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It’s not even your time of the month, but you still feel bloated. You’re also struggling during your workouts, unable to summon up enough energy to give it your best effort. If this sounds familiar, you could be dealing with chronic inflammation. Short-term inflammation isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s your body’s natural method of dealing with traumas such as mosquito bites and sore muscles from strenuous exercise. The inflammatory response increases blood flow to the affected area and promotes healing. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, affects your body over long periods and often goes unnoticed until it becomes a serious concern.
“Silent inflammation is a major factor in the development of virtually every major chronic degenerative disease, including cardiovascular disease, allergies, Type 2 diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s,” says Michael T. Murray, N.D., a natural medicine expert in Paradise Valley, Arizona, and author of The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (Atria, 2012). It all adds up to one overriding theme: “Inflammation is one of the main causes of accelerated aging,” says Steven Masley, M.D., a physician in St. Petersburg, Fla., and author of The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up (Center Street, 2014).
The Ins and Outs of Inflammation
When you’re suffering from chronic inflammation, your body produces compounds that trigger your immune system to respond, leading to redness, swelling and irritation, says Natasha Turner, N.D., a naturopathic doctor in Toronto and author of The Supercharged Hormone Diet (Rodale, 2013). As a result, the insides of your arteries can swell, your joints might be stiff or painful, you might feel more depressed and anxious, and because this response is so taxing on the immune system, you’ll likely feel fatigued. You also may experience symptoms like gas, bloating, indigestion and an increase in belly fat, Turner says.
And although chronic inflammation tends to lurk below the surface, it also can affect your skin, making it more vulnerable to wrinkles, sagging and damage from the sun, according to John La Puma, M.D., an internist and co-founder of the ChefMD video series in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The only way to know for sure whether you’re inflamed, however, is through a blood test to check for markers such as a compound called C-reactive protein, a blood protein that rises in response to inflammation. If you’re concerned, ask your doctor about getting tested.
Several factors can cause chronic inflammation, including obesity, stress, toxins, free radicals, smoking and chronic infections, but Murray emphasizes that “diet is a major contributor.” High-glycemic meals that cause a spike in blood sugar levels — instant oatmeal, a slice of watermelon and a glass of orange juice, for example — have been shown to increase the markers for inflammation. In one study of more than 200 healthy women, glycemic load showed a strong association with higher levels of C-reactive protein.
The key to keeping chronic inflammation at bay lies not just in eating anti-inflammatory foods but also avoiding the foods that may trigger inflammation. You probably already know that trans fat and sugar can wreak havoc on your body, but there are some other less obvious culprits.
Lean Meat and Poultry
Fatty meat is a well-known cause of inflammation, but even lean protein can contain inflammatory fats, thanks to hormones and pesticides in the animals, Masley says.
Swap it Out: Choose grass-fed beef and free-range, organic poultry.
“If a grain, even whole wheat, has been processed into flour, it has the same effect on blood sugar as table sugar,” Masley says. Because the flour particles are so fine, they’re absorbed into your blood as quickly as sugar molecules. Whole-grain wheat flour is still better than white flour, so if you’re not worried about inflammation, you can enjoy whole-grain products in moderation.
Swap it out: Try whole-grain oat flour instead. Want bread? Choose pumpernickel, which contains actual pieces of grain.
Vegetable Oil (Soy, Corn, Sunflower, Safflower)
At high temperatures, these oils produce the same trans fat found in margarine and vegetable shortening. “Although healthy fats from liquid oils have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, these oils are highly inflammatory when used in cooking,” La Puma says.
Swap it Out: Use olive, nut, avocado or grape-seed oils.
“Hormone-treated cows are often more prone to infection, and the antibiotics used to treat them wind up in your milk, throwing off the bacterial balance in your digestive tract, which contributes to inflammation,” Turner says.
Swap it Out: Switch to oat, soy or almond milk.
Yogurt is usually touted as a health food, but many yogurts are loaded with extra sugar or corn syrup, which can boost insulin levels, and FDA-approved dyes that contain chemicals, La Puma says. Plus, lactose, a naturally occurring sugar in dairy, and casein, a protein in dairy, can cause inflammation in some people.
Swap it Out: Switch to coconut-based yogurt.
America’s favorite sandwich spread contains a dirty secret: aflatoxin, a substance produced by mold on peanuts. That mold, plus the fact that peanuts are one of the most common food allergens, can cause inflammation, Turner says.
Swap it Out: Choose organic peanut butter. Better yet, go with almond butter.
Mercury, which you ingest by eating certain predatory fish higher up in the food chain, causes inflammation, especially in the brain, where it can affect memory, Masley says. Fish with the highest mercury levels include king mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish and tilefish.
Swap it Out: Atlantic herring, mussels, oysters, water-packed sardines, wild Atlantic salmon, farmed and wild rainbow trout, and whitefish are low in mercury and high in healthy omega-3 fatty acids. If you’re eating Chilean sea bass, bluefish, grouper, Maine lobster, tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon, limit your intake to two to three servings a month.
Your Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Now that you know what foods may cause inflammation, here are some food choices that actually help fight inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet is especially important for avid exercisers because hard workouts produce pro-oxidants, compounds that can damage cells, says Michael T. Murray, N.D. Look for a rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables, which are loaded with inflammation-fighting pigments. Here are a few top choices.
The crimson color of these delicious root veggies comes from a compound called betaine, a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Beets also contain folate, a vitamin that repairs DNA and boosts those red blood cells you need for endurance in your workouts.
These crunchy little balls of joy are an excellent source of vitamin K, which helps regulate chronic inflammation, as well as glucosinolates, which the body can convert to anti-inflammatory compounds.
The squash’s skin and its orange or yellow flesh contain anti-inflammatory carotenoids such as lutein, beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, which have been shown tocombat aging among women.