
In recent years, science has linked inflammation in the body to food choices and the incidence of chronic diseases, like arthritis, cancers and cardiovascular disease.
Inflammation, which can be acute or chronic, is normally a carefully controlled part of the immune system when there is a threat to the body. But in the case of chronic inflammation, the process becomes out of control, wreaking havoc in the body.
James Stephens, N.D., practitioner of Ozarks Healthy Herbs in Cassville, believes diet plays a role in inflammation.
"Everything relates to what you're putting in your mouth," he said. "I believe if you keep toxins out of your body, you will stay healthy. It's important to eat a lot of [raw] fruits and vegetables."
He also advocates using specific herbs known to help reduce inflammation in the body, maintaining balance and low-impact exercise such as walking.
"It's really all about balance in the body, mind and spirit," he said.
As a naturopath, Stephens uses various therapies to reduce and prevent inflammation, infection and disease processes, like light frequencies to rebalance energy in the body, accupressure and emotional work.
"Accupressure is like reading the body; it's amazing," he said. "And, I've always said infection is the beginning of cancer, and if you leave it in the body long enough, it will turn into cancer. If you don't release emotions, for instance, they just hang on and will drain you and cause a physical problem in your body. I do what's called the Five Elements of Emotions. It's a Chinese therapy, and sort of like peeling an onion."
Dr. Lisa Roark, M.D., of Roark Family Health of Cassville, said finding out what's first causing inflammation is key to preventing it.
"Inflammation is basically a reaction to something where the body sends the white blood cells to fight it off," she said. "That might be an infection which is an appropriate response, or an allergy, like milk, gluten, or seasonal, where the body recognizes something as bad. Or, it can be caused by the body getting confused and reacting to something it shouldn't be and attacks itself, for instance in the case of rheumatoid arthritis."
Depending on the cause, Roark advises avoiding the substance the body is reacting to, such as a food allergy, or to take a medication that reduces the immune response, or using anti-inflammatories.
Depending on the cause, she believes that unchecked inflammation can lead to disease, such as inflammation in the joints, which causes arthritis, or inflammation from the body attacking itself, such as the case with thyroid disease.
Roark also believes that diet plays a significant role in decreasing inflammation.
"If you can find what's causing the inflammation and take it out of your diet, you're going to do better," she said. "If we just ate whole foods, we probably wouldn't have half of the inflammation we have because our body reacts to all the additives in our foods. Some people, if they consume MSG, for instance, it makes their blood pressure go sky-high, and that's an inflammatory response to that."
Roark advises eating foods with rich color, such as pigmented fruits and vegetables.
"Anything with natural antioxidants -- blueberries, grapes, etc.," she said.
She also said omega 3s have been found to decrease inflammation, but focusing on eating whole foods and avoiding additives in foods is key, along with maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, and drinking plenty of water.
"And remembering that what bothers one person may not bother the next person," she said. "Dairy, for instance, doesn't bother some people at all. So just realizing that what's right for one person may not be right for the next person."
Dr. Pam Duitsman, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist for the University of Missouri Extension, said omega 3 and omega 6 fats, called essential fats, can influence inflammation, for better or worse.
"They are essential because we must consume them; we cannot make them ourselves," she said. "It is vital that humans have a proper ratio of omega 3 and omega 6 because omega 3 fats help to reduce inflammation, and most omega 6 fats tend to promote inflammation. A typical American diet consumes about 14-25 times more omega 6 fats than omega 3."
Omega 3 fats have been shown to be essential for proper brain function, protect memory and reduce the risk of chronic diseases. The two types of fats compete for the same enzymes and pathways in the body, and if omega 6 intake is higher than omega 3, an inflammatory response at the cellular level begins.
"Compounds elicited by the omega 3 fats block the same inflammatory pathways as aspirin and some other anti-inflammatory medications commonly used to fight arthritis pain," Duitsman said.
Insufficient amounts of omega 3 can lead to poor memory, dry skin, heart problems, depression, poor circulation and stiff or swollen joints.
Omega 3's can be found in wild salmon, flaxseeds, omega 3 fortified eggs, walnuts and fish oil supplements.
Duitsman also recommends limiting unhealthy fats, like polyunsaturated vegetable oils (including safflower and corn oils), and completely avoiding partially hydrogenated oils, found in margarine, snack and convenience foods and vegetable shortenings, which increase inflammation.
She also recommends adding spices like ginger and turmeric to the diet, or supplementing them, because ginger has been shown to decrease osteoarthritis pain, and turmeric helps arthritis by suppressing inflammatory processes in the body.
In addition to fats, carbohydrates play a role in inflammation, too, Duitsman said, and along with Roark, she recommends consuming whole foods with high antioxidant levels, and limiting unhealthy carbohydrates.
"Scientific journals continue to report research linking inflammation to processed foods and other high-glycemic carbohydrates," she said. "Combat this effect by eating plenty of whole fruits and vegetables from all parts of the color spectrum, along with whole grains."
Refined and processed foods offer little to no nutrition, and actually promote metabolic processes that encourage inflammation and diseases like diabetes, weight gain, cancer, arthritis, heart disease and others.
"The key to health and your solution to pain may be in choosing your next meal," Duitsman said.