The signs of inflammation are many and varied — it’s been linked to everything from bloating to joint pain to sinus congestion and skin rashes. Although a clinical assessment is the only way to determine for sure if you suffer from inflammation, the more of the following symptoms you experience, the more likely you have low-grade inflammation, says Mark Hyman, MD, author of The UltraSimple Diet(Pocket Books, 2007).
- Bloating, belching, passing gas
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Fatigue, sluggishness
- Itchy ears or eyes
- Dark circles or bags under eyes
- Joint pain or stiffness
- Throat tickle, irritation or coughing
- Stuffy noise, sinus trouble, excessive mucus
- Acne, cysts, hives or rashes
- Ruddy, inflamed-looking skin
- Water retention, skin puffiness
- Craving certain foods
- Compulsive or binge eating
The good news: Inflammation is fixable: “Our best tool to reverse inflammation isn’t a drug, but our diets,” says Barry Sears, PhD, a former research scientist at Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the forthcoming Toxic Fat Syndrome. One of the best ways to snuff out inflammation is by heeding food sensitivities and intolerances. These are inflammatory responses that occur when the gut fails to break down certain foods.
The most notorious offenders are dairy, wheat, corn, sugar, soy, eggs and peanuts. Keep a food diary to identify negative reactions (which may be delayed by hours or days after you’ve eaten), then root out food sensitivities by following an elimination diet for at least a week. (For more on that, see “False Fat” in the March/April 2003 archives.)
By eliminating the foods that irritate your body and eating more of those that help your body combat inflammation, you’ll get rid of a lot of bloating and water retention, produce fewer “weight-gain” hormones, and have more energy for activity, says Elson Haas, MD, medical director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, Calif., and author of The False Fat Diet (Ballantine, 2001). That sounds like a slim-down strategy we can all live with.
One year it’s this diet trend, the next year it’s that diet trend. The funny thing is that, aside from the all-celery and 8-grapefruits family of diets, all the smart diets end up saying pretty much the same thing: Eat bushels of fruit and vegetables, whole grains, less animal fat, and cut out refined foods. Genius!
Lately there’s been a flood of diet books based on the anti-inflammatory concept. The gist is that constant or out-of-control inflammation in the body leads to illness, and that eating to avoid constant inflammation inspires better health and can fend off disease. We generally think of inflammation as the painful part of arthritis, but inflammation is also a component of chronic diseases such as heart disease and strokes. Which is why proponents of the diet say it can reduce heart disease risk, keep existing cardiac problems in check, reduce blood triglycerides and blood pressure, and soothe sore and stiff arthritic joints.
Specifics vary from one anti-inflammatory diet to another, but in general, anti-inflammatory diets recommend:
- Eat plenty and a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Eat little saturated and trans fats.
- Eat omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish or fish oil supplements and walnuts.
- Limit your intake of refined carbohydrates such as white pasta and white rice.
- Increase your consumption of whole grains such as brown rice and bulgur wheat.
- Limit (or quit) your consumption of red meat and full-fat dairy foods, increase lean protein and plant-protein source.
- Avoid refined foods and processed foods.
- Generously use anti-inflammatory spices.
By incorporating these herbs and spices into your diet, you get great flavors with healing properties. Researchers from the University of Michigan have found, for example, that basil has anti-inflammatory activity compared to ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin!
Top anti-inflammatory herbs and spices: